November 12, 2011

Of threats and pressure tactics

By Marcus Dam

THE HINDU, November 5, 2011 01:22 IST  

Is the Trinamool Congress' reaction to the recent hike in petrol prices about its ‘tolerance' wearing thin or about fending off charges of complicity?

By threatening to pull out of the United Progressive Alliance government over the recent hike in petrol prices, the Trinamool Congress leadership is trying to wriggle out of a politically deleterious situation in which the Centre finds itself, as disaffection mounts over the spiralling prices of essential items.

Needless to say, the threat is being made from a position of strength, the Trinamool Congress being the second largest constituent of the UPA. If carried out, it could pull the rug from under the feet of the government.

Whether the threat will be carried out or not is, of course, another matter. But the Prime Minister is certainly in for some hard bargaining on his return from his overseas tour if the apple-cart is not to be upset. For, all such threats — by definition in political parlance — are, for all practical purposes, pressure tactics.

Under attack in recent times from both the Left parties and, albeit with less stridency, the Bharatiya Janata Party, for not speaking out against economic polices of the scam-tainted Congress-led government at the Centre, the Trinamool Congress has found in the fourth hike in petrol prices this year an opportunity to express its resentment over not being consulted by the Congress in matters of major consequence, despite being a constituent of the UPA.

And in one fell swoop, it would also invalidate claims by her political rivals that she, by being a silent spectator in the government, is apathetic to the problems of the common man buffeted by the rise in the prices of essential commodities.

That the Trinamool Congress is peeved over the Congress riding roughshod over it was made clear in the reminder by its chairperson and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that while a pullout by the party would result in the toppling of the government at the Centre, it enjoyed a majority on its own and was not dependant on the Congress to stay in power in West Bengal.

Doubtless, the Congress in West Bengal plays second fiddle to the Trinamool — a political liaison that has rarely been harmonious but has survived because of the Congress in New Delhi insisting that it has. One can already see some more disgruntled sections of the Congress in the State secretly delighting in Ms. Banerjee's most recent posturing.

“Somebody has to bell the cat. If we are outside the government, we can at least speak in the interests of the people,” Ms. Banerjee has remarked. But it would be politically naïve to assume that the rise in the prices of petroleum products, the growing rate of food inflation and the consequent burden on the common man are the only reasons for her grouse.

Ever since assuming power in May, she has been expressing her displeasure over the Centre for failing to provide her government with a special financial package that would bail the State economy out of the bankruptcy it has allegedly inherited. The issue dominates her rhetoric. Is the pullout threat also a pressure tactic for extracting from the Centre the financial assistance?

By her own admission, the government of which her party is a part, has been responsible for the rise in prices of petroleum products “eleven times in twelve months” which she feels is “intolerable.” This begs the question why the Trinamool Congress was not as assertive of its opposition to the price hikes then, the way it is now. If one goes by what Ms. Banerjee has to say, it is the party's “tolerance” which is now wearing thin.

Or is it that the Trinamool Congress is finding it difficult to fend off charges of complicity each time there has been a rise in prices and of pursing an economic line that is no different from that of the Congress? For that has been the argument of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), its principal adversary in West Bengal.

At least the threat of a pullout from the government and all the hype it generates could be designed to project the impression that the party is not just sympathetic to the common man's concerns but that its position in the government should be taken more seriously by the Congress.

After all, over the past two-and-a-half years “we have not even been given a room [for the party] in Parliament,” not to talk of “we not willing to accept the burden [price rise] being thrust on the people,” according to Ms. Banerjee.

And even before one can doubt the seriousness of intent, she pre-empts any questions that could be asked in reference to it. The Trinamool Congress is not “blackmailing or bargaining” as might be made out by some, Ms. Banerjee, who has always had a penchant for histrionics, has said. “Forgive us, but we have not done any wrong,” she says, her hands folded.

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