India Insight

With stalled reforms, Indian government needs to win new friends

‘Deferred’ — Excessive use of this word is something that India cannot afford at this stage. Amid economic turmoil, reforms are desperately needed to signal the government’s resolve to fix the current situation.

But in yet another postponement on Thursday, the cabinet deferred the pension reform bill which proposed to open the sector to foreign investors, after key ally Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal and Trinamool party chief, opposed it.

With 19 members in the Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house, Banerjee’s party has acted like a roadblock for the UPA coalition for months. Maybe the government needs to seriously start thinking about replacing her in the coalition, or limp along as a lame duck administration until the next election.

From the pension bill, fuel price hikes, land acquisition proposals, to bills which proposed increasing foreign investments in multi-brand retail and aviation, she has opposed all of them. Her reason for each is generally the same — it’s against ‘people’s interest’.

So why is Banerjee a part of the government? If she is against most of the government’s initiatives, she should withdraw her support in protest.

‘Powerful’ Mamata has much to lose

Time Magazine’s decision to name Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee one of the world’s 100 most powerful people couldn’t have been more ironic.

It comes at a time when the “populist woman of action” is drawing criticism from many quarters after some of her fledgling government’s recent decisions sparked public outrage and a media furore.

No doubt Banerjee is still powerful. She’s been instrumental in stalling some of India’s biggest economic reforms and key policy decisions. But the state of West Bengal is now facing the heat of her maverick actions.

Out of the DMK frying pan and into Mamata’s fire for Congress

Fresh from negotiating the continued support of one key coalition ally, Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party heavyweights must now tackle the demands of the more politically canny and locally powerful Mamata Banerjee.

India's Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee speaks before giving the final touches to the annual budget for the railways in New Delhi February 24, 2011. REUTERS/B Mathur

As the bleary eyes of Congress negotiators turned over the morning papers on Wednesday after almost two days of political horse-trading with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the relief of front page headlines declaring the Tamil Nadu party’s climbdown will have been cut short by the ominous presence of Banerjee and her own seat-sharing demands in the political minefield of West Bengal.

Banerjee, Railways Minister and leader of the opposition in West Bengal, is commonly referred to as “Didi” – Hindi for elder sister – and can often appear to be spearheading a one-woman party.

Railway Budget 2010: Reactions from the common man

Urvashi Sibal spoke to passengers at the New Delhi railway station as Mamata Banerjee tabled the 2010/11 Railway Budget in parliament –

from Money on the markets:

Should we have a separate railway budget?

INDIA-BUDGET/RAILWAYSA railway budget separate from the general budget started in 1924 because the railways then formed more than a third of the budget.

A dedicated budget for railways was called for.

However the pattern of government’s finances has changed and the railways despite the impressive statistics - 63,327-kilometre network, 18 million passengers,  two million tons of freight – is less important.

Although being the largest state-run enterprise, the immense power of patronage it embodies makes it politically very lucrative.

After wooing voters, Mamata charms Bengal Inc

Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee rolls on with a bagful of bounty for one and all in West Bengal, even as the state’s corporate big wheels close ranks with her.Her eyes all set on the 2011 assembly elections, Banerjee shed the image of an anti-industry politician, using to the hilt the resources the world’s largest employer (Indian Railways) could offer.The industry-basher epithet stuck thick on Mamata after Tata Motors made an angry exit from Singur last year, bowing before a wave of protests over 400 acres of farmland acquired forcibly by the communist state government for the Nano plant.Just when a section of people and political pundits had written her off, Mamata’s gamble with the land movement and the state’s poor human rights record paid off.Now in a hurry to catch the 2011 train, Mamata (referred to in local media as chief minister-in-waiting) has impressed industrialists with her impatience to fast-track projects in West Bengal.She is now offering land to set up factories, emphasizing on setting up Public Private Partnership (PPP) models to develop the infrastructure of railway and industry.”Mamata means business” wrote The Telegraph after her August 21 meeting with industrialists. The largest circulated English daily from eastern India had less than a year ago written against the Trinamool Congress chief for driving out the Tatas from Singur.Mamata’s meeting was a durbar of sorts as she addressed members of the country’s three leading chambers of commerce and urged industrialists to set up shop on available railway land.”I urge you all to take the opportunity and use the land available to set up industry,” she told industrialists, chanting her slogan of Ma, Mati and Manush (Mother, Soil and People).Mamata said the railways had already prepared a land bank and about 112,000 acres are available.With her popular railway budget and various initiatives, the ghosts of Singur seemed to have been exorcised. Mamata said land disputes can be avoided with proper planning and human approach.The meeting, which has been organised by the Railways, cleared any doubts about her anti-industry posturing in the past.For now it is brand Mamata that rules Bengal as excitement builds up in the run-up to her big show in 2011.

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