The fact that Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi survived for more than 24 hours after Mamata Banerjee sent a "communication" to the prime minister saying 'off with his head' - like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland - suggested that the Congress had finally decided that it could not succumb to her pressure tactics without some show of resistance.
Having been pushed around by the mercurial West Bengal chief minister on issues as wide-ranging as fuel price hikes, the Teesta waters treaty, foreign investment in the retail sector and the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, the central government has apparently come to the conclusion that an immediate acceptance of her peremptory demand will be hugely damaging to its already low prestige.
Although the Congress simply could not brush aside an ally with 19 MPs, the slight display of spine showed that it had realized the mistakes it made in the name of coalition dharma, of which the most egregious example was giving Andimuthu Raja a free rein as telecom minister. In the game of bluff between the first party and others in a coalition, the first party now has its nose marginally ahead.
What is more, in standing by Trivedi's forward-looking budget, which had earned the prime minister's praise for raising the fares after nearly a decade, the government and the party have sent the right signal - that their commitment to reforms remains firm.
It is not unlikely that the electoral reverses in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa played a role in stiffening the government's response to Mamata's serial obstinacy because of the realisation that it cannot allow the impression of being a wimp to spread any further. The belief that the Samajwadi Party (SP) will stand by the centre and so will a weakened Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) evidently helped the government to decide to call Mamata's bluff.
Ironically, it was the SP which bailed the government out on the nuclear deal in 2008 after the Left withdrew its support. Now, it is expected to stand by the government again when it is facing the ire of the Left's inveterate enemy, Mamata.
For the latter too, the rebuff, which she probably did not expect from a usually diffident centre, is a moment of truth. Accustomed till now to having her way with a show of petulance, Mamata will not find it easy to swallow the snub of Trivedi not being shown the door immediately, not least because it will give considerable satisfaction to the West Bengal Congress, which has been repeatedy humiliated by Mamata. For an uncompromising street fighter, who brought the Left down despite its huge majority, a retreat tends to cut the ground from under the feet.
Mamata's discomfiture will be all the greater for two reasons. One is that she had to backtrack in the face of defiance by a party member - something unthinkable in a one-person outfit. She can ignore the rebellious Trinamool Congress MP, Kabir Suman, but not someone like Trivedi, who is well regarded. The other reason is that she had to beat a retreat over her pet obsession with populism which cocks a snook at fiscal discipline.
For instance, her latest diktat in West Bengal is against penalising farmers for defaulting on bank loans. It means that she does not care if the banks go bankrupt, just as she apparently does not care if the railways go bankrupt, as Trivedi feared when he said he cannot allow the railways to "go the Air India's way".
But, for Mamata, these customary economic preoccupations with monetary prudence do not matter as long as she is able to peddle her populist brand of politics with its focus on farmers, which has made her rule out Special Economic Zones and a nuclear power station in West Bengal.
Temperamental as she is, Mamata may have toyed with the idea of withdrawing support to the Manmohan Singh government, but refrained from taking the fateful step for two reasons. First, she cannot be unaware of a slight dip in her popularity following her callous references to at least two cases of rape and to a brutal murder in which Trinamool Congress activists were allegedly involved. Earlier, her indifference to a number of deaths of children in government hospitals did not help her image.
Secondly, her promise to the Muslim community to set up hundreds of madrassas rules out any immediate possibility of the Trinamool Congress reviving its earlier alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As a result, she will have to remain in the Congress' company both at the centre and in the state despite the fraught relations between the two parties.
As for the government, a show of resolve, or a compromise with Mamata which will enable Trivedi to leave with dignity, will dispel fears of early elections because of the belief that the government may be getting its act together. In any event, it is clear that no party wants a mid-term poll, least of all the BJP, for all of Venkaiah Naidu's bravado in the Rajya Sabha, for the party will face huge difficulties in choosing a prime ministerial candidate.