West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s last-minute support for the UPA’s presidential candidate, Pranab Mukherjee is a major defeat for her and the Trinamool Congress she leads. Ms Banerjee’s strategy for over a year has been negative: to oppose virtually every important move by the Congress, even while remaining within the alliance it leads. This confrontation from within has resulted in everybody being worse off. Most importantly, perhaps, the strategy, while high-profile, has failed to win West Bengal the special financial concessions from the Centre critical for the Trinamool-led government’s ability to deliver its populist agenda. It has merely reinforced the idea that Ms Banerjee is excessively intransigent, which will negatively impact how investors view West Bengal as an option. The failure of her attempt at a national role, by appearing a king- (or president-) maker, indicates that other strong regional leaders do not find her a useful ally. Worse, perhaps, is the graceless way in which she has acknowledged defeat. She could have, say, put up a brave face and claimed that her choice had been exercised at an hour of her choosing, as she had always promised. Instead she has both underlined her defeat and damaged the UPA and its candidate by saying that she took the decision unhappily, as there was no other option. For a politician, Ms Banerjee does not do give-and-take very well.
This reversal by Ms Banerjee follows a period in which she has had to accept the bolder decisions the Centre and the Congress has taken - such as, for example, the steep rise in the price of petrol. A few more sharp reminders of how West Bengal, her government — and the Trinamool’s future electoral prospects and credibility — are dependent on Central largesse, would perhaps serve to keep the Congress’ troublesome ally in line. Indeed, it appears the Congress has reached out considerably already, with reports that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh twice calling Ms Banerjee in aid of Mr Mukherjee’s candidature even though she, apparently, had refused once to talk to the PM. From the Congress point of view, it seems a combination of stick and promised carrot will be necessary, as it appears that the Samajwadi Party is not willing to step into the UPA’s parlour at the moment. Mulayam Singh has indicated that he does not see the emergence of a strong UPA in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections. So the Congress’ alliances will have to be rebuilt. This can only happen effectively if the government it leads at the Centre ceases to be seen as weak — which will require not just more such activity from the PM, and better ally management, but a reshuffle that puts an end to the “period of waiting” for Rahul Gandhi that Law Minister Salman Khurshid referred to last week. And, while the UPA and the Congress set right their own backyard, perhaps Ms Banerjee should be learning the right lessons from her year of rebuffs.