Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Is Mamata a case of “Better late than never” or “Too old a dog to learn new tricks”???

Mamata Banerjee has had to swallow her proud words. When she was outwinked by the Congress and Samajwadi Party recently, she had issued threats like “the game has just begun”. Well, the game began and ended rather tamely for her. She’s had no option but to cut her losses and support the UPA’s candidates for Prez and Vice Prez. What does this snub mean for the politics of the country? Will Mamata mend her ways (Better late than never) or will she become even more strident (Too old a dog to learn new tricks….)?

The fact is that Mamata is fast losing her popularity in West Bengal. Her constant frown was once considered a sign of her anger at and the determination to change the system: the “paribartan” she talked about during the state elections. But now, the frown has become a sign of a constant tantrum. A tantrum that worked for a while, but has now outlived its utility. In the initial days, the tantrum of a partner is often tolerated; but beyond a point, it tends to be ignored. Once the point of ignoring is crossed, the frown has to be confronted and squashed. Both those points have been crossed in the case of Mamata. The Congress first ignored her on her demands for the financial package for her state. And more recently, the Congress has ratcheted up its confrontation with her on the Prez candidate. Now that Mamata’s game is up, how will she react?

She could continue to oppose the center’s proposal for FDI in multi-brand retail, but she could tone her opposition down to the limits of her own state. That would be fair. That’s what the Samajwadi Party is likely to do too. The SP also has stated – like the TMC – in its manifesto that it is opposed to FDI in multi-brand retail. Since their ambitions are clearly limited to the state level, the party is likely to oppose foreign retail chains entering the state. The SP realizes that by allowing the UPA to go ahead with an enabling resolution on FDI in multi-brand retail, it will be able to extract a pretty big pound of flesh. This would be smart politics; Mulayam gets what he wants while smiling and hugging the Congress but Mamata gets nothing by sulking and throwing a tantrum. Will this lesson strike home with Mamata?

The Congress has gained a fair bit in strength of late. The SC’s indication that the “auctions only” order of the court in the 2G matter was probably over the top has given the Congress confidence that it can resist and fight back. The convincing wins for its Prez and VP candidates will be a good stare back at the BJP – remember Sushma Swaraj had declared a few months back that the Prez elections would be a semifinal of sorts before the General Elections of 2014. But in spite of this gaining of strength, the UPA remains a weak coalition, under constant pressure from its allies, unable to implement the policies that Manmohan Singh would like to implement. The structure of politics in India is often ignored by foreign magazines which prefer to comment on the end-result: a policy paralysis. The PM has been personally bruised in all this. There is no doubt he will try to extricate himself from this mess…..maybe as a lass hurrah before he relinquishes power.

In my opinion, the pace of reforms will remain sluggish for another year or so. But towards the end of the UPA-2, the PM is likely to make a bid for some big-ticket reforms, in the same way that he did with the Indo-US nuclear deal towards the end of UPA-1. That deal was responsible for the Congress winning the 2009 elections; more importantly, it was responsible for the huge urban middle-class support it received. The PM is likely to attempt the same with FDI in multi-brand retail towards the end of this UPA stint. The urban middle-class would stand up in ovation if the PM were to allow foreign retailers to come in. Foreign retailers are going to enter only the major cities at first; that’s where the jobs will be created. The other place where foreign retailers will enter will be the online space, where there is a feeling that FDI is not permitted at present. Again, the benefits of the online invasion will be to the urban middle-class. I have a feeling the Congress will not go ahead with the retail reform till the fag end of its tenure. It will aim to maximize its gains at that time.

But the subject of this post is Mamata Banerjee. If I have to place a bet, I will on the “Too old a dog…..” one. That’s all I expect from her. Mamata is a poor loser. She has no grace. She’s crude and she has no shame in overtly exploiting the strength her 19 MPs have brought her. She cannot change. That’s the real truth…..

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