Why CM is in combat mode
|OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT|
Calcutta, Nov. 4: Even if the Trinamul Congress does not immediately withdraw its ministers from the UPA-II government, Mamata Banerjee's warning shows two things. It reflects her anxiety to score political points but also shows that she is herself under pressure.
Mamata's announcement today that she could withdraw from the central government on the petrol price hike issue allows her to distance herself from the UPA's increasingly unpopular image and decisions. At the same time, it helps her to take the wind out of the CPM's campaign against Trinamul, a partner in the UPA government, on price rise. The CPM has repeatedly questioned Mamata's silence on price rise.
The chief minister's outburst today also prepares the ground for tough decisions, such as increasing power tariff and transport fares, that she may have to take as administrator.
Mamata is increasingly feeling the pressure of running the government without raising such prices or finding other means to generate earnings. Bengal is finding itself in a situation similar to Greece — a bankrupt government plunging into financial chaos by refusing to hike prices and making structural reforms.
Her decision not to allow the state power companies to raise tariff has hurt the utilities and the state exchequer. It isn't that Mamata is unaware of the bleak situation the power utilities are facing. She has admitted to Coal India's stopping supply as the Bengal government couldn't clear the dues.
On June 25, Mamata announced the withdrawal of VAT on domestic LPG after the Centre increased the fuel price. While it helped her image, the move has actually hurt the cash-strapped government. In the little over five months that Mamata has been in power, the government has borrowed Rs 10,000 crore from the market. In the last fiscal, the Left Front government's entire borrowings were Rs 9,500 crore. Government employees are waiting to hear from the chief minister about the pending DA. The answer is expected by the second week of November.
The warning tops months of pressure she has been mounting on Delhi to give Bengal a special package. The threat of withdrawing Trinamul ministers from the UPA government comes in handy for her to bargain with the Centre. However, Mamata today took pains to point out that she was not "blackmailing" the Centre when she spoke of withdrawing ministers. "This is not for bargaining or blackmailing. We can't accept a decision that hurts the people," she said.
At the same time, Mamata realises that coming out of the UPA at this stage can hurt her plans for Bengal, a point that some Trinamul MPs have raised privately. "It isn't just about the package. As railway minister, she had started a number of projects for Bengal. The fate of these projects will be doomed if we pull out at this stage," an MP said.
Mamata also has to worry about the future. The Congress's fortunes appear set to decline in the next Lok Sabha polls, while Trinamul has the chance to increase its tally in Bengal. In that event, Mamata's position in the UPA will be disproportionately stronger, a point that Trinamul leaders are making from public platforms. She does not have to break the alliance with the Congress. Instead, with a weaker Congress, she can increase her bargaining power.
Withdrawal from the UPA may not be an easy option for her. But the threat to do so makes a lot of political sense to her. If the Centre decides on a rollback of petrol prices, even if partially, she can claim victory. If it does not, Mamata's image as a fighter for just causes gets a boost.
Saturday, November 5, 2011