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Mamata Banerjee is nobody's fool

June 28, 2012 15:30 IST

T V R Shenoy explains the likely reasons behind the West Bengal chief minister's seemingly bizarre  political  behaviour

It is amazing that so many people believe -- or say they believe -- that Mamata Banerjee was taken for a ride by Mulayam Singh Yadav. Have any of these people actually considered her record as a politician, both inside and outside the Congress?

The Trinamool Congress chief cut her political teeth in the Congress when she was still a college student in the 1970s. She was the battering ram with which the Congress toppled Somnath Chatterjee -- then a two-time MP -- in the Jadavpur Lok Sabha constituency in 1984. When she left to found the Trinamool Congress in 1997, Mamata Banerjee already had slightly more than two decades in the Congress behind her.

Can anyone say that someone with Mamata Banerjee's experience did not know that the deadliest sin in the Congress is to mock the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty?

No, Mamata Banerjee knew precisely which buttons she was pushing when she stepped out of Sonia Gandhi's house, blandly announcing that the Congress president was mulling over Pranab Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari as the UPA's candidates for the Presidency of India.

And she knew exactly what she was doing when, hours later, she joined Mulayam Singh Yadav in announcing three different names -- one of which was that of Sonia Gandhi's handpicked prime minister.

In the Congress you simply do not stand on the road outside 10 Janpath, and reveal the details of a private conversation with the Congress president. Why ever not? The Presidency concerns us all, and Mamata Banerjee deserves applause, not condemnation, for letting in sunlight on the infected politicking going on behind closed doors.

Which begs the question, why did Mamata Banerjee act as she did?

The Trinamool Congress chief's many foes insist that this was hubris, pride going before a fall. But it would be equally valid, if not more, to postulate that Mamata Banerjee was driving the Congress into a position where it would have no choice except to snap links with the Trinamool Congress.

There are multiple reasons why the West Bengal chief minister might find this an attractive outcome.

First, Mamata Banerjee knows that she faces two major foes in West Bengal; her strategic, long-term, enemy is the CPI-M, but her tactical, short-term, opponent is the Congress. The Congress is third, and rather a poor third, in West Bengal, but it still commands a few votes. Those votes are more anti-Marxist than they are pro-Congress.

The Trinamool Congress chief wants those anti-Marxist votes in her own hands, and to that end she has done everything possible to force the Congress's hand either into expelling her from the UPA, or by itself leaving her ministry in West Bengal. That will leave her free to position herself as the only anti-Marxist force in the state.

Consider Mamata Banerjee's record over the 14 months since she became chief minister. She single-handedly scuppered Dr Manmohan Singh's cherished accord with Bangladesh over the sharing of the Teesta's waters. She forced the Union Cabinet to reverse its decision on foreign direct investment in the retail sector. Her opposition brought the Lokpal Bill to a halt, stymied proposed reforms in the pension and insurance sectors, and caused rollbacks after the price of petrol was raised.

The Congress swallowed each humiliation -- until Mamata Banerjee mocked Sonia Gandhi herself.

What does it say of the Congress that it kept quiet on policy decisions affecting the whole country, reacting only when its beloved Nehru-Gandhi dynasty became the butt of derision?

Ambika Soni and Digvijay Singh took the lead in attacking Mamata Banerjee, accusing her of everything from breach of faith to 'tantrums'. Perhaps the Congress forgot that it was dealing with a lady who made her political mark literally battling the CPI-M in the streets of Kolkata, not someone who excelled only in the drawing rooms of Delhi. Not retreating an inch, Mamata Banerjee calmly announced, 'The game is not over!', and took the battle to Facebook.

Mamata Banerjee knows there is nothing substantial to be gained from persisting with the Congress. Years of poor fiscal management mean that the Manmohan Singh ministry simply does not have the money for a 'Bengal Package'. But if the citizens of West Bengal complain, their chief minister will point a finger at the Congress ministry in Delhi.

A second benefit of opposing Pranab Mukherjee's candidacy is that it has pushed the Congress into publicly seeking assistance from the Left Front, simultaneously forcing the Left into a position where its only real options are supporting either a Congress candidate or one backed by Mamata Banerjee. Either way, it will simply reinforce Mamata Banerjee's famous jibe when she founded the Trinamool Congress, that 'the Congress is the B-team of the CPI-M'.

There are no real downsides to opposing Pranab Mukherjee. The Union finance minister is not a mass leader in West Bengal, and his only electoral victories came with support from Mamata Banerjee herself. There is no money for a 'Bengal Package'. There are, however, several benefits.

First, it pushes the CPI-M and the Congress together, leaving the anti-Marxist votes to the Trinamool Congress.

Second, ministerial berths open up for her own party if the Congress leaves her ministry.

Third, the urban youth and, just possibly, Muslims come to the Trinamool Congress side if it backs A P J Abdul Kalam whose home state is Tamil Nadu, but is arguably far more popular than Pranab Mukherjee even in West Bengal.

Speaking of Tamil Nadu, Mamata Banerjee's strategy -- dispose of the junior partner before tackling the principal foe -- is not unique.

J Jayalalithaa has done much the same in Tamil Nadu. Knowing perfectly well that her true enemy is M Karunanidhi's DMK, Jayalalithaa forged an electoral partnership with 'Captain' Vijayakanth's DMDK, and then snapped all links once she was in power.

Of course, J Jayalalithaa did so with more finesse than Mamata Banerjee, but the AIADMK chief is far more experienced.

Where does all this leave the principal actors? Mamata Banerjee had nothing to lose and potential votes to gain. The Congress jettisoned a prickly partner, but now keeps afloat thanks to the Samajwadi Party, the CPI-M, or possibly both.

Does anyone believe that economic reforms will be any easier to push with Mulayam Singh Yadav peeking over Manmohan Singh's shoulder? The Samajwadi Party is now stuck with a tainted Congress -- and vice versa.

The Congress must now share the taint whenever there a violent act is committed by Samajwadi Party cadres. The Samajwadi Party must share the unpopularity if the Manmohan Singh ministry raises fuel prices.

Mulayam Singh Yadav apparently told his colleagues that he was shifting allegiance from Kalam to Pranab Mukherjee because he wanted assistance for Akhilesh Yadav's ministry in Uttar Pradesh. But can a Manmohan Singh ministry that lacked the money for West Bengal find the vastly greater funds required to keep the Samajwadi Party's voters happy?

'Emotional' is a word often hurled against Mamata Banerjee as an insult. What was more 'emotional', to cut links with a tainted partner, or to change a party's course just to keep a son's government popular?

That question will be answered in 2014 -- or, judging by Mamata Banerjee's actions, possibly even sooner.

TVR Shenoy