Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee's public rally at Lalgarh in West Bengal on Monday has put the ruling Congress at the Centre in a spot: a Union Minister acknowledged that his party would have to “pay a heavy price” for her show of strength, backed as it was by the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA), which is a front for Maoists — and whose leader, Chattradhar Mahato, is currently behind bars.

Political compulsions are forcing the UPA government, currently putting together a strategy to take on the Maoist domination of a swathe of the country — which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described as the single largest internal security threat — to turn a blind eye to Ms. Banerjee's association with the PCPA. For, the Congress is dependent on her party, Trinamool Congress' 19 MPs for the government's survival.

Ms. Banerjee's oblique attack on the UPA government at the rally, when she criticised the recent killing in an encounter of Maoist spokesperson Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad, is also an embarrassment to the government. Pointing out that social activist Swami Agnivesh, the interlocutor between the government and the Maoists, had persuaded Azad to agree to talks, she stressed, “I feel the way Azad was killed is not right. He had reposed faith in the democratic process.”

The police claimed that Azad, No. 3 in the Maoist hierarchy, had died during a firefight with the security forces in the jungles of Adilabad in the Congress-ruled A.P.

The Congress' dilemma on Monday was only too evident. Privately, party leaders were critical of Ms. Banerjee's rally; for the record, party spokesperson Shakeel Ahmed said: “The Congress has extended moral support to the rally as intellectuals, writers, artists and others are working for restoration of peace in the area.” He, however, dodged all questions on the role of the PCPA and the Maoists in mobilising people for the rally. Meanwhile, the Congress' State unit members, who were not invited for the rally, are upset at the position that they have been placed in.

“The government has a holistic approach to deal with the Maoists,” Mr Ahmed said. “If there are genuine grievances, those should be removed, if there are perceived grievances, the perception should be removed, if development is needed, it should be carried out but if some people believe in the cult of the gun, they should be firmly dealt with.”

The rally also provided the Left parties with an opportunity to score some political points in the Lok Sabha, where their leaders asked the Centre to clarify its stand on the Maoists as a “responsible party in the government and its Ministers” had decided to organise the event in Lalgarh.

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