Last week, a mini-crisis was created and then averted, all inside Mamata Banerjee's head. Apart from reactions from Bengali journalists in the capital — and that can be quite a flotilla — the ruckus made by the West Bengal chief minister threatening to pull out support from the UPA in response to the hike in petrol prices was received in Delhi with a polite but knowing smile.
Nothing that Banerjee said really came as a bolt from the blue. That this latest rise in fuel price was 'anti-people' was like the Left calling the central government 'neo-liberal capitalists'. That the Centre had gone ahead without consulting its allies also sounded uncannily like the noise the Left usually made in the good old days when it was the UPA's 'conscience'. But the Trinamool, despite its strategy of out-Lefting the Left in the historic assembly polls earlier this year, isn't the Left with the latter's died-in-the-wool brand of anti-Congressism. But at the same time, Banerjee must have been keen to remind everyone — not least the Congress — that the Trinamool Congress is not the regional synonym for the Congress.
So essentially, she said two things: one, 'I'm still the populist leader who ousted the Left and will look out for you when everyone's looking out for themselves'; and two, 'Despite any rumours you may have heard, the Congress is the Trinamool's adversary in the state'. With 19 MPs, including a key minister from the party, in the UPA fold, the Congress-led coalition at the Centre needs this ally.
But going by the body language of the Trinamool gathering that was sent to meet the prime minister on Tuesday, the fact that the Trinamool needs the Congress more is quite evident. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh looked uncharacteristically confident as Union railway minister Dinesh Trivedi next to him looked on pensively like a headmaster showcasing his students to a school inspector. Trinamool general secretary Mukul Roy made a nervous presentation of those gathered before the PM — perhaps fervently hoping that Singh had forgotten that he had openly defied the PM's directive to visit a rail accident site in Assam in July when he was minister of state for railways. The rest of the delegation looked genuinely reverential (barring Partha Chatterjee, who, on Banerjee's instructions, must have been playing the role of peeved senior Trinamool leader).
True, reading body language isn't top-notch political analysis. But rumours that not everyone in the Trinamool was happy about Banerjee's 'threat' to the UPA over the price rise can be believed.
Following the pulls and pushes between allies is something we have become accustomed to in the post-unipolar world of India's coalition politics. There have been parties who have tried to look for any opportunity to pull out of an alliance. The AIADMK famously pulled the plug on the NDA in 1999 by rather bizzarely citing Jayalalithaa's demand for the reinstatement of chief of naval staff Vishnu Bhagwat who had been shown the door by the Vajpayee government. More recently, of course, there was the Left, which didn't really want to pull out its outside support to the UPA government, but found itself stranded when Manmohan Singh called its bluff over the India-US nuclear deal. The Trinamool Congress isn't even like Naveen Patnaik's BJD, which was desperate to get out of the out-of-power NDA but is yet to find the exit door.
As for realpolitik, let's face it, with Banerjee having demanded a fiscal bail-out package of the tune of Rs. 47,000 crore from the Centre to fix her state (a sum of Rs. 21,614 crore was announced in August), she is hardly in the position of being 'pro-people' with empty coffers. And you don't have to be Pranab-da to know that despite her latest heartburn, Banerjee did not make any noise when the Union Cabinet had decided to decontrol fuel prices in June — something that the finance minister, during his 'calm-her-down' visit to Kolkata last week, allegedly mentioned to the chief minister.
For the junior ally in any national alliance, the timing of going into an angry sulk and issuing the threat of pulling out is of primal importance. Banerjee's timing this time was truly rotten. In the process, Manmohan Singh came out trumps when he responded to Banerjee's 'concern' about LPG and diesel prices being raised soon by the quip that he hadn't heard anything about these rumours.
As an event, the Mamata Banerjee 'rebellion' was a blimp on the national political radar. But it did show that when push comes to nudge, Manmohan Singh can hold his own without making much ado.After all, his government is much happier with the Trinamool on board than with a recalibrated, rebranded Left in, say, six months' time. And he's sure that Didi knows that.