Regardless of whether the conflict between the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the Trinamool Congress affects the lifespan of the government or not, one thing is clear: Mamata Banerjee was pushed to the brink by those in the Centre who callously assumed she would go against the interests of her core constituency. For all the West Bengal Chief Minister’s reputation for being deliberately difficult, this is one time when she cannot be faulted. Ms Banerjee’s vote base is formed overwhelmingly by the underprivileged and she could not have stayed on in the Manmohan Singh government without appearing to agree with the patently anti-poor thrust of its new economic announcements. The sharp increase in the price of diesel and the ceiling placed on subsidised cooking gas cylinders cannot but further burden those already severely distressed by runaway inflation and shrinking job opportunities. Matters were made worse by the insensitive handling of the crisis by Congress managers who not only aggressively pushed these measures — including foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail for which there is virtually no political support in Parliament — but also dared Ms Banerjee to act on her threat to withdraw support. The Trinamool leader saw the taunts as an assault on her self-respect and did precisely what the Congress believed she would not do. Twenty-four hours later, her language has toughened. The chances of her backing off can safely be assumed to be zero.
Ms Banerjee won the last Assembly election by positioning herself as a left alternative to the Left Front and cannot afford to change tack now. She was admittedly not the easiest of allies. And yet the Congress and the government had perforce to be sensible in dealing with her if only in view of the UPA’s precarious numbers in the Lok Sabha. On Friday, when the withdrawal of the TMC’s support for the UPA takes effect, the government will still command a majority in the Lok Sabha because of the outside support provided by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Even in the event that Mulayam Singh joins forces with Ms Banerjee — both stand to gain from an early general election — the UPA will survive. But the Congress ought to introspect on the fact that it does not have the electoral mandate to pursue the kind of reform measures it is pushing. Last November, it decided not to go ahead with FDI in retail when it realised the majority of parties and MPs opposed the idea. Despite Mamata’s exit, Congress managers have the skill to win tactical skirmishes with the Opposition on the floor of the house. But in pursuing the chimera of Walmart-induced growth, the UPA runs the risk of losing the one big battle that is looming in 2014.