For the past two decades, every ruling coalition in New Delhi has been subject to the pulls and pressures of allies.
Often, their demands make governance little more than a maligned word. Ministries on demand, “special packages” for badly-run states and even outright pelf have, by now, lost their shock and awe value.
What the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has done is to finesse the process to another level. Consider the sequence of events in the last five days. On Thursday, oil marketing companies raised the price of petrol. The next day, on Friday, TMC chief Mamata Banerjee said her party’s members of Parliament had decided to quit. At one point, it seemed a first-rate crisis had gripped the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The argument all along was that higher fuel prices imposed an unbearable burden on the common man.
Yet, in the last two days, the crisis appears to have blown over. The government has not cowed, and nor have oil marketing firms “rolled back” price hikes. Clearly, the TMC has reconsidered its stand: It is not the futility of its position, but the possibility of a “package” for the fiscally-constrained West Bengal government—led by Banerjee—that appears to be the agent of change. Banerjee is to discuss the matter with Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and chances are that some shekels may be thrown at the state government.
Were it not for the fact that it is two governments that are involved in these events, it could have been labelled blackmail, and in more than one way. At one level, the UPA has been threatened: it does not have the strength to survive in Parliament if the TMC pulls out.
The bigger blackmail—one that is more insidious as it is dubbed a “pro-people” measure—is to the country. Banerjee is an inveterate populist who cannot see beyond the immediate. It is often argued that the Union government should remove the excise and taxes it imposes on petroleum products to make them available at reasonable costs to citizens. This is a reckless argument. Revenue from consumption of petroleum products funds the social sector schemes that politicians like Banerjee so approve of. There is no way these can be run without this source of money. For the sake of honesty, the TMC chief should highlight this point to her audience when she criticizes fuel price increases.
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