Mamata Banerjee pulls the plug; will UPA-2 survive?



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Mamata Banerjee and Congress’ tumultuous relationship seems to be finally over for all practical purposes. Over the contentious issue of FDI in retail, the hike in diesel price and cap on LPG subsidy, the maverick and the unpredictable Chief Minster of West Bengal on September 18, 2012 withdrew support from the UPA-2 government. Much like she had walked out of the NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the year 2001.

After a marathon meeting, the Trinamool Congress leader announced in West Bengal: “We are not responsible if the country is forced to go for a mid-term poll. This government can stay for three months or six months, I don't know. They have lost the credibility. And if they cannot maintain friendship with us, then they cannot maintain friendship with anybody.”

Over the past few days various speculations were doing the rounds as to what the temperamental leader would do. Whether she would withdraw her ministers from the Union Cabinet and give outside support to the Congress-led government at the Centre or whether she would withdraw support to UPA-2 government. If it was being speculated that she would not let the government fall, then there were reasons for that. While making her stand clear that she could in no way support FDI in retail as it was against the interest of small traders and retailers and had warned of ‘hard decisions’ if the government did not reconsider its decision, Mamata had also been repeatedly saying that she did not want the government to fall.

Also, with West Bengal in a financial mess and the coffers of the state empty, it was considered that Mamata would want a friendly government at the Centre. However, politics can be fluid and volatile and the West Bengal Chief Minster showed on September 18 as to why exactly.

Mamata’s pulling the plug has left the Congress-led government in a minority. The TMC has 19 Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, making it Congress’ largest ally. The Samajwadi Party, the BSP and the RJD have 22, 21and 04 seats respectively in the House. The halfway mark is 272. So, are we headed towards a mid-term poll? If one goes by the history, then the SP and the BSP will most likely give outside support to UPA-2 so that the government can stay afloat. Like they did in UPA-1 after the Left had withdrawn support over the Nuclear Deal issue. (Remember, disproportionate assets cases are hanging over the heads of both the leaders from Uttar Pradesh and the CBI is constantly breathing down their neck.)

However, those are conjectures for posterity. For the time being Congress’ worst fears have come true. The grand old party was perhaps hoping that Mamata would not withdraw support or if it did then it would continue giving outside support. Now the Congress will be completely dependent on Mulayam and Maya. Even if the two Ms extend their support to UPA-2, the government has been rendered unstable. (They will also extract their pound of flesh from the Congress).

With scams after scams hitting the government, the Congress has been fighting a perception battle for long. To counter the accusations of policy paralysis, the Prime Minister went for the big bang reforms bravely announcing that they had to ‘bite the bullet’ and if they had to go down they would do go down ‘fighting’. In November 2011 too, Mamata had put her foot down on the issue of FDI and Manmohan Singh had been forced to put the issue on the backburner then.

Over the past few months Mamata has been telling her cadre to be prepared for a mid-term poll. Maybe she fancies her chances to be a pan-India leader and the kingmaker, given the landslide victory that she had in the last Assembly elections and ousting the Left government after more than 3o years.

However, amidst major political upheaval over FDI and diesel, Mamata has given a window to the Congress party. Instead of instantly withdrawing support from UPA-2, she has given them time till September 21 to reconsider their decision, leaving a lot of questions in everyone’s mind. Will the Congress go back on its big reforms push – if it does then it would further dent Manmohan Singh’s image who would have to eat his words and bow down to the compulsions of coalition politics.

Post Script: Right from PM to Finance Minister P Chidambaram to Commerce Minster Anand Sharma, all have been saying steadfastly that there was no question of a rollback. But by giving the Congress some time Mamata has given them breathing space to deliberate on the major crisis staring them in the face. Who knows, the Congress may just bridge the gap and reach out to the West Bengal Chief Minister. Or, maybe the Congress is fed up with Mamata and may not woo her any longer.