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Deadline set, Didi faces dilemma

- First priority to exert pressure on Centre from within: Aides
Pranab Mukherjee with Mamata Banerjee at the Netaji Indoor Stadium on Friday. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta

Sept. 14: Balo, balo, balo sabe, shoto bina benu robe

Bangla abar jogot- sabha-e sreshtho ason- lobe (Hundreds of veenas and flutes will chime the chorus that Bengal will once again take the pole position in the world).

If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is familiar with the lines penned by Atul Prasad Sen, he would have caught on that chief minister Mamata Banerjee had deftly replaced Bharat with Bangla in the patriotic song.

Almost at the same hour the chief minister was improvising the song to felicitate President Pranab Mukherjee at Netaji Indoor Stadium, the Prime Minister was unleashing a series of steps that he would later in the evening say was taken in “the national interest” to combat “difficult times”.

Much like Mamata prophesied, countless television channels — not veenas and flutes — were soon chiming that Trinamul had set a 72-hour deadline for the Centre to “roll back” the decisions on diesel, LPG and FDI.

But the 75-minute programme of song-and-dance (and speeches) masked the set of political challenges confronting Mamata — almost similar to the dilemma that the Left faced when Singh threw down the gauntlet on the nuclear deal in 2007 and stood his ground in the following year.

A close aide of Mamata admitted: “Suddenly, she is saddled with an entire gamut of problems both at the Centre and in the state.”

Mamata herself has conceded her inability to walk out of the UPA, saying someone else would step in to fill the vacuum.

Closer home, Mamata faces another challenge from transport operators who have been pressing for an increase in bus and taxi fares. Yesterday’s diesel price hike has triggered fresh calls for a tariff revision — something the Mamata government had fought tooth and nail till now. Taxi operators have threatened a strike from Thursday if the demand is not met by then.

Late in the evening, the chief minister expressed her views in a Facebook post. “We cannot support price hike on diesel and reduction in subsidised LPG cylinders. Today, a decision has been taken allowing FDI in retail sector. It is a big jolt. We are really sorry. We cannot support anything that is against the interest of the poor and common people. Loot cholchhe loot (There is a loot going on),” read the post.

Then came a direct threat albeit without specifics. “We are very much serious about these developments and ready to take hard decisions if these issues are not reconsidered,” Mamata posted.

No one in Trinamul could say with certainty what the party would do this time, but Mamata’s Facebook post included hints that she did not want Trinamul to be seen as party to the decisions.

Asked about the party’s options, Trinamul MP Kunal Ghosh suggested the immediate focus would be on exerting pressure on the Centre to change its mind.

“Our leader will not allow anything going against the interests of the people and she will weigh all possible options after the expiry of the 72-hour deadline. Withdrawal of support is an option, but if that happens, the issue of our leader’s opposition to anti-people decisions will become minor as the stability of the government will be in question. Besides, another round of horse-trading may start…. So, the focus will be on exerting pressure on the government to reconsider the decision,” Ghosh said.

According to sources in the party, Mukul Roy, railway minister and Trinamul’s all-India general secretary, called up Ahmed Patel, political secretary of Sonia Gandhi, on Mamata’s instructions and conveyed the party’s opposition to the decisions.

“We are opposing the hike in diesel price, reduction in subsidy on LPG and 51 per cent FDI in multi-brand retail. We want a rollback,” said Roy.

“We have conveyed to the Centre that they will have to announce a rollback in 72 hours. Our parliamentary party will meet on Tuesday and decide the next course of action,” said Roy, adding that the party was not consulted before these decisions were announced in Delhi.

Roy, Trinamul’s lone representative in the Union cabinet, was absent from the meeting that approved the reform proposals. As a mark of protest, he is set to skip a Planning Commission meeting tomorrow to finalise plans of the railways and other ministries.

Trinamul leaders felt their leader could also consider withdrawing ministers from the central government and extending outside support.

Although some Trinamul leaders in Delhi insisted that a pullout could not be ruled out, they recalled in the same breath how the Left was left high and dry as UPA I sailed through the confidence motion in the Lok Sabha, having got Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party on board.

“I am sure Mamata would take all these things into consideration when she decides what the next step of the party would be at a meeting on Tuesday,” said a Trinamul MP.

Mamata, who has already burnt her fingers with Mulayam over the President’s poll, did not receive any enthusing signals from the Samajwadi Party till late tonight.

“We are opposed to the FDI in retail decision and we will hold a protest at Jantar Mantar on September 19,” Samajwadi general secretary and Mulayam’s cousin Ram Gopal Yadav said.

Asked about withdrawal of support, he appeared non-committal. “That is a very serious decision and we cannot take it in a hurry,” he said.

The Samajwadi Party is extending outside support to the UPA government but fears that if it gets actively associated in the process to pull down the government, it could help the BJP, which may not go down well with their Muslim support base. The BSP, the other player in Uttar Pradesh, chose to remain silent, betraying its unwillingness to face immediate polls.

Similar political compulsions also weigh on Trinamul in Bengal, which has a significant minority population. Trinamul leaders said if they withdrew support, the Samajwadis and the BSP could come forward and save the government.

“What will be our gain if we withdraw and the government survives? The best option is to use the opportunity and extract a bailout package for Bengal. We can protest and absolve ourselves by stating that Trinamul does not have the numbers to stop the government from taking these anti-people decisions,” said another Trinamul MP.

Government managers pointed out that they had provided an exit route for Mamata by including the retail clause that it was up to the state governments to allow FDI.

“If Mamata is opposed to the proposal, she can very well not allow FDI in her state. But how can she stop other states who want FDI?” asked a Congress leader.

Bangla or Bharat? Mamata did choose the song with prescience this evening.


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