By Harihar Swarup
Tension has been brewing between Mamata Banerjee and Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi for quite sometime. Trivedi sensed it and also came to know of her plan to withdraw him from the Union Ministry. Trivedi did not want to be virtually dismissed as the Railway Minister. If he has to go, he should go as a hero. So he thought of presenting a Railway Budget which would go against Mamata’s basic philosophy of placating the aam admi.
Railways also needed finances badly to take it out of the red. After all, there was no hike in passenger and freight fares for almost a decade. Railways needed funds for its projects, particularly safety schemes. There has been rise in Railway accidents, resulting in killing of hundreds of people.
At a meeting with Mamata, before presenting the Rail budget, Trivedi did not disclose his intention to raise fares though he apprised her of probable projects in the budget. Mamata was travelling to Nandigram from Kolkata when she learnt of the passenger fare hike in all classes. She was livid and felt betrayed. The impulsive TMC leader told some of her party men it was the biggest mistake to make Trivedi the Railway Minister.
Two issues, particularly upset her; hike in second class suburban trains and sleeper class fares and keeping her in darkness over the fare rise. She strongly felt that Trivedi being a nominee of Trinamool Congress should have kept the party in loop before presenting the budget that “violates the policies of the party”. She angrily asked “can Pranabda present his budget keeping Sonia Gandhi in dark”? Before she started her journey back to Kolkata, a livid Mamata made up her mind “to teach Trivedi a lesson”. Her special secretary, Gautam Sanyal, was asked to prepare a draft of the letter to the Prime Minister, which was quickly faxed to the PMO. Sources close to Mamata say that a mild hike in the upper class express trains or in the like of Rajdhani and Shatabdi might have been acceptable to her but Trivedi did not spare any class. In a fit of rage she demanded a complete rollback. She asked the PM to appoint Mukul Roy as Railway Minister in place to Trivedi. Considering the financial crisis the Railways have been going through, Trivedi tried to arrest the slide. But the method he has chosen hits the poor man hard. It was indeed Mamata’s pursuit of her political agenda inWest Bengalthat sent the Railways down a dangerous financial track. For eight years successive Railways Ministers took pride in never raising fares.
Trivedi has scored for focusing on safety. So much so that five unions representing 14 lakh Railway employees backed Trivedi’s fare hike proposals and threatened a country-wide strike in the event of a rollback.
Trivedi is firm on his proposals to hike the rail fare which, he says, he has done in national interest. Then he gave his quotable quote: “Any Railway Minister worth his salt would have done, what I did. I will do whatever is good for the Indian Railways…. My country comes first, my family second and then my party.” Now that the Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee has presented the general budget, Trivedi may be replaced by Mukul Roy but he will remain only an MOS. To become a cabinet minister he has to be sworn-in. This is only possible when Parliament adjourns for the recess by month end.
As the position obtains now Mamata has relented and may agree to rolling back of hike in 2nd class sleeper and suburban trains. She may not mind if hike of AC first class fare remain or slightly modified.
Mamata as an ally has become a liability for the UPA. On issues ranging from land acquisition revamp and India-Bangladesh Teesta accord to multibrand retail FDI and NCTC, she would rather wreck coalition unity publicly than hold dialogue to resolve differences amicably. The Railway budget controversy is the latest. It is time the UPA should think of getting rid of Trinamool Congress. Mamata’s TMC is no longer indispensable to UPA-II, with Samajwadi party (22) or the BSP (21) – each with more MPs than TMC – looking an increasingly reasonable option. After all, both SP and BSP have been supporting UPA from outside.
Congress leaders are in touch with Mulayam Singh in a bid to persuade him join the UPA to ward of day-to-day pinpricks by Mamata. Congress party’s rising tension with TMC have coincided with a marked de-escalation of its rigid attitude towards SP which, with 22 members in the Lok Sabha, can off set the loss of Trinamool’s 19 MPs. In a goodwill gesture, Congress deputed party treasurer Motilal Vora and Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Pawan Bansal, to attend Akhilesh Yadav’s swearing-in ceremony in Lucknow. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too sounded remarkably confident as he sought to play down that the conflict with TMC could reduce the UPA to a minority. “Government is stable; we have numbers”, he asserted. (IPA Service)