The ruling United Progressive Alliance has never looked as disunited as it does now. The leader of the UPA’s second-largest constituent, Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has teamed up with Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party to completely derail the Congress. On Wednesday, they announced that neither of the Congress’ preferred nominees for the next incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan– Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee or Vice-President Hamid Ansari – was to their liking. Instead, they produced a shortlist of their own: the Bharatiya Janata Party’s choice, former President A P J Abdul Kalam; ex-Communist Party of India (Marxist) stalwart and former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee; and, as their only Congressman, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. That this is a comprehensive snub to the Congress is obvious.
The Congress has now fired back, saying the prime minister will complete his term and that Ms Banerjee’s actions “make no political or ethical sense”. But, surely, it should have expected that by now. The question the Congress should be asking itself is: why has it persisted in its alliance with a leader who is so clearly out to ensure that the Centre neither governs nor retains even the slightest dignity? So far, Ms Banerjee has held up a series of crucial decisions about economic governance. The Land Acquisition Bill is foremost among them, at a time when land issues are cited as the biggest block to industrialisation countrywide. Foreign direct investment in civil aviation, insurance and retail have also been stopped by Ms Banerjee, the last involving a humiliating climbdown by the prime minister and the Cabinet. The Railway Budget presented by the UPA did not meet with her approval, so she ordered the prime minister to sack the minister in charge, then a member of the Trinamool Congress, and replace him with a nominee more to her liking — and, in the process, ensured that the minimal reforms proposed in the Budget did not come to pass. Expanding her writ into foreign affairs, Ms Banerjee has held up the normalisation of relations with Bangladesh because of her intractable position on sharing the water of the Teesta river — which led to a massive loss of face for the prime minister on his trip to Bangladesh. Now she has expanded the domain of her naysaying to basic political management as well. Surely the Congress now realises that even attempting to placate Ms Banerjee is an error — she will always find another way to humiliate and corner her ally.
The Congress has allowed Ms Banerjee unassailable power in West Bengal, by not bargaining hard enough for the constituencies its local party wanted in the Assembly elections that the Trinamool-Congress alliance swept. It has listened patiently to Ms Banerjee’s demands for a special bailout for her state, although there are obvious moral hazards such a package would create for other states. The Congress’ reward for this? Another attempt to further reduce the central government’s stature. Mr Yadav is a more pragmatic politician; the Congress should never have allowed him to be drawn into Ms Banerjee’s orbit. But it is still not too late. If the UPA wishes to recover some stability, it must eject Ms Banerjee forthwith.