An uneasy and often stormy political marriage of convenience came to an end late Tuesday evening with West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee announcing her party’s separation from the Congress. “Humlog uske saath nahi rahega,” she declared in her inimitable style after a marathon meeting of Trinamool Congress leaders in Kolkata.
The six nominees of the Trinamool Congress, including Minister for Railways Mukul Roy, in the Union Council of Ministers will submit their resignation letters to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday afternoon. That will mark the Trinamool Congress’s exit from the UPA Government.
The party will withdraw support to the Congress. The exact details of that are yet to be known — but a formal letter to the President is likely on Friday too. That will mark the Trinamool Congress’s exit from the United Progressive Alliance.
The twin decisions defy all speculation over the past three days. After the Government raised the price of diesel, imposed a limit of six subsidised LPG cylinders per year per consumer and revived the decision to allow FDI in multi-brand retail, Mamata Banerjee had registered her protest and threatened to escalate her opposition.
That had prompted media commentators and political analysts to speculate on two possible scenarios. The best case scenario was that the Prime Minister would offer to roll back the hike in diesel price by a couple of rupees and Mamata Banerjee would be placated. The worst case scenario was that she would pull out from the Government but not the UPA, or extend ‘outside support’.
In the event, she has stumped everybody by opting for the extreme step: Pulling out of the Government and pulling out of the UPA. Neither the Congress high command nor the Prime Minister could have been prepared for this. Hence they chose to sit tight.
Lesser Congress leaders taunted her for being in the habit of threatening the Government with precipitate action. “In the past three years she has threatened to pull out on nine occasions and has done nothing like that. She will do nothing this time too. She will settle for a compromise,” was the standard refrain.
Others praised the Prime Minister for calling Mamata Banerjee’s bluff and not offering to negotiate a deal with her by way of some sops, including a partial roll back in diesel price hike.
Mamata Banerjee has surprised everybody by showing absolute disdain for a ‘compromise’. Instead, she turned the situation to her advantage by converting it into an issue of West Bengal’s prestige. By sacrificing a slice of power at the Centre, she has made a grand gesture of solidarity with the people of West Bengal — and the country — on whom “anti-people policies are being forced by the Congress” as she put it at Tuesday evening’s media briefing.
There are three important points made by Mamata Banerjee while announcing her break with the Congress and the UPA.
First, she has for the first time publicly accused the Congress of corruption. “Is FDI-gate meant to suppress Coalgate? Many people are asking this question. We are also asking,” she said, taunting the Prime Minister and the Congress.
Second, she has demanded an explanation as to why “black money is not being brought back” and “why is there no action against benaami property and wealth”. The jibe is obviously directed at the Congress leadership and the Prime Minister. It also identifies her and the Trinamool Congress for the first time with the loose confederation of anti-corruption movements.
Third, she has openly accused the Congress of “politics of blackmail” – or “blackmailing politics” as she called it at the media briefing. “I know the Congress better than anybody else. If they have a problem with me, they will reach out to Mayawati. If there’s a problem with Mayawati, they will reach out to Mulayam Singh Yadav. If there’s a problem with the DMK, they will go to the ADMK… But that game is now over.”
With Mamata Banerjee walking out of the UPA with her 19 MPs, the Congress, with 205 MPs in the Lok Sabha, now heads an alliance whose strength is now well below the halfway mark. The Congress will have to reach out to either the BSP or the SP to shore up its strength, but that is easier said than done.
Unlike the India-US nuclear deal, which was not really an election issue, more so in Uttar Pradesh with its vast rural and unorganised sector majority, FDI in multi-brand retail is an emotive issue because it is seen to be threatening tens of thousands of jobs. The hike in the price of diesel hits farmers the most and they will not take kindly to any party which is seen endorsing the move.
That leaves the SP and the BSP with a Hobson’s choice — their personal interests would prompt them to back the Congress at the Centre; their electoral interests would urge them not to steer clear of the Congress.
A direct result of the political uncertainty forced by Mamata Banerjee walking out of the UPA could be an early general election. With much at stake, neither the SP nor the BSP would want to rub voters on the wrong side in Uttar Pradesh. Hence, support from both or either cannot be taken for granted.
Meanwhile, the DMK has announced its decision to join the September 20 all-India strike against the diesel price hike and the decision to allow FDI in multi-brand retail. That virtually leaves the Congress all alone with only the NCP for company.
Tuesday ends with the big question: Will we see a mid-term general election? Which invariably takes us to the related question: Will we see a realignment of political parties in the coming days?
A week is a long time in politics. The next 72 hours, before the Trinamool Congress Ministers actually put in their papers and the party formally withdraws support to the Congress, could prove to be longer. A marriage, even one of cynical convenience, is not necessarily irrevocably broken simply because a scorned spouse storms out after a nasty spat.
All that can be said with some certitude at the moment is that the Congress finds itself all alone, having alienated its own allies.