The Trinamool Congress decision to pull out its ministers — one Cabinet minister and six ministers of state — and to withdraw support to the UPA government at the Centre marks a watershed in the process of browbeating the Manmohan Singh government into submission right since it came to office over eight years ago.
If today this government is widely seen as weak and ineffective it is in no small measure due to the capitulation before Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee repeatedly on reform measures like hike in petroleum product prices to cut subsidies, rail fare hikes which were rolled back at her instance and allowing 51 per cent foreign direct investment in retail on which the government had to go back the last time around. That this time the government hiked diesel price by around Rs 5 a litre and FDI in retail was carried through was a reflection of Mamata Banerjee’s diminished clout after her isolation stood exposed within the UPA when she could not prevent Pranab Mukherjee’s election as President of India.
It is a measure of how petrified parliamentarians are of having to fight a fresh election prematurely that the rebuff by Trinamool has not found any takers. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party which had been keeping their cards close to the chest have informally told the Congress that they would not rock the boat. So in effect, even if the Trinamool Congress votes against the government in Parliament the government would not fall. This is however not to say that the politics of blackmail would no longer be played. Both SP and BSP would do everything to extract their pound of flesh. The Samajwadis are already pitching for a huge financial package from the Centre for Uttar Pradesh just as Mamata had been doing when she was riding high horses in the initial years of UPA rule. It is also being widely speculated that both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati are looking to the Manmohan Singh government to prevail upon the CBI to ease the pressure on them in the disproportionate assets cases.
While the UPA government would survive for now, there can be little doubt that the support of SP and BSP can hardly be taken for granted for long. The SP in particular would predictably like to precipitate a snap poll so that it is able to beat the setting in of a sense of disillusionment with its party’s government in UP. While its MPs would at this stage resist moves to go for a snap poll, the leadership of the party may well decide to force an election sometime later especially if its demands for special treatment by the Centre are not duly met. The UPA government is doubtlessly in for hard times.
The BSP indeed has a Hobson’s choice. It wouldn’t mind ditching the Congress which has been flirting with its bitter enemy the SP but it would like to remain on the right side of the substantial Muslim vote bank which loathes the BJP. At the same time, a Damocles sword of CBI cases against her on amassing ill-gotten wealth hangs over her from which the Congress has been a great saviour. The DMK too has its own compulsions for going with the UPA for now despite its annoyance over how the Congress had heaped all blame for the 2G scam on it. It is doubtful if the reforms that the UPA government has undertaken would bring it dividends in electoral terms. Though the diesel price hike is a step in the right direction aimed as it is to reduce the ballooning deficit, it is bound to go down badly with the people who are understandably piqued with the government for the runaway inflation that they are currently having to face. Considering that trucks and trains which transport a wide array of goods depend on diesel, the hike in its price would inevitably raise the price index. Likewise, the allowing of 51 per cent FDI in retail would evoke a sharp reaction from small traders who number an estimated five crore across the country. The middle class would predictably be enthused by the possible entry of major international chains like Walmart and Carrefour, but when it comes to the hustings, this class is least participative.
Clearly, while the Manmohan Singh government can for once be given credit for decisions that are economically sound, politically it cannot be deemed to be on sure ground. There are imponderables galore. On the plus side, Dr Manmohan Singh will regain some of his lost ground by seeming to act decisively after all. On the other, there would be anger in some sections on the spiralling prices and the growing ranks of the unemployed.