New Delhi, Sept. 18: Mamata Banerjee’s angered withdrawal has left the Manmohan Singh government shaken and the polity stirred on the prospect of an early election.
The door is not shut yet on the possibility of a give-and-take pullback from brinkmanship. Mamata dropped a hint she could roll back her decision if the government rolled back decisions on FDI, diesel prices and LPG subsidies. The Congress said it still considered her a “valued ally” and would “speak to the government” on her demands.
But that opening may only be a crack. Late tonight, both government and Congress sources asserted there would be no going back on FDI and only “minor tinkering” on recent fuel price increases. They are burning the phone lines to placate Mamata (and other indignant allies) but Congress managers aren’t sure the government is willing to concede enough to bring her around.
This might well be the “so-be-it” moment of Manmohan’s second term. As one government source said: “We have taken tough decisions on which the economy is critically hinged. We cannot rescind them only so we can survive as handicapped hostages to allies.”
Like with the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Prime Minister has indicated to party and government seniors he isn’t inclined to blink. Is it only charming coincidence that both make-or-break challenges to Manmohan came on policy decisions involving external players — the nuclear deal in term one, and now multi-brand FDI? Or that both came from parties that happened to be ruling Bengal?
Mamata’s decision has rendered the Lok Sabha arithmetic precarious for UPA II (see chart).
Deal-making, already gaining velocity in the backrooms, could yet keep the government afloat. Many permutations of abstention and participation are available, but they will require desperate manipulation. But the UPA boat is already on choppy waters, survival will be a day-to-day struggle of having to bargain political support.
The Congress’s worries, though, go beyond the tricky arithmetic of the floor; it’s a wider credibility deficit it is battling in the final laps to elections.
The corruption stain is darkening around it; the coal controversy has brought the scanner on the Prime Minister himself, in addition to several Congress ministers. There is palpable disenchantment over rising commodity prices.
Reorganisation of the party has long been pending, caused in no mean measure by the uncertainty over what role the heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, will choose, if any. For months before it moved on FDI, the government lay paralysed on policy. When it decided to break the drift, it brought upon itself its worst crisis.
The Opposition is baying for blood, the BJP having officially called for its resignation. National spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad was excited enough by Mamata’s floor-shift to mull demanding a special session of Parliament for a test of strength.
Although circumspect about labelling it a minority government, the BJP could barely conceal its glee at the discomfiting blow UPA-2 has received.
Mamata’s pullout means it has lost its most significant ally. And its second biggest partner — the DMK — has announced it will join the Opposition’s nationwide bandh call on Thursday to protest price rise, corruption and the allowance to FDI.
The news from its outside ring of supporters isn’t encouraging. The Samajwadi Party already stands opposed to FDI and indicated it could make common cause with Mamata.
“This government has lost its credibility, it cannot take our support for granted,” Samajwadi leader Ramgopal Yadav said this evening. “We will not take a decision based only on what Mamata has done today; we will make up our own mind but it is tough supporting a government that is losing public support.”
Mayawati’s BSP, 21-strong in the Lok Sabha and capable of keeping the government afloat, will demand its pound, probably more.
A possible lever the government could manoeuvre to attempt a stable course is the cabinet shuffle, which too has been in abeyance for a while owing to indecision at the top.
Should Trinamul stick by its decision to join the Opposition benches, Manmohan will have more room in the cabinet to offer as reward for the comfort of numbers.
It remains moot, though, whether the Congress, widely seen as heading downhill, can locate new allies and bring them on board to fill the gaping void Mamata has left.