Mamata Banerjee has created an unprecedented political controversy - her party today vowed to fight the nominal hike in train ticket fares announced, a decision made by its own minister Dinesh Trivedi. Not only is Mr Trivedi a senior leader from Ms Banerjee's party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), but he is also her nominee to the union cabinet. The TMC has publicly attacked its own man; it has also left the government reeling with embarrassment. The party, according to the Press Trust of India, will move a cut motion against the Railways Budget presented by Mr Trivedi in Parliament today. By introducing a cut motion, members of Parliament express their veto against a proposal in the budget. If a cut motion is adopted, it is a vote of no-confidence against the government which means the government falls. That means Ms Banerjee's party will oppose the budget presented by a government of which it is a member.
The Prime Minister has said that he has not received Mr Trivedi's resignation. Sources say the Railways Minister has been ordered by Ms Banerjee to either resign or roll back the increased prices. He has indicated that he will not change his mind. "I have done my duty... now I leave it to God," he said to NDTV. Referring to the precarious financial health of the railways, he said, "The railways was getting into the ICU and I have pulled it out of ICU. You cannot have everything together." (Full text: Dinesh Trivedi presents Rail Budget
Today's rise in fares are the first in nine years. "If we rollback the fares, we have to rollback safety too," he warned. Accepting that Ms Banerjee had not been consulted by him about his railways budget, he said that he would try to convince her to accept the new fares.
In Bengal today, Ms Banerjee told a rally in Nandigram, "We will not accept the hike, be sure of that." But her views were clear far earlier in the day. Immediately after Mr Trivedi presented his first rail budget, his party colleagues attacked him. First, the Trinamool's Rajya Sabha MP Derek O Brien, tweeted, "Railway Budget... what was all that about increasing fares across the board? Upper class... maybe ok... but all? Sorry, cannot agree." Then, fellow TMC minister Sudip Bandopadhyay demanded that the hike be withdrawn. "We are opposing because of our party leader Mamata Banerjee who has taught us to protect interests of poor people. We have told Dinesh Trivedi to withdraw the hike. The party has not discussed anything with minister on the railway budget," he said.
The Prime Minister has praised Mr Trivedi's Railways budget, describing it as "forward-looking with emphasis on safety and modernisation." First reactions from passengers all over the country have been largely the same: that the fare hike is too nominal to really hurt passengers; they all said they would readily pay a little more for a safer journey. (Rail Budget: Passenger fares hiked after eight years; focus on safety, fiscal prudence)
But with her 19 Lok Sabha MPs, Ms Banerjee has the power to topple the government. So no demand is dismissed out of hand. Referring to reports of her differences with the Railways Minister, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said this was "an internal TMC matter" and said issues like a potential rollback of fares would have to be "looked into."
Sources say Ms Banerjee has been upset with Mr Trivedi for a while now, possibly because of his perceived closeness to the Congress. He also ran into trouble last week when he said that his party may not be opposed to early general elections, which means the UPA would not last its full term. Ms Banerjee later said that her MPs had been asked not to express their personal views.
As Dinesh Trivedi braves it out in political isolation, there is also a theory doing the rounds that Ms Banerjee and her minister could be playing good cop, bad cop. That the entire drama will play out to a denouement where Mr Trivedi will eventually roll back the fare hike and Ms Banerjee will reinforce her reputation as a champion of the aam admi or common man.