Bengal's storm petrel dares Delhi durbar

In normal circumstances, Delhi's snooty commentariat would not have bothered about events in distant Kolkata. But these are not normal times, not the least because as things fall apart with alarming rapidity, a wobbly centre is seen to be signalling, in fatigue and despair, that it can't continue to hold for too long.

Hence Delhi is rife with speculation, admittedly largely idle and ill-informed, over what exactly is West Bengal's feisty Chief Minister playing for. Is she being her usual tempestuous self, unpredictable and given to extremes? Or is that a storm petrel on the horizon, the harbinger of further trouble for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress?

So long as Mamata Banerjee was playing spoilsport and blocking policy initiatives -- sharing of Teesta waters, allowing FDI in multi-brand retail, amending the antiquated land acquisition Act, reforming the pension law -- the Congress wasn't really bothered. Singh may have felt piqued and harassed, but in the Congress's scheme of things, the Prime Minister and the party are not to be confused with one another.

But the disaster over the Lokpal Bill, when the Congress found itself in a woeful minority in the Rajya Sabha and had to flee from a vote, is an entirely different thing. Allies are not expected to trifle with the Congress High Command's desire. This is precisely what the Trinamool Congress did.

Between that late December night and now, relations between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress have unravelled at an amazing speed. The Congress has been called the "CPI(M)'s B-team"; the Trinamool Congress has been dubbed the "BJP's stooge". Incandescent with rage, Ms Banerjee has let it be known that had it not been for her support, "there would have been no Manmohan Singh and no UPA".

So ferocious is the rapid-fire verbal exchange and so vituperative is the choice of words, the spat has suddenly become the subject of much discussion and interpretation. Is this the proverbial 'I-hate-you-I-loathe-you' phase that precedes separation and eventual divorce? If yes, then to what end?

The reasons being touted for the Congress's escalating denunciation of Banerjee are sheer poppycock. Her decision to rename a PWD-built two-storey building in which Indira Gandhi spent a couple of days and is notionally named 'Indira Bhavan' as 'Nazrul Bhavan' is frankly inconsequential - in Bengal and beyond.

Similarly, it's sheer bunk to suggest that she's playing the minority card. Kazi Nazrul Islam was a celebrated poet and much admired on both sides of Padma for reasons that would enrage, not please, those Muslims who seek appeasement through gestures. Few people outside Bengal would know that his most popular compositions are known as 'Shyama Sangeet', or devotional songs in praise of goddess Kali.

Banerjee is fond of promising to build a Bengal whose identity is defined by the radical vision of Rabindranath Tagore and the radical liberalism of Kazi Nazrul Islam. Arguably, such a Bengal can't be built by renaming the house in which Jyoti Basu lived till he died in 2010. But her decision is not without reason.

Through this gesture she wants to reassert Bengal's pride. Thirty-four years of Marxist rule has left that pride in tatters; rebuilding it will help her consolidate her political gains. The Congress cannot but be aware of this. Hence, its spurious protest over renaming 'Indira Bhavan' is really no more than a red herring. The real reasons for the looming clash (and possible parting of ways) lie elsewhere.

A pauperised Bengal is in urgent need of Central funds but these have not been forthcoming. Assurances mean nothing to a State which is barely able to pay salaries at the end of the month. Banerjee, who sees her party keeping the Congress in power at the Centre, is loath to beg for money.

Second, busybodies like Mr Jairam Ramesh have not helped matters by despatching snide letters criticising the performance of the Panchayat Ministry and questioning the utilisation of rural development funds. Having helped resuscitate the Congress in a State where it was dead, Banerjee sees such criticism as treachery.

There's a third reason. Banerjee feels, and not without reason, that whatever leverage she has with the UPA Government would disappear if the Congress were to prop up a SP Government in UP after the Assembly election as a quid pro quo for the latter pledging the support of its 22 MPs.

That, along with the RLD's five MPs, would more than compensate for the Trinamool Congress's 19 MPs. She could unsettle that calculation of the Congress by pulling the plug now and reducing the Government to a minority and forcing a trust vote which the Congress is bound to lose. Will she? Won't she? Politics is about possibilities, speculating over which keeps Delhi's commentariat in clover. 

-- The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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