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Congress trying to strike a deal with Trinamool

Smita Gupta
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Seeks support on rail fare hike in return for favours in RS elections

Even as Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi maintained on Saturday that he would not step down till his leader, Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked him to do so in writing, or he was asked to do so by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, backroom manoeuvrings continued.

Ideally, the Congress wants not to reverse the increase in passenger fares announced in the Railway budget, and have Mr. Trivedi give the reply to the debate on the budget. But with Ms. Banerji adamant on Mr. Trivedi's exit, the Congress wants to at least prevent a total rollback of the hike — hence the delay in taking a decision on Mr. Trivedi.

The Congress is therefore hoping to come to an understanding on this issue by putting its 43 MLAs (including one Independent) in West Bengal to some use. In the upcoming Rajya Sabha polls, the Trinamool's 185 MLAs ensure it three seats (50 first preference votes are required to get one MP through) but Ms. Banerjee is keen to push through four of her candidates, Mukul Roy, her nominee for the next Railway Minister, and three journalists, Kunal Ghosh, Najmul Huq and Vivek Gupta. To get all four through, she would require an additional 15 votes – while the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha will pitch in with four votes, that still leaves her 11 short, which she could get from the Congress.

The Congress with its 43 MLAs, on the other hand, needs an additional seven votes to get one Rajya Sabha MP through. Congress sources said: “The twist in the tale is that the Left Parties, with a strength of 60 MLAs, have 10 spare votes after getting one candidate of their own through — if they give us seven votes from there, a Congress candidate could defeat the Trinamool's fourth candidate. That, of course, would mean declaration of war against the Trinamool.”

The Congress is, therefore, sources said trying to strike a deal — it could help the Trinamool win a fourth seat in exchange for support for the hike in passenger fares. It is this issue that is holding back a decision on Mr. Trivedi, these sources added. Simultaneously, the Congress is working on the Trinamool not to back the Bharatiya Janata Party's amendments on the controversial National Counter-Terrorism Centre issue referred to in the President's address: indeed, the Prime Minister is expected to address some of the Trinamool's concerns when he replies to the debate on the President's address on Monday.

The Congress is now banking on the softening of stance by the Trinamool on Friday, when it not only sat quietly through Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's budget speech, but also went on to describe it as “tolerable.” On Thursday, Trinamool sources said the Prime Minister and the West Bengal Chief Minister had a telephonic conversation. The Trinamool's lower pitch is being ascribed to its fears that the Congress would turn to the Samajwadi Party for support if it remains adamant on all its demands.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, a defiant Mr. Trivedi, rejecting his party's directive to him to resign, conveyed through the party's chief whip Kalyan Banerjee, that he had a constitutional duty to pilot the budget he had presented in Parliament: “On Monday there will be a discussion,” he told journalists, stressing, “I have to answer the discussion on the Railway budget.” Mr. Trivedi is doing his best to behave as though nothing has happened: indeed, on Saturday, he even presided over a meeting of the Railway Board.

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