No end in sight to toxic war of words between Bengal governor and Trinamool Congress

Citizens suffer as Governor Dhankar, CM Mamata don’t see eye to eye

No end in sight to toxic war of words between Bengal governor and Trinamool Congress
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Ashis Biswas/IPA

A bitter war of words over basic procedural, governance-related issues in public perception: This is what the ongoing, unseemly spat between Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar and the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) looks like. At another level, it enables the BJP-run central government to challenge the TMC for ‘poor governance’ keeping the 2021 Assembly elections in sight.

Dhankar’s main agenda is to expose relentlessly the numerous failures of the TMC’s disastrous tenure in Bengal since 2011. He has time on his side, unlike the TMC. Within weeks of his arrival — he is yet to spend his first 100 days — Dhankar has pulled up the state for its poor public health facilities and its ‘deplorable’ law and order record.

He has intervened in the working of the educational institutions, discussing the grievances of teachers and academics from the primary to the University levels. He has met businessmen, industrialists, traders and attended their functions. They told him among other things of local phone-tapping and the problems posed by politically-backed extortion gangs. He has also been in touch with intellectuals and representatives of settled non-Bengali communities. He goes out to meet people, shaking hands, chatting them up.

Unlike his predecessors, Dhankar does not always stand on protocol when he interacts with common people. He tells people what he thinks of the situation in Bengal, a state which he otherwise admires, without bothering about the inevitable, vitriolic TMC backlash. “As you know, everything here is unnecessarily politicised,” he told a gathering casually while discussing other matters, the other day. No wonder TMC leaders are furious, but they also appreciate that many people probably endorse Dhankar on such occasions.

The State Secretariat hit back by ordering its officials to stay away from the Governor’s programmes in North and South Bengal. An angry, unruly mob of Left extremists repeatedly thumped and kicked his car when he tried to save the Union Minister Babul Supriyo from Left extremists on the Jadavpur University campus. A strong contingent of state and city policemen simply stood and watched.

The ruling TMC establishment, through the state’s portly higher Education Minister Partha Chatterjee, had publicly outlined the role it had assigned for Dhankar — a benign, elderly tourist who was expected to enjoy his long pleasure trip to Bengal. His exertions as the state’s first citizen and constitutional head the TMC saw as “hyper-activity, neither associated with his high office nor with the record of his illustrious predecessors” etc.

It did not help that Dhankar, with a noticeable propensity to give back as good as he got from his opponents, responded by securing protection from the CRPF and repeatedly lecturing the state on the necessity of maintaining constitutional decorum and etiquette in Centre/state exchanges.

The sharp contrast between his ways and those of his usually non-interfering predecessors clearly suggested that the Centre had finally decided to turn the screws on the incumbent TMC government for its lapses. The outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Bengal showed that the TMC had lost much of its earlier public support. It would keep the state administration under pressure, and off-balance increasingly, even as the state BJP went about its business of consolidating the party’s organizational wing. The fact that the BJP does not yet have an effective state-level leader did not prove a handicap as the party secured 40% of the LS election votes, only 3% behind the incumbent TMC.

BJP strategists felt that the more polished, carefully nuanced approach adopted by the Governor would undoubtedly appeal more to the Bengali ‘bhadralok’ community, which felt uncomfortable with state leaders like Dilip Ghosh, Rahul Sinha or Mukul Roy, with no disrespect. Party leaders had drawn the right lessons from the LS election results. The TMC had won all 9 seats including the ones in Kolkata and the suburbs, the citadel of the educated middle class, in the final phase, overcoming anti-incumbency. Going forward to 2021, the BJP would not ignore this important constituency among state voters any longer.

Some of the recent exchanges between the two sides have been unique in terms of the insignificance of the issues in contention. But the impact of such spats on Constitutional norms has been devastating. The Governor has complained of being ignored and uninvited to the annual film festival, apart from being sidelined at public ceremonies and cut off from meeting state officials.

Senior officials, without commenting on other issues, said that not allowing a Governor to meet administrative functionaries could well constitute a constitutional impropriety, as hinted by Dhankar. Such moves indicate an intense contempt of the state for the Centre, sans benefit of official explanation. At least one official of a South Bengal district, explaining his absence from a meet called by the Governor, stated that he was acting under ‘orders’. No one was unduly surprised, being aware that this was nothing unusual in a state where its administrative head had refused to respond to phone calls from the Prime Minister.

Some TMC leaders admit in private that both sides need to observe restraint. A constant running war between the Centre and the State can only hurt the common people of a financially stressed state.

It has become routine for state officials not to attend meets called by the centre, the NITI Aayog and other agencies. Nabanna does not send negative crime stats on human trafficking, or details about the spread of malaria and dengue etc to the centre any more. The centre has allotted a massive Rs 200,000 crore for the development of smart cities. By staying away, Bengal ensured that it would not get any share of this investment. Ditto for the central decision to allot Rs 25,000 crore to rev up the real estate sector, because Bengal has not accepted the RERA provisions.

As things stand, it does not seem as though the self-inflicted sufferings of the people in Bengal, thanks to the confrontational policies adopted by the state, is about to end any time soon. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has taken the battle of words to a higher level, publicly describing Dhankar ‘as a BJP person’ to whose views and suggestions, she cannot be expected to react! This is her first public comment on the Governor personally. Normally, she leaves the job of trashing the Governor’s work to other Ministers. On his part, Dhankar has always been scrupulously courteous and polite in all his public references to the CM.

Media old timers cannot recall a more toxic relationship between a Bengal Governor and an elected Ministry since the days of the late Dharam Vira. He had numerous brushes with the ruling United Front Ministries in the late sixties, leading to two spells of President’s rule.

The Governor’s charges against the state administration cannot be dismissed lightly. While TMC ministers and leaders condemn him for his partisan approach and right wing leanings they have never, never, answered the allegations he has made against them. The usual TMC response to allegations of corruption or mismanagement by opposition leaders is to bring up present or past instances of violence, mismanagement and corruption in other states.

With some time left for the 2021 assembly polls, it remains to be seen how the ongoing political battle between centre and the TMC-ruled Bengal escalates in the future.

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