Calcutta, Jan. 12: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today formally invited Mamata Banerjee to return to the party, kicking off a key element of Sonia Gandhi's grand Congress reunification plan.
At Raj Bhavan, Mamata told the visiting Prime Minister about the CPM's 'reign of terror' in Bengal.
'That is why, Mamata, we want Congress rule here. We are missing you,' Singh replied, as if delivering a rehearsed line.
'But I am against your government because you're a friend of the CPM,' argued Mamata.
'My government' Singh laughed. And then the invitation: 'Why don't you join the cabinet and solve your problems'
Mamata, who belongs to the rival National Democratic Alliance camp, went to meet the Prime Minister to hand over a cheque of Rs 1 lakh she had collected through sale of her paintings (in addition to Rs 3.25 lakh from the party) and returned with a proposal that will flatter and torment. To go or not to go.
The Trinamul Congress leader would not commit herself one way or another. 'Ours is a political party with a definite ideology. The Prime Minister made the offer as he knows me for a long time and has great affection for me.'
Singh's noon coup was sandwiched between lavish morning praise for chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and an afternoon smiles-and-flowers trip to Jyoti Basu's home with wife Gursharan Kaur.
At the Confederation of Indian Industry's partnership summit, the Prime Minister presented the face of reform with equity ' a countenance that will please ally CPM, making steady noises about economic policy ' and blessed Bhattacharjee's bid for business.
His overture to Mamata is not the first since the Congress returned to power in Delhi last May that a party leader has made to the Trinamul chief. Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, who is the Bengal Congress president, has also asked her to come back, but an invitation from the Prime Minister is something else. He will, obviously, be speaking with the sanction of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who is known to be keen on having her back.
First, Rajiv Gandhi was fond of Mamata and second, having seized power at the Centre, Sonia's game plan now is to strengthen the Congress to cut reliance on allies. And one way of doing that is to bring Congress leaders who left the party over the past 15 years back in.
If Mamata does return to the Congress, Sonia will also have a weapon of deterrence against the CPM, whose support the government in Delhi needs now. It is a leverage the CPM has been employing from the first day in the Manmohan Singh government's life.
Mamata, who had quit the party in January 1998 following sharp differences with the leadership over its hobnobbing with the Left, struck a brief alliance with the Congress just before the 2001 Assembly elections only to return to the NDA as the partnership did not work.
But the power play has changed dramatically since, with the BJP and its allies not only sitting in the Opposition but also perceived to be on the wane while the Congress' fortune is thought to be rising.
Mamata's decision will still not be easy because if she aligns with the Congress now, she will be seen to be surrendering her abiding quality of opposing the CPM ' at least in the short term, at least until Sonia can rustle up enough strength in Delhi to cut her dependence on the Left.
If she does not, Mamata risks being in political wilderness at least till the next big elections in 2006, when Assembly polls will be held. At that time, she will be forced again to make a choice of allies between the Congress and the BJP.
Sources said Singh, who was standing when Mamata entered the room, gave her a patient hearing as she spoke of the Left Front government's 'misdeeds and dismal performance' in law and order, health and education.
She narrated how the government had allegedly brought the state to the verge of a financial catastrophe. 'The state government's total borrowings have reached the Rs 100,000-crore mark. Thousands of industrial workers are facing the bleak prospect of starvation as no meaningful attempts have been made to re-start closed and sick units,' she said.
Mamata drew a grim picture of law and order, saying the Left was annihilating its political opponents. 'They are rigging elections, butchering democracy and not even sparing Congress workers,' she said.