Prime Minister Manmohan Singh couldn’t reach political ally Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, West Bengal, on the phone; and, in turn, Mamata reportedly didn’t get a response from Congress President Sonia Gandhi to an SMS she sent.
As Delhi, Kolkata and the rest of India argued about the merits and demerits of a hike in diesel prices, a cap on the number of subsidised cooking gas cylinders, foreign direct investment in the retail sector, Mamata’s Trinamool Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) finally parted ways. This left the Manmohan Singh government in a minority.
In the breaking TV drama last week, firebrand Mamata, chief minister of West Bengal, claimed she had sent a text to Sonia Gandhi that the recent increases were unacceptable, to which she didn’t get a response.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, on his part, said Manmohan Singh called Mamata twice, but her calls were not returned. Mamata, on her Facebook page, said Chidamabaram’s claims were “concocted”.
In this modern age of communications, where mobile phones, both smart and stupid, Twitter and Facebook, have made it so, so easy to reach people, the lines between Delhi and Kolkata seemed to have been down.
Forget Ministers and Prime Ministers, legislators and parliamentarians, even ordinary you and me have now the privilege of keeping in touch with the world while stationary and roaming.
Even Indians and Pakistanis can Skpye each other, not to talk about calling each other on mobile. It’s possible for a Lahori to speak to a Lucknowite.
But, top UPA and Trinamool leaders, with all the resources at their command, just couldn’t reach each other. It appeared that address books had been wiped out, text messages weren’t getting through and aides didn’t know the importance of a call made on behalf of the Prime Minister.
Truth, be told, it just wasn’t about dead batteries and address books.
It was about the absence of will – both the UPA and the Trinamool seemed to have given up on their political marriage, but wanted to lay the blame for the divorce on the other.
And, at such sour moments, the easiest thing to do is to blame the absence of response by one party or the other rather than engage in the serious business of dialogue to salvage a bad situation.
Though officially an ally, the Trinamool Congress had effectively been playing the role of an opposition party from within the ruling fold. Just about everything the central government suggested or proposed was being opposed by the West Bengal party.
There was a sense of paralysis as far as decision-making was concerned – no decisions could be taken by the Prime Minister unless approved by Mamata Banerjee.
Under attack in Parliament on corruption charges following the publication of a report by the country’s Comptroller and Auditor-General for the allocation of coal blocks, the ruling party watched as parliament adjourned without conducting any major business on September 7.
The foreign media, too, picked on the government for its inability to deliver on key measures to reform the economy, lending to the overall sense of non-performance of the Congress-led UPA government.
“Under Singh, economic reforms have stalled, growth has slowed sharply and the rupee has collapsed. But just as damaging to his reputation is the accusation that he looked the other way and remained silent as his cabinet colleagues filled their own pockets,” the Washington Post wrote on September 5.
Just over a week later came a clutch of decisions, which pleased Indian and foreign big business immensely. Other than allowing 51 per cent foreign holding in multi-brand retail and 100 per cent foreign investment in single-brand retail, 49 per cent overseas investment in the civil aviation sector was also permitted.
Suddenly, a weak and indecisive Prime Minister was hailed by big business – Indian and foreign as reformer once again. The turnaround was sudden and the praise was lavish.
With the media, too, awaiting the crumbs of advertisement from these decisions, it appeared that Manmohan Singh was suddenly the same man who had led India to economic liberalisation as finance minister back in 1991.
The uncertainty whether the Prime Minister would go down fighting, as reportedly mentioned by him at a meeting to decide on the new reform measures, appears to have ended for the moment with Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party saying that their support for the government was not in doubt.
The question that lingers is a simple one: what’s the political price Mulayam will extract for his support to Manmohan Singh?
Watch this space.
Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.