Credibility crisis for UPA as Didi fires minister
New Delhi, March 14: The country was tonight force-marched into a head-spinning ride by Mamata Banerjee who damned the railway budget of her own nominee, demanded the replacement of Dinesh Trivedi with Mukul Roy and rebuffed the Prime Minister a few hours after he had given a "forward-looking" certificate to the proposals.
Mamata's late-night missive to replace Trivedi, which followed a public rejection of the fare hikes proposed by him and a demand for a rollback, threw the UPA government into an unparalleled crisis and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh into an embarrassing quandary. It is now faced with the prospect of picking another man to pilot the budget presented by Trivedi.
Government sources indicated the Prime Minister would have preferred to let Trivedi see his budget through and then depart. Till late tonight, Mamata had given time only till Friday, when the general budget is scheduled, for the change of guard at Rail Bhavan.
The composition of the ministry is the Prime Minister's prerogative but the Damocles sword called coalition dharma has snipped away such powers long ago.
"It is a peculiar situation," an official said. "For the first time, the nation is faced with the prospect of the railway minister having to lose his job just after presenting the budget."
Coalition governments are no strangers to rollbacks. A tweet from a Trinamul MP suggesting "upper class" fares may be okay and Mamata's own assertion that she would not allow the hikes "for common people" had created an impression that the fare revisions at the lower end may be dropped to appease Trinamul. However, Trinamul sources later insisted that the party meant a "full rollback".
Trivedi stressed that he had taken a "conscious" decision in the interest of the railways and indicated his preparedness to defy his party boss and go down as a martyr rather than surrender.
Sources close to Trivedi said he had lost Mamata's trust and would have been shown the door, fare hike or no hike. The hike in fares after a prolonged freeze has been justified by most analysts who feel that additional resources were required for the cash-strapped railways.
"Railway is not run from Writers' Buildings. It is a misconception," Trivedi asserted in the afternoon after presenting the budget, when Trinamul MPs decried the hike in fares and demanded a rollback.
Trivedi showed no signs of buckling even after Mamata stated in public in Nandigram that hike in rail fares was unacceptable to her and she would not allow it to happen.
Trivedi, in fact, chose to give predominance to the leadership of the Prime Minister over Mamata, aware it could be read as a snub in Trinamul parlance.
"I will try to convince my party leader. That is my job. But one has to understand that I am not the government. I have the Prime Minister above me as the leader of the team and I have the interest of the nation to keep," he said.
Although the latest twist has not panicked the Congress, there is a renewed sense of restiveness in the UPA over the recurrent crises in the coalition.
Singh iterated today that there was no threat to his government, saying "the government is stable, we have all the numbers".
But party managers are increasingly concerned about Mamata's ability to hobble the government. In recent months, she has blocked several decisions, including the India-Bangladesh treaty on the Teesta, multi-brand FDI in retail, the Lokpal bill and the NCTC.
Although there is no official word, it is known that the Congress is looking elsewhere in the Lok Sabha to cushion its majority. Two parties are in particular focus — the Samajwadi Party, which has just won a huge victory in Uttar Pradesh, and the BSP, which lost power in the state.
Both support the UPA from outside, but the Congress might be looking for firmer assurance from either or both. Together, the SP and the BSP have over 40 MPs in the Lok Sabha. "Mamata is a fickle customer," an AICC office bearer said. "So, it is neither wrong nor unusual for us to be looking to increase our support base in Parliament."
Mamata's team members said they had the directive to intensify the torment on the Congress. They indicated that a tough time awaited the Congress on the general budget too.
On Thursday, Trinamul MPs will stage a dharna in Parliament demanding a rollback in rail fares and meet the Prime Minister.
The unexpected turn of events took political leaders here by surprise as they found it difficult to believe that Trivedi had not consulted Mamata before announcing the hike. Some smelt a design and felt it was a pre-scripted drama.
But sources close to Mamata asserted that Trivedi chose to rebuff the party boss and steal the limelight as he was sure about being pushed out from Rail Bhavan, having lost the trust of the lady. Trivedi was accused by Mamata of hobnobbing with Congress leaders and his recent statement about Trinamul wanting a mid-term election was said to have come as the final nail in the coffin.
"Mamata had decided to remove him and was waiting for him to present the budget. Trivedi too knew it. So, he decided to hike the rail fares despite a clear directive from the leader not to do so," said a close associate of Mamata.
Mamata grabbed the opportunity immediately after Trivedi announced the hike in rail fares in Parliament as it suited her brand of more-Left- than-the-Left politics.
Messages were sent to some chosen Trinamul members in Parliament, asking them to slam the budget. Derek 'Brien, the Rajya Sabha MP, was the first to be contacted by Mamata as the party's Lok Sabha MPs were inside the House and could not be reached.
"Railway Budget... what was all that about increasing fares across the board? Upper class...maybe ok...but all? Sorry, cannot agree," 'Brien tweeted at 2.20pm.
Till then no Trinamul MP in the Lok Sabha appeared to be aware of Mamata's position. The disconnect was evident as junior minister Sultan Ahmed hailed the budget before the cameras. "Despite minor hike in rail fares… I feel it is a good development-oriented budget," he said.
Only one MP, Trinamul Lok Sabha leader Sudip Bandopadhyay, seemed to be aware of the stand and he chose to hold his horses before speaking out. "Not now. Wait for some time," he said, when approached for a reaction just as he stepped out of the House.
Sudip then rushed to the rail minister's office in Parliament and, not finding Trivedi there, he, along with MP Subrata Bakshi, walked towards the Central Hall.
Sudip returned after a couple of minutes, sat in Trivedi's room and came out holding his phone. Mamata was on the line. As Sudip was speaking on the phone, some Trinamul MPs were seen congratulating Trivedi, who was entering his room. "Your poetry was excellent. Who wrote it for you?" a junior minister asked.
By then Sudip had been told what he should say and he walked towards the lawns, asking reporters to follow him.
"Trinamul does not support the hike in fares. We are a party for the poor and we cannot accept this burden on the people. We demand a rollback," Sudip, flanked by Bakshi and Kalyan Banerjee, said and drove away.
Sudip and Sultan, the first decrying and the second hailing the budget, were both on air by then.
"Sultaner chaakri gelo (Sultan has lost his job)," said a close associate of Mamata, watching TV in Trivedi's office.