New Delhi, May 4: Rare is the day Mamata Banerjee is caught at the receiving end of a strike — something as uncommon as Mumbai without its life-giving trains.
Both occurred today — a strike by rail motormen crippling Mumbai and an Opposition, probably aided by a mischievous Congress, steamrollering Mamata in the Lok Sabha in her absence.
The chaos and confrontation also served to send two messages, one to bandh-happy Bengal and the other to ally-tormentor Mamata.
In Mumbai, political parties of all colours and sizes insisted that the strike should be called off first, following which the grievances of the rail employees could be taken up. Such a voice in unison against inconveniencing citizens is unheard of in Bengal.
All parties sympathised with the motormens demand for higher pay but the politicians also pointed out that commuters should be spared.
The Shiv Sena, which was initially supporting the strike, pulled out after Bal Thackeray decreed that people should not be inconvenienced. Nephew and Sena rival Raj Thackeray went as far as to warn the motormen: If you dont withdraw your agitation by this afternoon, you will see my party workers retaliating in their own style.
The strike was eventually called off at the intervention of the Congress-led government in Maharashtra and after a promise that a fast-track panel will look into the demands. But not before countless people were harassed for 30-odd hours by 800 motormen, the 26/11 sentencing was delayed because of lack of support staff in the court and Mamata was taken to task in the Lok Sabha.
With Mamata spending the day at her home in Calcutta, the Congress virtually watched from the sidelines in the Lok Sabha as the Opposition slammed the railway minister for staying away on such a day.
Trinamul Congress sources in Calcutta said Mamata was constantly on the phone, advising Railway Board chairman S.S. Khurana how to handle the situation in Mumbai.
But Mamatas two junior ministers, E. Ahmed and K.H. Muniyappa, were not spotted in the Lok Sabha during the pre-lunch session. Sources said they were present in Parliament.
The matter could have been defused in the morning itself. But it seemed the government was not interested, said a BJP member, keen to play on the municipal poll break-up in Bengal.
That Muniyappa belongs to the Congress fed the perception of mischief but the party later mounted a robust defence of Mamata. We are fully satisfied. She has done a good job and will continue to do a good job, Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan told reporters.
Ahmed acknowledged he was present in Parliament but added: A statement could not have been made in the morning as consultations with the striking employees were on. The statement was made after the situation became clear.
Sources, however, said the two junior ministers — known to be unhappy with Mamata for not giving them enough work — wanted to underscore the fact that they had no idea about the strike. Later, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee called them to his chamber and got them to make the statement in both Houses.
By then, Trinamul chief whip Sudip Bandopadhyay had lost his cool in the Lok Sabha and got locked in a slanging match with the CPMs Basudeb Acharya.
The Opposition declared the House would not be allowed to run until Bandopadhyay tendered an apology. He refused to apologise and kept away from the House for the rest of the day.