Seeks legal opinion on Mamata's demand for rollback
A day after a furious Mamata Banerjee asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to sack Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi and reverse the increase in passenger fares proposed in the Railway budget, the United Progressive Alliance government on Thursday continued to keep everyone guessing, even as the issue rocked Parliament.
As the government, at the end of its tether, weighed its options, it asked a key Minister and a senior party functionary to meet a senior law officer on Thursday to seek his opinion whether Ms. Banerjee's demand for a rollback of the fare increase amounted to a breach of privilege of Parliament. The law officer answered in the affirmative, saying that by making such a demand, the West Bengal Chief Minister was disabling and pre-empting Parliament from discussing these proposals.
The government has undertaken the consultations ahead of a meeting of the Congress Core Group scheduled for Friday evening — after the Union budget is presented — when a final decision on when to drop Mr. Trivedi from the Cabinet and what stand to take on the fare increase issue is likely to be taken, informed sources said.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told journalists that the government would consider replacing Mr. Trivedi, if the situation demanded it, while Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee clarified in the Lok Sabha that Ms. Banerjee's communication to the government, asking that Mr. Trivedi be sacked, was under “active consideration.” However, Mr. Trivedi remained, for the moment, as Railway Minister.
If Mr. Trivedi is dropped after Friday's meeting, Ms. Banerjee's choice, Mukul Roy, now Minister of State for Shipping, could be given the Railway portfolio through an executive order. It is only if he is elevated to the Cabinet that a swearing-in ceremony will be required. Traditionally, new Ministers are not sworn in when Parliament is in session.
Answering a question from Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj, Mr. Mukherjee clarified in the Lok Sabha that the Railway budget required neither the Prime Minister's approval nor the Cabinet's, but only the Finance Minister's. Furthermore, as the budget was presented, it was now the property of the House.
While this was read in political circles as indicative of the fact that Mr. Mukherjee might reply to the budget debate, in the absence of a Railway Minister, sources in the Congress said that would happen only if the party leadership decided that it wanted to end its ties with the Trinamool.
As things stand, the Congress is looking for new friends. On Thursday, in the midst of its current parliamentary crisis, the party sent Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal and senior party leader Motilal Vora, once Uttar Pradesh Governor, to Lucknow to represent it at the swearing-in of Akhilesh Yadav as Chief Minister. The two carried a personal letter from Congress president Sonia Gandhi to Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh, expressing her regret at not being able to attend the ceremony, and sending her best wishes to Mr. Akhilesh Yadav.
With the Trinamool's support tenuous, the Congress wishes to keep all channels of communication to the 22-MP strong Samajwadi Party open. Indeed, a senior leader stressed that Mr. Mulayam Singh would be in the capital on Friday to be present in the House during the presentation of the Union budget and that “things can thereafter be taken forward.”
Earlier in the day, Mr. Trivedi continued to enjoy his moment in the sun, holding court in Central Hall. He later told journalists that he would quit whenever his “leader” Mamata Banerjee or Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked him to do so. “Nobody has sought my resignation. It is my duty to get the Railway budget passed, and this is my prime duty.”
The days to come will demonstrate how far the Congress is willing to push the Trinamool — if it gets tough, it could send a negative message to other allies; if it does not, the government will remain paralysed.