For all its procrastination and wooziness before taking last week's economic reforms bungee jump, one thing that the UPA 2 can take credit for is its immense capacity to be polite. Politeness, of course, is a key virtue to possess for a leading party of a ruling alliance as loud and amoeba-like in its multi-directionness as the UPA. But to bear the tantrums of West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee is a test that has, over the months, required heavy grinding of teeth under a smiling surface.
Banerjee, with her 19 TMC MPs in the Lok Sabha and six central ministers, has been cheer-led from the sides by the BJP, with voices in the Opposition encouraging her to jump the UPA ship as "no ally can bear to continue with such Congress arrogance". Many Congress voices, too, won't mind seeing her off to the station — much helped by the fact that this may vacate six ministerial posts rather than result in a withdrawal of Trinamool support.
The Trinamool needs the UPA much more than the UPA needs the Trinamool. So the spine shown by the Manmohan Singh-led government to finally push for foreign direct investment (FDI) reforms and reduction of subsidies (with an in-built concession to rollback the cap on LPG subsidies and thereby providing the Trinamool a face-saver) is the kind of "arrogance" that Banerjee, a specialist in pushing one's agenda, can now learn to deal with.
Even if she knows that the demand for a three-year moratorium on interest accumulated on debts for West Bengal amounting to about Rs. 30,000 crore cannot be made — for both political and financial reasons — Banerjee still needs a Centre-assisted dole to keep not only her state afloat but also to have her Project Paribartan running. Central-funded grants, such as the Rs. 4,000 crore for the upgrade and construction of rural roads in Bengal, will be more difficult to come by if the Trinamool decides to stop playing wolf and pulls out of the government. The UPA-Mamata Banerjee relationship may be a matter of national politics for the government at the Centre. For the government in Kolkata, it's a matter of existential survival.
Like its Left Front predecessor, the Trinamool Congress survives overwhelmingly not on the promise of making West Bengal and it people more prosperous, but on guaranteeing stability — sold for the last 35 years in the very digestable forms of ‘providing dignity' and staving off bogeymen who apparently want to leech the people dry of their livelihoods. For this purpose, re-industrialisation of the state, whether by homegrown enthusiasts or by non-'anti-people' outsiders (the distinction between 'pro-people' and 'anti-people' industries deliberately kept undefined) is not even required. All that is needed is to ensure that people can be sold 'stability' in the form of government, or government-affiliated, jobs in exchange of their electoral support.
Water seeks its own level, and in Bengal where the CPI(M) tradition of all spheres of activities — schools, colleges, hospitals, transportation bodies etc — being politicised, there is little demand for anything else but the guarantee of small-scale but regular livelihood. One of the most-asked questions in a phone-in television astrology show on a Bengali channel is whether the caller or his son or daughter will get a 'sarkari chakri' (government job).
It's not as if the Congress has been itching to lose a difficult ally. Politics — as one saw in its most fantastical form when Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Banerjee conducted a confusing interlude prior to the presidential elections — is about holding on to assets even when they seem to have turned into liabilities. The UPA doesn't have the luxury of numbers. So having a kitty of bothersome partners is still having numbers shored up for a rainy day.
But while a state like Uttar Pradesh hopes to depend on various sources of (legit or ill-gotten) income, and not only on central largesse that doubles as a key political tool, West Bengal has virtually no engine of revenue-generation and doesn't seem intent on installing one. Apart from holding on to the ministry of railways, a public sector institution that provides employment to the largest number of people in the country — not to mention providing an artery for 'ancillary' industries such as coal that has its epicentre in the Jharkhand-Bengal region — what has been Banerjee's 16-month government's plans to attract investment and becoming less dependent on charity dressed up as demands?
Earlier this year in April, Didi had sat down again with experts to discuss her 'Kolkata beautification plan'. This time, she was keen that giant, ugly hoardings lining VIP Road in the east of the city and along the Eastern Bypass be removed. Someone who attended the meeting explained to me Didi's logic: foreign dignitaries and businessmen coming to Kolkata pass through these routes when driving from the airport to their hotels in the city. By taking these ugly structures down, they are far more likely to bring investments in West Bengal.
Until such an aesthetically-driven fund-raising spree happens, Banerjee and her party will have to depend on a polite ally at the Centre. And on an electorate fed on scenarios in which without Didi's protection, 'foreigners' — whether from Delhi or farther away — will leave everyone in Bengal jobless, landless and hopeless.