Realist and populist
The fiery defender of the aam admi and scourge of reformists, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, had a good week. She got rid of her nominee as railway minister, Dinesh Trivedi, and replaced him with someone whom the Congress wished to avoid having in the Union cabinet, Mukul Roy. And then Mr Roy reversed most of Mr Trivedi's reforms, insisting piously that the fare revisions were not in the interest of the Common Man, who can apparently afford Third AC travel — a sign of the beneficial effects of growth if ever there was one. The government needs petroleum prices to be hiked and needs to control fertiliser subsidies. It needs to pass insurance legislation and land acquisition legislation. But blocking each way forward is the redoubtable figure of Ms Banerjee, determined that any and all change is to the detriment of the aam admi, who are doing so very well right now. It would be easy to think that Ms Banerjee now runs this country, her every “pro-poor” whim catered to by a subservient political establishment.
But there is news that should cause this view to be revised. The unthinkable has happened; disagreement from within Ms Banerjee’s own ranks. Indeed, from the highest levels of the Trinamool Congress. No less than the chief minister of West Bengal has broken with the Trinamool’s state policy of preventing all price increases: Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has rebelliously ignored the policy prescriptions of Trinamool Chief Mamata Banerjee. Consider power prices, for example. During Ms Banerjee’s relatively brief tenure at Writers’ Buildings, the electricity tariff has been allowed to be increased three times. And not insubstantially, either; the cumulative increase is about 30 per cent. Surely this is unthinkable to the politics the Trinamool Congress espouses at the national level. Does it not hurt the common man and help line the pockets of private producers of power? It seems odd that Chief Minister Banerjee is not called to account for this strange folly to her party leader. If that conversation were to take place, no doubt CM Banerjee would point out that state electricity utilities are deep in the red. And Trinamool President Banerjee would say: “So what? Wait for a couple of years, the Railways will be, too.” It doesn’t end at electricity. The Congress’ power in West Bengal was first broken by demonstrations against a rise in Kolkata tram fares. The current government has slashed its subsidy to the city’s transport organisations; as a result, the Calcutta Tramways Company has declared it will be raising prices substantially. Trams, too, run on rails, but clearly they do not serve the aam admi — at least, not like Third AC does. Even the price of milk supplied by state-owned corporations is likely to increase by a third this year.
Clearly, were there anyone left thinking that Ms Banerjee’s populist protestations in Delhi contained anything more than straightforward, brazen populism, the compromises being made by Ms Banerjee’s government in Kolkata should be enough to convince them. The UPA’s leadership should sit down with the Trinamool Congress and ask that the Kolkata version of Ms Banerjee move, perhaps, to New Delhi, where the country can benefit from her pragmatism.