Mamata’s tweet announces thaw in ties between Trinamool and Congress

The Trinamool Congress’ overtures to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance earlier this week in the midst of the DMK crisis came as a surprise to many: this was especially so as the two had a bitter parting of ways barely six months ago on economic policy issues — an increase in diesel and fertilizer prices, cap on subsidised cooking gas cylinders and permitting FDI in multibrand retail — on which there has been no rethink by the Centre. But there it was — a friendly post on Mamata Banerjee’s Facebook page, relayed to the world through a tweet, announcing a thaw in relations between the Trinamool and the Congress.

It’s now clear that Ms. Banerjee was looking for an opportunity to make up — and the DMK’s exit provided the window, as it forced the Congress’ parliamentary managers to look for reserve forces to shore up the ruling coalition’s depleting numbers. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath, Congress sources said, got in touch with the West Bengal Chief Minister — with whom he enjoys a long-standing friendship — and sought her support as soon as the southern party announced its withdrawal from the UPA. And miracle of miracles, she responded positively, even though just earlier this month she had refused to share a dais with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi at a foundation stone laying ceremony for an engineering college in Malda.

The post on her FB page read: “… our Party follows a policy that we should not interfere into issues involving external relations with foreign countries. We leave it for the Central Government to decide on such issues. However, the concerns of the state and the sentiments of the people must be kept in view by the Centre, before taking any decision pertaining to foreign country.” The reference, of course, was to the differences between the Congress and the DMK on how far the Indian government could go on the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils in the U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolution.

The Centre, on its part, despite the Trinamool’s open show of hostility, has tried to keep a door open, even though West Bengal Congressmen are not that well-disposed to the party. So, for instance, the Union Rural Development Ministry recently announced a revision in daily wages under the MGNREGA for West Bengal from Rs. 136 to Rs. 151 per day. The revised rates effective from April 1 will come into force ahead of the all-crucial panchayat polls in the State.

Nevertheless, the message that the Trinamool received from three recent by-elections has forced it to reconsider its stand, especially as it has begun to sense that it might be difficult to retain the 19 seats it currently has in the Lok Sabha in the general elections next year, if the two parties continue to contest separately. In the by-polls, the Trinamool won only English Bazaar, losing Reijinagar to the Congress and Nalhati to the Forward Bloc: worse, in the two seats it lost, it came third. And the Congress secured around 30 per cent of the vote in the seats it lost. The message was not lost on Ms. Banerjee — a split in the Trinamool-Congress vote can only help the Left Front.

Added to this is the fact that West Bengal’s finances are in poor shape: earlier this month Finance Minister Amit Mitra once again made a case for a moratorium on the State’s debts. Finally, there is talk of cases against two Trinamool MPs, former Railway Minister Mukul Roy and Rajya Sabha MP — and the Trinamool’s chief financier — industrialist K.D. Singh.

Taken together, Mr. Kamal Nath’s request for support to the Congress at the Centre came at just the right moment for Ms. Banerjee: it gave her the opportunity to look magnanimous, while providing her an excuse to take the first step towards reconciliation — a step that could help her politically.