Nabanna vs Raj Bhavan: Inside the murky corridors of power in Bengal

One loses count of the number of occasions West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar engaged in a war of words with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her government since taking oath as Governor on July 31 last year | Image - Eunice Dhivya

Last month, West Bengal witnessed a very strange situation of a premier university having to end up with two pro-vice chancellors — one appointed by Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and another by the state government.

It so happened that Dhankhar appointed Professor Goutam Chandra, the head of Burdwan University’s zoology department, as the Pro-Vice Chancellor of the institution overlooking the recommendations of the state government. Hours after the appointment, the state’s higher education department came out with its own notification appointing Professor Ashis Kumar Panigrahi of Zoology department, Kalyani University, in the same post.

The Burdwan University was spared a major showdown after Dhankar dragged his foot back. “I had a telephonic conversation with (chief minister) Mamata Banerjee. The state is going through a crisis and I want this [Pro-Vice Chancellor appointment issue] to be resolved. I want to put a lid on the controversy as of now,” he told a press conference on June 3.

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The ceasefire did not last long as Dhankar has made it almost a habit to cross swords with the state government, giving an impression of him being a de facto leader of the Opposition.

The tug of war

One loses count of the number of occasions he got engaged in a war of words with Mamata Banerjee and her government since taking oath as governor on July 31 last year.

Not that the state government is any less vitriolic towards the 69-year-old constitutional head of the state. It gave him a cold shoulder whenever he visited districts for “administrative review” meetings. He often complains that the Chief Minister does not brief him on important matters pertaining to the state as has been prescribed in the Article 167 of the Constitution.

Last December, Governor Jagdeep Dhankar was prevented from entering Jadavpur University by Trinamool Congress members | PTI Photo

In December last year, the Bengal government even placed a notification in the state Assembly divesting the governor of most of his powers as chancellor of state universities.

Apart from the spats over both big and small issues almost on a daily basis, the relations between the two took a particularly bitter turn over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Dhankhar came down heavily on Banerjee for opposing what he called “the law of the land”. As violent protests broke out across Bengal over the amended Citizenship Act in early December, Dhankar asked the Chief Minister to personally update him at the Raj Bhavan.

Banerjee’s response to this summon was equally caustic. She reminded the Governor of his “constitutional obligations to support the state government machinery to maintain peace and harmony rather than aggravating the situation by provoking the elements who may attempt to disturb the order and tranquility”.

However, this wasn’t the first such instance of a war of words. And it certainly wasn’t the last.

Just as the novel coronavirus tightened its grip over Bengal, Dhankhar attacked Banerjee over her “monumental failure” in tackling the COVID-19 crisis. He also accused her of “explicitly appeasing” the minority community over the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in New Delhi.

While TMC leaders have the choicest of sobriquets for the Governor — one of their favourites is Padyapal (padya in Bengali means lotus), alluding to his alleged closeness to the BJP. The Chief Minister is more blunt and calls him the “Centre’s agent”.

However, this is not how things are meant to be, constitutionally speaking.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is more blunt and calls Dhankar the “Centre’s agent” | PTI Photo

The relationship between the governor and chief minister of a state is clearly defined in Article 163 of the Constitution. It says: “There shall be a council of ministers with the Chief Minister at the head to aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of his functions; except insofar as he is by or under this Constitution required to exercise his functions or any of them in his discretion.”

This means, in normal times, the Governor is required to act in accordance with the “aid and advice” of a state government that he/she heads. Article 356 of the Constitution gives him the power to exercise his discretion to impose President’s rule, if there is a breakdown in the constitutional machinery or law and order in the state.

However, this defined role has often been violated. History has been a witness that whichever party — be it the Congress or the BJP — is in power at the Centre tries to use the gubernatorial position to further its political goal in states ruled by the opposition.

West Bengal stands out particularly in this regard. Being ruled mostly by parties that are adversaries to the one in power at the Centre, it has a long history of acrimonious relations between the Governor and the state government.

A bitter journey

In fact, the confrontation started with the formation of the first ever non-Congress government in the state in March, 1967, during the gubernatorial tenure of Dharma Vira, a retired Indian Civil Service officer. He dismissed the United Front government of Ajoy Mukherjee, in which CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu was deputy chief minister, within 265 days of its assuming power.

The CPI-M and other coalition partners lambasted the Governor’s decision and brought out huge protest rallies criticising the move. The relation plunged to an abyss, when the United Front-led by Mukherjee’s Bangla Congress again formed the government in 1969.

The newly elected government in the speech it prepared for the Governor’s address in the Assembly included a line that read he [the Governor] had wrongly dismissed the first United Front government. The ruling coalition members insisted that the Governor must read whatever was written in the draft. Dharma Vira, however, did not budge.

The United Front government conveyed its displeasure of the Governor to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and sought Dharma Vira’s removal. Gandhi conceded to the demand.

Dharma Vira’s full-time (in between there was an acting governor for a few months) successor Shanti Swaroop Dhavan, too, got embroiled in political controversy by not inviting the CPI(M), which had emerged as the single-largest party, to form the government. The CPI(M) had bagged 113 seats while the Congress had got 105 seats.

During the tenure of the subsequent Congress government, there was no scope of confrontation as the same party was also in power at the Centre.

In 1977, when the first Left Front government headed by Jyoti Basu came to power in the state, he was lucky to have a friendly government at the Centre headed by Morarji Desai.

It was at the request of Basu that Tribhuvana Narayana Singh was appointed governor of the state. The two perhaps shared the best-ever bond a CM and a Governor ever had in the state, if not in the country.

Trhibhuvan Narain Singh being given a grand farewell by West Bengal cabinet minister and CPI(M) functionaries at Howrah station in 1980.

Old-timers like veteran journalist Ashis Biswas recall the unprecedented send-off the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) gave to Singh who was removed by Indira Gandhi after she returned to power in 1980.

“Basu, along with his cabinet colleagues and the ailing party secretary Promode Das Gupta, was there at Howrah Railway station to give farewell to the outgoing Governor. Members of youth and student wings of the CPI(M) — the Democratic Youth Federation (DYF) and Students’ Federation of India (SFI) — rent the air with slogans as the Governor boarded the train to Varanasi,” says Biswas.

Reporting about Singh’s departure, the India Today had said: “The Howrah station farewell was in sharp contrast to the cold formality that marked the swearing-in of the new governor, Bhairab Dutt Pandey, in the gilded Throne Room of the Raj Bhavan earlier in the day.”

From the beginning, the Left Front was suspicious about Pandey. True to their suspicion, he had several runs-in with the state government. The CPI(M) leaders punning with his name used to call the governor Bangla Daman (repress Bengal) Pandey.

The Left Front government did not have cordial relations even with the next Governor, Anant Prasad Sharma. The state government-Governor conflict reached a flashpoint when the latter appointed Santosh Bhattacharya as Calcutta University V-C against the wishes of the Left Front government.

During Basu’s tenure as chief minister, except over the appointment of V-C by Sharma, there were no major confrontations between the state secretariat and the Raj Bhawan, primarily because of his personal equation with prime ministers, says Biswas.

The next major confrontation the Left Front government had with the Governor was during the tenure of Gopalkrishna Gandhi. He was the Governor from 2004 to 2009 during the turbulent days of Nandigram and Singur land agitations.

His criticism of the government’s handling of the two issues drew the ire of CPI(M) leaders who accused him of being “partisan” to the TMC. However, the CPI(M) later buried the hatchet and supported his candidature as combined opposition candidate for the post of Vice-President of India in 2017.

Didi vs Dhankar’s dadagiri

The TMC, since coming to power in 2011, never had coordinal equation with any governor because of its willingness to join a fight with the state’s constitutional head. But in the past, spats did not get as ugly as it has been during the present governor’s tenure primarily because Dhankar’s predecessors MK Narayanan and Keshari Nath Tripathi were not tenacious enough.

Dhankar, a Supreme Court lawyer, who had hopped from the Janata Dal to the Congress and then to the BJP, is not the one to go by the book or convention. On the other hand, the TMC’s brand of politics mostly revolves around theatrics.

Dhankar’s predecessors MK Narayanan and Keshari Nath Tripathi were not tenacious enough | PTI Photo

These characteristics make them worthy opponents for a protracted duel. Both the Raj Bhavan and the Nabanna (CM’s office) seem to be in no mood to stop their constant bickering anytime soon, more often than not creating administrative stalemates like the one the Burdwan University witnessed.

“It is mostly the bureaucrats, police officers, university administrators and other functionaries of the executive who get caught in the crossfire. Forced to do a constant balancing between two power centres, it severely affects their performance,” says a senior administrative officer.

This power tussle has once again brought to the fore the debate whether it’s time to do away with the institution of the governor, a colonial legacy.

“It’s a superfluous post, a remnant of the colonial era. States are not subjects of the Centre. There is no role for the Governor since the Centre-state relations are well defined in the Constitution and other documents,” CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury observed earlier this year in the context of Kerala.

Bengal Education Minister Partha Chatterjee, who accused Dhankar of “intimidating V-Cs, threatening institutional heads with punitive measures to make them follow his orders”, too questioned the need for retaining the post of Governor.

A flurry of incidents in the recent past has further strengthened the debate. “Recent years have seen the Governor’s office being brazenly used to further the political interests of the ruling party at the Centre. It was there for everyone to see… from Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya to Uttarakhand, Goa, Bihar, Kashmir, Karnataka and Maharashtra,” says Dilip Chakma, constitutional rights defender and president of the Indigenous Lawyers’ Association.

Such misuse of the governor’s office has diluted the federal structure of India and its constitutional polity. “The framers of the Constitution perhaps never imagined the abuse of power by the ruling parties at the Centre.”

The history of the Governor’s office, Chakma adds, definitely doesn’t inspire much confidence in the public about its role and relevance.

“There should be a balance between the two. We don’t need tinpot dictators as CMs nor Centre’s lackeys as Governors.”

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