When Mamata Banerjee registered strong, vocal and public objections over the proposed Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, it was dismissed by the other allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as another one of her eccentricities.
But now the rift between the Congress and the railway minister has widened alarmingly over a host of issues encompassing both the administrative and political arena and Congressmen are privately wondering how much they will need to invest in the relationship to sustain it.
The Trinamool Congress -- with 19 MPs -- has replaced the four Left parties in the UPA government's second term. The Left, with its 60-odd seats then, had been a troublesome ally, stalling most of the UPA's more reformist efforts. It finally withdrew support after the government signed the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, forcing a vote of confidence that the government won.
Now, the Trinamool and its leader in particular is proving no less intractable as the Left parties on a host of issues.
To be sure, in its second term, the Congress-led UPA has outside support that makes it less dependent on Banerjee for a simple majority in the Lok Sabha (272 MPs) as it has 325 MPs. But Mamata Banerjee is an important ally in West Bengal that faces Assembly elections in 2011 and Congress President Sonia Gandhi hopes to oust the 32-year old regime of the Left Front government with the help of tactical allies like the Trinamool.
In West Bengal, Trinamool and Congress have an electoral alliance. But lately political stress has strained the patience of both partners, with the Congress sending clear signals that it is finding Banerjee politically too demanding.
Trinamool has fielded candidates against the Congress in sensitive Arunachal Pradesh. The Congress has colluded with Trinamool's arch rival, the CPI(M) to capture a municipality board. And several government decisions are held up because of Banerjee's absence from cabinet meetings.
And true to form, Mamata Banerjee has let her dissatisfaction known in the Congress camp -- she has minimised her interactions with the Congress' prime interlocutor with her party, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
The two leaders spoke to each other over the telephone over political issues last in September, two days before deadline for the formation of the board in the Siliguri municipality in North Bengal. According to the Banerjee camp, it was a heated exchange and finally when the Congress took Left support to elect its own man as the chairman of the municipality, Banerjee decided to stop talking to Mukherjee.
While leaders in both camps are reluctant to publicly comment on this "highly sensitive" subject, both sides are confident this is a temporary phase and relations will normalise between the two leaders.
After the Siliguri episode, both Mukherjee and Banerjee were in Delhi for three days. According to Mukherjee's aides, the finance minister expected his colleague to phone, but there was no call.
This, according to Trinamool camp insiders, is in stark contrast to the initial days of the UPA and before the presentation of the Budgets. Banerjee used to spend hours at Mukherjee's residence as Mukherjee guided her on the Railway Budget apart from discussing a host of other political issues.
While Banerjee is upset that the Congress brass allowed its local leaders to take Left support and relegate the Trinamool to the opposition benches in the Siliguri Municipal Corporation, the Congress is irked that Banerjee fielded as many as 30 candidates in Arunachal Pradesh.
"Arunachal Pradesh is a sensitive area. I really don't know what message she is trying to send by fielding candidates against the Congress. We are trying to form a stable government in that border state and her efforts will certainly not help in that direction," Mukherjee recently told confidants.
Banerjee also told close aides that in their last telephonic conversation, Mukherjee was "very harsh". "Even my parents have not shouted at me the way he did," she complained.
Last month, Sonia Gandhi withdrew Congress candidates in deference to Mamata Banerjee's supporters in the Sealdah and Bowbazar seats in Assembly by-elections in Bengal. But during the Siliguri episode, according to Congress leader Deepa Dasmunshi, Gandhi let the local Congress leaders stake claim to the chairman's post.
Banerjee is also furious at central help to West Bengal government in its operations against the Maoists. Here, too, Mukherjee and others have made it clear they will not compromise security under pressure.