May 30, 2020
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A Murder Of Crows

With its allies turning recalcitrant, how long will the UPA hold?

A Murder Of Crows
A Murder Of Crows

With a stretch of the imagination, we can perhaps see the latest crash on the UPA rail as a plot with shades of the Murder on the Orient Express. In the Agatha Christie classic, the crime turns out to be a collective murder committed by many individuals who get together in a train from Istanbul to Paris. It takes the deductive powers of Hercule Poirot to unravel the complicated plot and the perpetrators get off quite free. So let us use the methodical mind and ask, who was the victim here? Was it the Congress, which will survive another week in government but has yet again been shown up to be quite powerless in power? Was it Dinesh Trivedi, who will be replaced as railways minister after he presented an extraordinary budget designed to enrage his party leadership? Or was the man a mere patsy propped up by forces determined to fix Mamata Banerjee and the reign of her “East India Company” that’s been blocking all policy in Delhi?

We are perhaps condemned to ponder over the questions of who was or will be the corpse, whodunit and if there was a mastermind. With the political situation as fluid as what now prevails in the corridors of power in Delhi, the victims and perpetrators still remain shadowy, and there are more questions than answers. All that can be stated with certainty is, new political deals are being explored, conspiracy theories being spoken of. What is clear is that if they could, the Congress would happily dump Mamata and her merry men—but the numbers suggest it is more prudent to have her in than out. A senior minister told Outlook: “We have survived Jayalalitha, we will survive Mamata.” The name of the game is surviving another day, another week, a month and perhaps, if the gods smile and the Delhi regime gets lucky, even the remaining two years.

Fare(well)? Trivedi after his rail budget. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

Meanwhile, what is more intriguing is the sequence of events that played out in Parliament. For one, surely the consummate politician that he is, Pranab Mukherjee, who saw the rail budget before Trivedi presented it, would have known that the lady from his home state would explode at the idea of price rise in rail fares? Dada and Didi are said to have a hot and cold relationship, and with both having their origins in the West Bengal Congress, one can only presume that they understand each other well. Even more extraordinary was Trivedi’s behaviour. As soon as he had finished presenting the rail budget, he declared to the waiting TV channels that he had acted in “the national interest” (which implied that Mamata does not). His actions seemed premeditated. Is there a clue perhaps in the fact that after the storm over the rail budget, when the Union budget was being read in Parliament by Pranab, Trivedi was quite prominently seated next to P. Chidambaram, signalling a level of comfort with the Congress that can only be meant to counter the ostracism by his own party? Such questions are being raised both within the Congress and the TMC.

“It is the inherent arrogance of the Congress that leads to situations and problems with allies and regional forces.” Shahid Siddiqui, SP leader and journalist “Trivedi’s actions were anti-party. We’re a pro-poor party and the line he has taken in the railway budget is anti-poor.” Madan Mitra, General secretary, TMC

“We met Trivedi after his budget and asked for fare rollback. He didn’t say anything. So the next step was to replace him.” Kalyan Bandyopadhyay, TMC MP “DMK’s posturing is politically opportunistic. When Tamils were being slaughtered, it was part of the Centre.” D. Pandian, Secretary, Tamil Nadu CPI

“Madam’s always been anti-LTTE, but this is about ordinary Tamils. UPA can’t hide behind a Manipur or Kashmir bogey.” Dr V. Maitreyan, AIADMK MP “The Congress has handled problems with regional parties before UPA came into being. This will all work itself out.” V. Narayanaswami, MoS, PMO

Trivedi had apparently been feeling humiliated in the Trinamool for a while now. Although Mamata’s fly-off-the-handle style means that the second-rung leaders get an earful every now and then, in Trivedi’s case it was apparently compounded by his non-Bengali origins and the fact that he was a businessman, not really a profession that the bhadralok of West Bengal respect. Trivedi had complained to friends that the second-rung leadership of the Trinamool was always trying to put him down. He was possibly ready to go in style, perhaps become a media hero for a day, and explore other business and political options in the future. TMC chief whip Kalyan Bandyopadhyay (who had been pulled up by Didi for voting in favour of the Lokpal Bill in Parliament) told Outlook that after the rail budget, he and Sudip Bandopadhyaya had visited Trivedi with a message from Mamata that he should roll back the price hike but he was not open to the suggestion. Hence, he says, “our leader had no choice but to replace him”.

So why is Mamata still so obsessed with railways? It’s simple. Her state has a huge network and her target are the urban and rural poor who travel by trains daily. They make up 70 per cent of the voters in the state, where panchayat elections are due later this year. By now, the UPA’s top leadership knows Mamata always articulates economic policy at a basic level. When the poor pay a few paise more for their tickets, that is what they will understand, she believes. But having imposed her worldview far too often on New Delhi, she has made enemies and perhaps exasperated friends. Coalition politics, by nature, must be accommodative. Being excessively demanding goes against its grain. That’s why the scales are at tipping point, and there is talk of calling Mamata’s bluff.

In a bind The UPA logic is unravelling

The Plan B being talked about for several months now is, replace Mamata with Mulayam Singh Yadav. But sources in the Samajwadi Party say there is no special compulsion for Mulayam to join a government whose image has sunk. SP leaders also say that the most likely outcome of all the frantic wooing by the Congress is that Mulayam will continue to give outside support to UPA-II, just as he has been doing, but the balance of power would have shifted to his hands. Mulayam will only join the central government if he makes a hard calculation that there is more to be extracted from within than from the outside. He won’t make public scenes nor take postures as frequently as Mamata, who is always in battle mode against her Communist opponents. In contrast, Mulayam should be satiated by victory over Mayawati, but he has no love lost for the Congress either. Just as Chandrababu Naidu once did with the NDA, he could be the king from the outside. Yet there are some in his party who are keen on cabinet positions now that Akhilesh is CM in the state and they are arguing for joining the government. But ultimately that too would turn out to be another great political farce. Mulayam and Akhilesh first thrash the Congress and Rahul Gandhi in the state elections, then turn up as saviours at the Centre and two years down the line, again fight the Congress in a national election.

Channel 4 grab showing bullet marks on the body of Prabhakaran’s son (with parents, top); Sri Lankan soldiers kill LTTE men in cold blood

Political theatre is also played over old massacres and genocides. The other ally that acted up last week in Delhi was the DMK. It demanded that India back a US-sponsored resolution at the ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Commission condemning the actions of the Sri Lankan army against the Tamil population and claims to be ‘Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka’. To understand the politics behind this, some dates are critical. The vote in Geneva is on March 23, but political parties in Tamil Nadu have upped the ante now because of the bypoll in Shankarankoil in Tirunelveli district on March 18. By next week, the DMK will not be so anxious to prove its pro-Tamil credentials as the ballots would have been cast. Besides, out of power in the state, facing huge corruption charges at the Centre, the only leverage the DMK currently has is its 19 MPs. It would not like to topple the UPA at this point as it is likely to do badly in a Lok Sabha poll.

The sudden tears over the Tamils in Sri Lanka also expose the hypocrisy of the DMK. Karunanidhi was in power when the endgame against the LTTE took place in 2009 and thousands of innocent civilians were butchered. He did nothing then and many believe his reputation as a protector of Tamils is in shreds. Thiagu, general secretary of the Tamil National Liberation Movement, says that “Karunanidhi and Kanimozhi in Delhi are playing out a political drama. Everyone knows they did nothing when the genocide was happening.” But there are some individuals close to Karunanidhi who suggest the DMK pull out of UPA-II if the Centre does not get tough with Sri Lankans in international platforms. Some DMK leaders in Delhi have also come up with the formula of remaining a part of the UPA but pulling out ministers.

Kanimozhi in a DMK protest

What has the DMK in a bind is the fact that Jayalalitha has handled the Tamil card very well since coming to power, although she has always been anti-LTTE. Prof Ramu Manivannan, head, department of politics and public administration, University of Madras, in a recent paper makes the point that India may ignore the growing constituency of leaders, parties and people in Tamil Nadu who are disenchanted with our ambivalent foreign policy towards Sri Lanka, but “CM Jayalalitha has been articulating this concern through resolutions passed in the state legislature, making a political appeal against the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan government and its authorities. There is a certain sanctity to popular legislature and people’s voice in a democracy that the government cannot ignore for long before it is too late”.

The DMK will, no doubt, do more posturing in Parliament. Sources in the PMO say they have been promised that India will look into the matter on March 19 to see what is the wording of the US-sponsored resolution. By then, the byelection will be over, so their emotions will be in check. Yet the drama will continue. Any sort of accident could be waiting beyond the bend. On the day of writing, the government looked safe.

By Saba Naqvi in New Delhi and Pushpa Iyengar in Chennai with Dola Mitra in Calcutta

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