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Mainstream, VOL L No 13, March 17, 2012

UPA in the Grip of a Fresh Crisis

Editorial

Tuesday 20 March 2012, by SC

The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is in the grip of a fresh crisis with West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee slamming her party’s nominee in the Union Cabinet, Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi, for having taken in his maiden Railway Budget the first initiative in 10 years at “fare rationalisation”—making train fares 10-20 per cent higher for all classes according to the distance being travelled, the “fare rationali-sation” models in two forms enabling the Railways to earn Rs 4000 crores and Rs 7000 crores annually. Mamata, who is the supreme leader of the Trinamul Congress in power in West Bengal with the Congress as an ally, was in Nandigram in the afternoon of March 14, speaking at a mass rally held there to observe the fifth anniversary of the attack by the police and CPM hoodlums on the people of the area that took a toll of 14 lives according to official estimates (the unofficial figure being much higher) when she heard the news of Dinesh having raised train fares across the board in his Railway Budget the same day; she ended her speech by reassuring the gathering that “we will not allow such a fare-hike”.

Soon after Dinesh’s budget speech TMC leader in Parliament Sudip Bandyopadhyay announced the party’s decision that the Railway Minister should “roll back the fare-hike or resign”. With Dinesh firm on going ahead with the fare-hike, Mamata decided to axe him. The same night she conveyed through a terse fax message to the Prime Minister the TMC’s intention to replace Dinesh Trivedi with another party nominee, Mukul Roy, currently the Minister of State for Shipping, as the Railway Minister.

The Manmohan Singh Government having become more beleaguered than before after the Congress’ disastrous performance in the recent polls to five State Assemblies, had no alternative but to accede to Mamata’s intention. However, it is understood to have made it clear that the change of guards cannot be carried out in the midst of the Budget session and Dinesh would be retained in the first phase of the session which ends on March 31. But events moving fast, anything can happen within a short span of time (and latest reports suggest the TMC wants the change in the Railway portfolio to take place not later than March 17).

Mamata has been accused from different sides of once again behaving impulsively donning the mantle of a “populist” leader. Influential sections of the media are busy demonising her as they go to great leangths in lionising Dinesh Trivedi for his bold, innovative and visionary Railway Budget. One does not hold any brief for Mamata Banerjee and it is true that she has quite often behaved impulsively thereby ruffling many a feather. It is also true that in this specific case propriety demanded that she first spoke to Dinesh Trivedi before taking action against him (although it is learnt that she had information of certain confabulations that Dinesh held behind her back and this provoked her to react in the way she did without concealing her annoyance). But the point to note is this: as a leader of a State where the populace at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder are groaning under abysmal poverty, and especially now when the mounting inflation and runaway prices are playing havoc with the lives of the poor people in general, she has every right to be sensitive of the burden that any increase in train fare would force the common man to bear, and thus oppose a fare-hike whatever its scale and magnitude. At the same time to deride her of being “populist” if she does so exposes a bias on the part of those (including the ones in the media) who cannot accept someone who has been voted to power by the ordinary masses and whose interests she is committed to uphold. Of course, those with a neoliberal mindset cannot be expected to think and act otherwise.

As for Dinesh Trivedi’s Railway Budget, one has no hesitation in saying that he has broken new ground in several areas. His stress on safety and modernisation of the Railways is noteworthy. But, as has been pointed out in The Times of India, “funds for mobilisation can’t be mobilised solely from freight and passenger fares”. Other schemes to mobilise internal resources should have been explored and spelt out; he has not taken such a step even if he has focused on improving passenger amenities, initiating measures for speeding up trains and introducing a real-time train information system.

But by increasing train fares he wanted to send out a message of departing from past practice. Influential lobbies, intimately linked to neoliberal economics, were behind this move (even as those connected with the railways know that other measures can be adopted to mobilise resources for modernisation and safety; but bureaucrats and administrators are averse to traverse that path as it involves painstaking work and is not an easy way out as fare-increase).

The latest crisis in the UPA is not the handiwork of Mamata alone (as is being sought to be projected from interested quarters miffed by her opposition to the proposed FDI in retail in particular). The Uttarakhand developments have unfolded serious internal dissensions within the Congress in the State and as a result a Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs (Harish Rawat, a serious contender for the State CM’s post) has tendered his resignation. The possibility of the Congress getting a majority in the Uttarakhand Assembly has thus come under a cloud.

Simultaneously the scenario in Sri Lanka where the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government is carrying out a policy of systematic mass killings of the Tamil minority by branding them as LTTE supporters or activists has turned grim. Such killings are documented and being shown in Western TV channels thereby testifying to the Sinhala authorities’ racist strategy of genocide. This has caused legitimate consternation and generated widespread anger in Tamil Nadu; and the demand is growing that India should back a US-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council condemning the alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan High Commissioner in New Delhi has added fuel to the fire by calling upon India to investigate its MPs sympathetic to the Eelam cause. (This being a direct interference in the country’s internal affairs, some MPs have demanded his recall. The High Commissioner, meanwhile, has tendered his apology thereby seeking to defuse the tension.) In this situation, the Tamil parties, particularly the DMK, have demanded that the Government of India should support the resolution in the UNHRC with DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi saying any unfavourable Indian stand on the resolution in the Council would be considered an act of “betrayal of Tamils” by his party. South Block is thus in a state of confusion as to what to do since till now the External Affairs Ministry was hiding behind the argument that New Delhi has never favoured country-specific resolutions. It is becoming increasingly transparent that in the absence of a forthright stand in defence of the Tamils in the UNHRC, the DMK could leave the UPA Government.

However, the government has lately become somewhat upbeat because it expects the Samajwadi Party and BSP to stand solidly behind it even if the TMC and DMK break ranks. What is not being taken into account is the question of reliability of these parties compared to the TMC and DMK. A case of shortsightedness that is a common ailment among Congress leaders.

Against this backdrop the crisis continues to stare the UPA, and especially the Congress, in the face, just before Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee presents the Union Budget 2012-13. (But as of now it is clear that given the precarious political situation, his manoeuvrability has been sharply curtailed and that is going to be reflec-ted in all likelihood in his Budget proposals tomorrow.)

March 15 S.C.

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