In crisis mode, Congress back to number crunching

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and senior Congress leaders, including Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and her political secretary Ahmed Patel, went into a huddle at 7 Race Course Road late on Wednesday night, after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee precipitated a potential political train-wreck: sources said she had faxed a letter to the Prime Minister, asking him to sack Railway Minister and fellow Trinamool party leader Dinesh Trivedi and withdraw the hike in passenger fares announced in his first budget earlier in the day.

Railway Budget 2012 - at a glance (PDF)

The Congress Core Group's meeting ended without any decision on Mr Trivedi's fate, but, sources said, the government was not in a mood to buckle under Ms. Banerjee's pressure on her demand for a total rollback of the hike in passenger fares: at best, it is possible it might consider withdrawing the increase in the lower category fares. The name suggested by Ms. Banerjee as Mr Trivedi's replacement, Mukul Roy, it is learnt, is not acceptable to Dr. Singh, but at the time of going to press, Mr. Trivedi's exit seemed inevitable. The sources added that the government was now concentrating on a contingency plan, focussing on the numbers, in case the Trinamool withdraws support. It is in close touch with both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which together have 43 MPs.

Earlier in the day, moments after Mr. Trivedi presented the Railway budget for 2012-13, furious fellow Trinamool Congress MPs — in what must be a first in parliamentary politics — demanded a rollback of the passenger fare increase. Ironically, they had sat quietly through his speech in the Lok Sabha: some had even thumped the tables, as if welcoming the measures. “The philosophy of our party is pro-aam aadmi,” the Trinamool's leader in the Lok Sabha Sudip Bandopadhyay declaimed, giving serial sound bites to TV journalists outside Parliament House, adding: “We have asked Dinesh Trivedi to announce a rollback in fares.”

Party MP Derek O'Brien, who had sat through Mr. Trivedi's speech in the Rajya Sabha gallery, keeping a sharp eye on the proceedings, tweeted his disapproval of the hike. Meanwhile, in West Bengal, party supremo and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, addressing a public rally at Nandigram, said firmly: “We did not know that there will be a fare hike. We do not agree to a fare hike and we will not let it happen.” This was even as Dr. Singh described the budget as “forward looking.”

Intriguingly, Mr. Trivedi appeared unfazed by the fact that his job now hangs by a thread, as he has been given a deadline by his party to reverse the increase. Instead, after the customary post-budget press conference, he went studio-hopping to put across his own case, stressing heroically that if Bhagat Singh could sacrifice his life for his country, he was willing to lose his job for the country. For him, it was country first, family second, and party third.

Mr. Trivedi's continuation as Minister, political sources told The Hindu, even before the presentation of the budget, was uncertain, as his occasional show of independence had gone down badly with Ms. Banerjee. They said that explained his show of defiance on Wednesday: instead of being meekly pushed out, he can now go down, all guns blazing, if he is sacked. Indeed, for the last few weeks, there has been talk in political circles about growing unhappiness in the 19-member Trinamool Parliamentary Party.

Last year, after the party backed the Lokpal Bill in the Lok Sabha, the party's Chief Whip, Kalyan Banerjee, almost quit having been upbraided by Ms Banerjee. Subsequently, the party joined hands with the Opposition to move amendments to the Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha. Indeed, even on Wednesday, two party MPs, Sultan Ahmed — an MoS — and Kabir Suman came out in Mr. Trivedi's support.

Meanwhile, the Congress tried to distance itself from the soap opera. Asked how the Congress viewed the passenger fare hike, party spokesperson Rashid Alvi said cautiously: “We are not opposing it but we will try and achieve consensus before the budget is passed.” For the government, the storm over the Railway budget just adds to the complications in its relationship with the Trinamool. The Congress is bracing itself for what the Trinamool might do when the debate on the President's address to the joint session continues in the Lok Sabha on Thursday.

Government sources told The Hindu that the Trinamool's amendment on the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) issue had been rejected on technical grounds, but it would be embarrassing if that party supported the BJP's amendment. But these sources added that the worst case scenario, in case the amendment was carried, would be the censure, not collapse, of the government. They also clarified that Mr. Mukherjee had not written to Ms. Banerjee on the issue; he had only verbally indicated, at the UPA meeting before the Prime Minister's dinner on Tuesday, the inappropriateness of a UPA ally moving an amendment to the President's address.

More In: National | News