Photographs: Reuters Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
The hope for a better image for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh-led government has diminished drastically with realism setting in that 19 members of its principal ally Trinamool Congress will stall every such move which can be dubbed by Mamata Bannerji as 'anti-poor' or 'anti-farmers', says Sheela Bhatt.
Wednesday was an unusually depressing day for the United Progressive Alliance. The moral authority of the government is, obviously, eroded the way parliamentarians pounced upon it and got it to suspend a Cabinet decision to allow foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail.
It took 18 months for the Congress to be reminded that they have only 207 members in the Lok Sabha. Even the most experienced Cabinet minister Pranab Mukherjee forgot that people has given the fractured mandate to the Congress to rule.
Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has sent that reminder, quite rudely. Mamata is the new-Left of the UPA.
Union Railway Minister and Trinamool leader Dinesh Trivedi, who opposed the FDI in retail, told rediff.com, "No party has got absolute majority in the 2009 general election. Ours is a fractured mandate. No matter how much you believe in certain policies, it cannot be implemented until and unless consensus emerges, because people want checks and balances. People want us to go about the major decisions cautiously."
Cong, NCP know that the economy is unlikely to improve
The hope for a better image for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh-led government has diminished drastically with realism setting in that 19 members of its principal ally -- the Trinamool Congress will stall every such move which can be dubbed by Mamata Bannerji as 'anti-poor' or 'anti-farmers.'
She will define what is not in the interest of people. Her objection will be difficult to ignore unless the government is looking for early mid-term polls.
What is worrying many Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (another UPA ally) leaders in New Delhi is that in the coming days, the economy is unlikely to improve, since the government has committed too much expenditure in the last six years, but new areas of revenues have not been found.
While mentioning some huge expenditure, a Cabinet minister who supported the FDI in retail, quoted on Wednesday that his government spends Rs 40,000 crore on paying wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act; and has budgeted Rs 55,578 crore for the current fiscal year on food subsidy.
The government's food and fertilizers subsidy bill's grand total stands around Rs 1.20 lakh crore. In addition, if and when the food security bill becomes reality (which will ensure that no Indian remains hungry) then it will add another mammoth figure of Rs 1.1 lakh crore to the expenditure list.
Those who are in favour of economic reforms and supporting more liberal economic policies to attract foreign investors have no idea how to work within the limits of Mamata's political agenda on economic decisions.
It is now certain that the big-ticket economic reforms will not be allowed by the Trinamool Congress who is in the pivotal position in New Delhi with its 19 MPs.
'Only when UPA gets a majority, expect some movement on economic reforms!'
The issue of FDI is unlikely to come back in this term of the government because most parties have taken a strident position against it. Like the Lokpal Bill, political parties would find it difficult to change their public position on the FDI issue.
It is worth noting that on the issue of FDI, Parliament was divided between 'two versus all'. The Congress and the NCP were on one side and all other parties were opposing these two parties.
There was no chance that the Cabinet decision could have survived on the floor of the House.
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi or party general secretary Rahul Gandhi kept silent on the controversy, but even if they would have supported the PM's decision, Trinmool Congress leaders claim they would not have changed their stand.
"The FDI in retail is unlikely to become a reality in this term of UPA," said a senior Cabinet minister when rediff.com asked if there is any hope for the supporters of FDI in retail.
He said with a high dose of reality, "I don't see any hope. The economic reforms are stalled. The government cannot move ahead now. Only when the UPA gets a majority, expect some movement on economic reforms!"
'The ruling coalition succumbed to retain power in New Delhi'
A powerful regional leader and an ally of the UPA government told the media in an off the record conversation in New Delhi that, "The ruling coalition succumbed to retain power in New Delhi. The suspension of the FDI decision is significant because it brought to surface the fact that UPA doesn't have a majority inside Parliament on many important issues, particularly, those related to economic reforms."
Congressmen and UPA's allies will now have to look for the copy of Trinamool Congress's manifesto to know about those issues that Mamata Banerjee will not allow Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take up.
Till the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, Mamata will reign supreme in the UPA.
A section in Congress was arguing on Wednesday that backtracking on the FDI in retail should not be hyped beyond a point. Even the National Democratic Alliance government had to backtrack on many issues when it was in power.
Also, when J Jayalalithaa's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was part of the NDA, she sulked as much as Mamata is sulking now. Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Jaswant Singh had to rush to Chennai frequently to cajole her.
Still, the fact remains that the current crisis has highlighted that in a coalition government the importance of small parties should not be undermined.
It's time Congress understands Mamata
A senior NCP leader said that there is need for a co-ordination committee in the UPA. He said the Congress leaders are not pro-active in meeting the UPA allies. If the Congress had better co-ordination with the Trinamool, the issue of FDI could have been handled better.
The NCP leader said, "BJP leaders regularly meet (NCP chief) Sharad Pawar. They exchange pleasantries and ideas. Recently, (BJP chief) Nitin Gadkari met Pawar for four hours in London."
An astute Congress observer and a senior officer in the government says, "It's time Congress understands Mamata. For 20 years she was engaged in agitations, dharnas on the streets and was coining slogans and fighting for causes. Hers is the negative frame of mind that defines her personality. She has brought fundamental changes in West Bengal by defeating the Left parties. It's a huge achievement. Now she is undergoing a process of change while running the government. Here is the person who has for every single day fought the partisan battle. To expect her to follow a set line is not possible and should not have been expected."
There are no two opinions within the non-Congress UPA allies that the Congress party is arrogant in it's handling of intra-party relations. On Wednesday, a senior NCP leader said sarcastically, "Whenever the Congress is in trouble it comes running to us. We are relevant only when Congress is in trouble. We can only wish that the Congress remains under pressure, so that we remain relevant."