Mamata Banerjee dropped the bombshell finally. And for a change she was not being unpredictable. Her decision to withdraw support to UPA II was not entirely unanticipated given the maximalist position she had taken in her opposition to all kinds of economic reforms.
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh insisted the other day that if the government had to go down, it should go down fighting, the stage was set for a direct confrontation. It was a conflict between two maximalist positions and finding the middle ground was a difficult proposition.
Mamata’s decision brings the possibility of a mid-term election closer than ever. The UPA is reduced to a minority government without the support of 19 Trinamool MPs. It will now have to depend on the support of either the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for survival. Both parties, propping up the UPA from outside at different times, would extract their pound of flesh from the government and could throw up the similar opposition on the issue of economic reforms as the Trinamool Congress.
Whether it the SP or the BSP, it’s a definite lose-lose situation for the UPA in general and the Congress in particular. Going by its recent posturing, the SP is not averse to an early election and it won’t hesitate to pull the rug from under the UPA anytime it feels convenient. In such a situation, the government could still survive but it won’t have the legitimacy to carry out reforms. And without big ticket reform measures, it would have little to show for its more than three years in power.
In fact, when the government announced a flurry of decisions recently, including a sharp hike in diesel price, a cap on use of subsidised LPG cylinders and aviation reforms, it was meant to distract public attention from the huge negative publicity generated by the coalgate and other scandals. The government could not have been unaware that it was taking the huge risk of alienating allies such as the Trinamool Congress. It was a gamble and it seems to have backfired. Mamata’s move on Tuesday evening ensures that the countdown to the fall of the government has begun.
But is it possible for the government to salvage the situation? Mamata has given it a 72-hour deadline to withdraw all ‘unpopular’ decisions. She might still support the government if it accepts her demand. However, given the tough, unequivocal stance taken by the prime minister, Finance Minister P Chidambaram and other senior Congress leaders on reforms, it is unlikely that it would back out. The embarrassment would be just too heavy for the party to bear. It might take AICC’s president Sonia Gandhi’s direct intervention to find a political solution to the impasse.
The statements from Congress leaders this evening indicate that the party is still hopeful of some kind of a settlement where neither side end up looking bad. But after making a public farce of their differences over reforms and taking a irreversible positions both seem to have burnt the bridges. Even if the parties manage to stay together for now, it would be a short-term marriage of incompatible allies.
For all practical purposes, the days of UPA II look numbered. Ironically, it won’t be corruption that would sink the government, it would be economic reforms. The rickety coalition would still have managed to plod along had the issue been corruption only — Mamata’s party have been more or less silent about the scandals involving the government so far. That gives the government the halo of martyrdom, a pathetic one, if one might add.