The Government could ride out double-digit inflation without serious questions being raised about its stability and its right to govern. So, would rail fare increases pose a threat to the ruling alliance, or to Ms Mamata Banerjee?
Developments since the Railway Budget was submitted last week suggest that the Trinamool Congress Chief, Ms Mamata Banerjee, might have reacted in haste in asking for Mr Dinesh Trivedi's resignation.
If her opposition to a hike in passenger fares is merely ideological, as some of her party colleagues are at pains to point out, then holding on to such rigid principles (no fare hike under any circumstances) in the face of a tacit political consensus across the spectrum demonstrates a certain lack of visionary thinking.
If, on the other hand, she did anticipate a popular political backlash to the move and therefore stepped in quickly to prevent the thing getting out of hand, then it shows a certain incapacity to read the signs from the political tea leaves.
Evidence of such a consensus was already in place even on the day the Budget was presented. If one reads through the statements of the Left and the BJP, it is possible to sense that the apparent opposition to fare hikes is a lot more nuanced than might seem at first sight.
The BJP took objection primarily to what it regarded as a subterfuge in presenting the fare hike proposal rather than the hikes themselves. Its objection was to the hike being described as so many paise per km of travel which, in its view, and quite rightly too, tended to obscure the 10-20 per cent hikes in different classes of travel.
The CPM too, for its part, presented its reaction more in the tone of a lament rather than the shrill rhetoric that it usually employs while opposing a policy move.
It spoke of how the hike would add to the burden of the common man. In other words, it chose to describe the impact of the hike (the burden on the travelling public was a given, in any case) rather than stake a clear political stance as in demanding its withdrawal, or hint at launching an agitation if it is not conceded.
If any proof of the mood of resignation permeating the Opposition ranks as a whole was needed, the same could be found in the recent response of the Railway trade unions representing the broadest spectrum of political affiliations.
They have clearly opposed any rollback of hikes and as a concession to political correctness added that if it were to be effected, then there should be a matching subsidy from the exchequer.
Held by common interests
I am not saying that neither the BJP nor the Left would forswear any attempt at destabilising the Government, should an opportunity present itself in the course of the vote on the President's Address to Parliament or during the debate on the Railway and the general Budget.
You can count on them to bring up the subject of railway fare hikes and demand its rollback on the ground that they are anti-poor if that would embarrass the Government, or better still, even result in its overthrow.
It is just that Ms Banerjee might have stayed her hand, with regard to the minister's removal or rolling back the hikes in passenger fares just that bit longer.
Circumstances were clearly such that she might have ridden out the consequences of what is, undoubtedly, a politically unpalatable move and yet by no means could she be accused of being prone to committing political harakiri.
In part, her action might perhaps be explained as stemming from her temperament and a sense of insecurity with regard to her hold on power in her home State of Paschimbanga as West Bengal is now known as.
But it must also be attributed to her lack of appreciation of how political parties conduct themselves as a coalition possessing common interests in promoting the same.
The existence of Railways as a thriving institution in the public sector promotes the political and monetary interests of a coalition of parties belonging to diverse ideologies. They share common interests in recruitment of personnel, procurement of goods and services and disposal of scrap.
The distribution of benefits may not be equal. But none of the members that constitute this coalition of political interests see the actual distribution as inequitable. They have, therefore, every incentive to stay together to see to it that distributional benefits from Railways continue to flow.
In the event, their collective action to prevent its sliding into financial ruin can be guaranteed. A shroud of uncertainty has descended over this compact due to the precarious nature of Railways' operations and its finance.
Off the talent track
It is now well documented that Railways has suffered a gradual decline in the quality of the managerial talent available to it.
The political and ideological preferences of those at the top, in strategic decision making, tended to reinforce the adverse consequences of managerial degradation to such an extent they have resulted in pushing the Railways to the brink of an abyss.
Political parties have instinctively grasped this so as to temper their response to the fare hikes and something that has also found an echo in the response of the trade unions to the fare hikes.
Let's face it. The last two years saw an unprecedented increase in the price of food articles.
The price index had moved up from 130 on an average in 2009-10 to 143 in 2010-11, an increase of 10 per cent. The current year too is unlikely to fare any better, with annual inflation running at close to the same level as last year.
The Government could ride out double-digit inflation in the economy without serious questions being raised about its stability and the right to govern.
Therefore, should fare increases, and that too when they had been stable for a decade, pose an existential threat to the present ruling alliance at the Centre or, for that matter, Ms Banerjee's hold over Paschimbanga?
It is a pity that Ms Banerjee lost sight of it. In the process, it does now look almost certain that she would have to let go of a chance to continue to exploit the administrative talents of someone like Mr Trivedi in her ranks.