Mamata Banerjee: The Didi who cried wolf once too often

The Trinamool Congress' deadline for decisive action in response to the UPA Government's 'big bang' reforms of Friday expires today. But already there are signs that the party chief, the mercurial Mamata Banerjee, who had given in to blustery brinkmanship, is reconciled to walk back from the edge of the cliff.

Mamata Banerjee today has three options: the first, the most extreme of the three, is to pull the plug on the UPA government, in the hope that it will collapse and precipitate fresh elections; the second is to withdraw the Trinamool's ministerial representation  in  the UPA government and withdraw unconditional support to the UPA, and instead support it from the outside on the basis of issues; the third, the most benign of the responses, would be to roll back  her rhetoric, swallow her pride, and stay on in the hope that another issue will surface at a more propitious time  and give her greater leverage to milk it to her advantage.

It's of course true that even Mamata doesn't quite know what her state of mind will be in a couple of hours. To that extent, she has an infinite capacity to surprise, perhaps even herself. But even so, through all the immature brinkmanship politics that characterises her to this day, it's fair to say that her political survival instincts, and just the fact that she can count up to 272 - the halfway mark in Parliament - will mean that she will not wield the 'Samson Option' and withdraw support to the UPA government  in its entirety today.

Mamata Banerjee may not play her trump card today. PTI

The cold arithmetic of the current Lok Sabha tells us that the Congress-led UPA will almost certain survive this moment, even if only by striking backroom deals with one of the three Ms - Mamata, Mulayam or Mayawati. The Trinamool Congress has 19 seats in the Lok Sabha, and can reduce  the UPA, which currently has a strength of 273, to a minority. But then, the Congress has the option of securing support from the BSP (which has 21 seats) or the Samajwadi Party (which has 22), which would more  than make up for Mamata's exit.

Late on Monday, Samajwadi Party leader Tasleem Ahmed Rehmani made it abundantly clear, while appearing on a CNN-IBN panel discussion, that his party saw no merit in toppling the government in a hurry because it saw no viable alternative. "If we force an election, there is a political vacuum in the country." His party, he said, was opposed to the "anti-people" policies of the UPA government - including the diesel price hike and the move to allow FDI in multi-brand retail - and would participate in the Bharat Bandh on Thursday. But when push comes to shove, it would bail out the government - if only because if it did not, someone else (perhaps Mayawati) would.

That's the cynical calculation that props up the UPA government, for now, but every party also knows that the longer they are seen to be associated with the UPA, the more they will be tainted by association with the corruption scandals that have come to characterise the  ruling coalition. Each of the parties has a wary eye on the mood of the people, and knows full well that the corruption and the mismanaged economy - particularly high inflation - will haunt the UPA come election time.

Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde's flippant remark that people would sooner or later forget the Coalgate scandal because  public memory is typically short represents, in that sense, the triumph of hope over experience.  It also underlies the Congress' strategy in unveiling reforms that its own leaders aren't fully committed to. (Indicatively, Congress Chief Ministers are asking for a rollback of the diesel price hike and the ceiling on subsidised LPG cylinders - and have indicated that they will not allow FDI in retail in their respective turf.)

In effect, as Outlook's former editor Vinod Mehta told CNN-IBN, the Congress, which faced the prospect of being politically hammered between now and 2014 on the issue of corruption, has sought to change the narrative - by introducing 'big bang' reforms, hoping to distract attention away from the CoalGate scandal. "It is a good tactic," said Mehta. "Why should the Congress allow a single-point narrative to dominate? May the best narrative win."

The problem with that line of reasoning is that even Congress leaders won't want to make the economic reform process an election issue, come 2014 (or whenever elections are held). In 2004, the party rode to power on a cynical populist-welfarist platform that set itself against the NDA's 'India Shining' campaign, and since then it has reduced the discourse on the economy to, as Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta puts it, a rona-dona narrative worthy of tragedy queen Meena Kumari.

What the Congress will instead do between now and the elections is to unroll yet more of the big-money social welfare projects, and hope to change the narrative away from the scandals. Yet, Shinde's public memory theory was wrong on one count: the Bofors scandal may not resonate as a political issue today, but the Congress did pay a heavy price - in the 1989 elections. And even to this day, the Congress' shameful conduct in systematically torpedoing the CBI investigation against  Ottavio Quattrocchi, the  Italian businessman who received a share of the payoffs in the deal, is a matter of public record that will damn the Congress for eternity.

Likewise, the Congress may survive Mamata Banerjee's death warrant today, but it's a political formation that has been stuck together with bubble gum and tied up in string. Éach one of the three Ms - Mamata, Mulayam and Mayawati - is only waiting for a propitious alignment of planets to pull down the  government.

Mamata Banerjee may today resemble the boy who cried wolf once too often, and her tantrums may appear to have gone past their sell-by date. But her time will come.

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