Mamata Banerjee ended her brinkmanship on supporting Pranab Mukherjee, the UPA's candidate for president, just 48 hours before the electoral college casts its vote. Which is entirely for the good of her government in West Bengal and Manmohan Singh's in New Delhi. The Congress is counting down to
a general election with a becalmed economy and unless Ms Banerjee is on board the prospects of reviving it - and providing West Bengal with a bailout - are receding. The stakes this time around are too high to allow for Ms Banerjee's brand of temperamental politics: she has an envious record of wrecking coalitions, including the NDA in 2001 after an exposé on corruption in the BJP.
A decade later, her Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal is staring at a staggering debt of Rs. 2.2 lakh crore. Since she assumed power in May 2011, Ms Banerjee has asked the Centre for a three-year moratorium on interest payments, which works out to almost Rs. 18,000 crore a year and makes it a demand well-nigh impossible for the UPA to entertain. The Centre has offered West Bengal Rs. 8,750 crore in grants, keeping the door open for further talks. There might be a lesson for Ms Banerjee in Mulayam Singh Yadav's approach to coalition politics that has prised open the tap of central funds far more convincingly. The Samajwadi Party, not a member of the UPA, is on the verge of negotiating a 20% hike in plan funds for Uttar Pradesh and the Rs. 56,000 crore package will cover the party's poll promises of free laptops to students and dole for the jobless. Politically too, Ms Banerjee would have found it difficult to explain to her sizeable Muslim vote bank why she was rooting for the BJP's presidential candidate. The Trinamool Congress feels it will improve on its Lok Sabha performance in the event of mid-term polls, but it can't precipitate them on its own. The Congress can always fall back on support from both Mr Yadav and Mayawati - their parties helped the government pass bills in the previous Parliament session with the Trinamool Congress abstaining.
The UPA needs Ms Banerjee for three reasons. First, alienating the Trinamool Congress, the second largest member of the ruling alliance, means having to rely excessively on Mr Yadav, whose issue-based support might turn prohibitively expensive. Second, the Congress would not like to be seen as a manager of a coalition that does not stay together for its full term. Third, the Congress needs Ms Banerjee to shore up its presence in West Bengal. The alliance between the parties had remarkably bettered the Congress' showing in the last assembly election.