Aug. 18: Defence minister A.K. Antony’s Calcutta mission today seemed to have yielded little though Mamata Banerjee didn’t reject outright his appeals for support on economic reforms, particularly FDI in multi-brand retail.
Although nobody in Delhi was aware of the details of the 80-minute talks at Writers’ Buildings, the mood was sombre in the absence of good news from Calcutta. Bengal Congress leaders who met Antony in Calcutta felt the talks had left him “disappointed”.
A Mamata aide said the chief minister heard Antony out but did not commit herself, and that she raised the subject of Delhi’s silence on a debt moratorium and financial help for Bengal.
“Mamata is in a mood to bargain,” a Congress source said. “She won’t support any of the Centre’s moves without extracting her pound of flesh. She is forcefully pushing her government’s financial demands.”
Antony was sent to Calcutta by the Prime Minister to discuss the economic issues pending before the government. At the last cabinet meeting, Trinamul minister Mukul Roy had fiercely opposed forward trading and demanded a thorough discussion.
Antony was told to explain to Mamata how policy initiatives had been paralysed by political differences.
A Trinamul leader in Calcutta said that though Mamata had opposed the forward-trading bill through Roy at this stage, “she has left room for dialogue”.
He added: “Whatever she has to say, she will say at the UPA co-ordination committee meeting later this month. This is what she has been demanding for a long time — regular meetings among UPA allies will help sort out differences.”
Trinamul sources said Mamata was keen to attend the meeting as it would help her bridge the gap with the Centre that emerged because of her reluctance to support the Congress’s presidential candidate in last month’s election.
In Delhi, a cabinet minister said in an informal conversation: “We should not let any extraneous issue overshadow the national interest. FDI in retail is long overdue and the delay is hurting us. Every state has equal rights and nobody can use their veto power to stop those willing to allow FDI in their states.”
Commerce ministry sources believe the Centre should muster courage and allow willing states to invite FDI in retail — perhaps around mid-September, at the end of Parliament’s monsoon session.
They said many chief ministers had given it in writing that they wanted FDI in multi-brand retail as soon as possible. Asked about the Antony mission, a senior official said: “We don’t expect Mamata to change her stance overnight.”
Even the Bengal Congress appeared unhappy at the Antony mission. A state leader said: “There’s a feeling here that Antony should not have been sent. Congressmen from Kerala have high respect for anti-communist leaders like Mamata. Our leadership is desperately trying to win Mamata over without realising the futility of the effort.”
Another Bengal leader said: “Sonia Gandhi should have sent a leader who would question Mamata about the attacks on Congress leaders. We are sure Antony would not have done that.”
Antony’s job was to work on Mamata before she met Sonia at the UPA co-ordination committee meeting where all issues, including FDI in retail, would be discussed. The Congress hopes to continue its back-channel talks with Mamata till then.
During the talks, Mamata broached three projects that require army clearance — the extension of the riverfront beautification project, Joka-BBD Bag Metro connectivity, and the Balason drinking-water project in Darjeeling district.
“Riverfront beautification, Metro and the Balason drinking-water project were discussed,” Mamata said before leaving Writers’. Antony merely said: “We will give all support.”
He later had lunch with governor M.K. Narayanan at Raj Bhavan, where state Congress president Pradip Bhattacharya met him and discussed the situation in Bengal. “I also requested him for an upgrade of Garden Reach Ship Builders,” Bhattacharya said.