To Bengal and back

Print edition : July 04, 1998

The team of officials despatched by the Centre to Calcutta returns empty-handed, and the Trinamul Congress-inspired bid to target the West Bengal Government comes a cropper.

IT was a confrontation between the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Government at the Centre and the Left Front Government in West Bengal over the Centre's blatant interference in matters that come under the States' purview. The Central Government's moves gave rise to apprehensions in the Left Front about a potential threat to invoke Article 356 to dismiss the State Government under pressure from the Trinamul Congress, an ally of the BJP.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and other constituents of the Left Front, which recently completed a historic 21 years in office, assailed the despatch of official teams from the Union Home Ministry to certain States ostensibly to assess the law and order situation. The Left Front suspects that the teams' reports might be used to prepare the ground for the imposition of President's Rule in these States, which are ruled by parties or groups that are opposed to the BJP.

The Left Front Government headed by Chief Minister Jyoti Basu called the despatch of a Central team to West Bengal an "unconstitutional act" and said that the manner in which the team was sent "threatened the balance of Centre-State relations." The Centre retaliated by claiming that it was well within its rights to send such a team under Article 355, which says that it is the "duty of the Union to protect every State against external aggression and internal disturbance and to ensure that the government of every State is carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution."

The three-member team headed by P.D. Shenoy, Additional Secretary in the Union Home Ministry, arrived in Calcutta on June 17. But the State Government refused to extend its cooperation to the members of the team, whom it described as "unwanted guests". The team-members called on State Chief Secretary Manish Gupta, but he declined to reply to their queries about law and order, particularly the situation during the run-up to and immediately after the May 28 elections to the local bodies. The Chief Secretary firmly told the visitors that under the Constitution, law and order was strictly a State subject and that he would therefore not discuss it with them. The team-members gave up their bid after an hour-long meeting.

Over three days, the team gathered a handful of reports from Trinamul Congress activists, who alleged that Left Front cadres were targeting them. Before leaving for Delhi on June 19, the team submitted the reports to State Home Secretary Lina Chakravarty and asked her to inform the Union Home Ministry "without delay" what action had been taken on them.

Two members of the Central team to West Bengal, headed by Additional Secretary P.D. Shenoy (right).-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Shortly after the team left Calcutta, Jyoti Basu wrote a two-sentence note to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee requesting him to convene a meeting of the Inter-State Council at the earliest to discuss the scope of Article 355. His Government, which considers the despatch of Central teams to assess the law and order situation in the States as "misuse of Article 355", has been encouraged by the support it received from Chief Ministers of States with non-BJP governments.

State Home (Police) Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya told Frontline that the State's stand was that law and order was a State subject. "The Centre has interpreted Article 355 in its own way; we do not accept that interpretation," Bhattacharya said.

Jyoti Basu told Frontline that the manner in which the Home Ministry sent the team was "most unconstitutional". Law and order was a State subject and the Centre should not interfere in State subjects, he added. Accusing Union Home Minister L.K. Advani of having failed to put down terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, he wondered why Advani was not concentrating his attention on the troubled State and was instead "threatening the Left Front Government". Responding to Advani's remark that Basu should "read the Constitution", the Chief Minister said: "Am I to learn about the Constitution from him? Advani has scant regard for the Constitution and is an accused in the Barbri Masjid demolition case."

Jyoti Basu said that the Vajpayee Government was "afraid" of the Left Front Government and was therefore targeting it. "But," he said, "we have seen lots of threats and withstood semi-fascist terror. The Left Front will not bow down to any threats. We will fight them everywhere - in the Assembly and in Parliament."

Describing the law and order situation in the State as "the best in the country", Jyoti Basu said that Advani should find out how many people had been killed in Delhi since the BJP came to power there.

He asked: "Are threats to State governments a sign of good governance?" Instead of strengthening Centre-State relations, as promised, the Vajpayee Government was doing just the opposite, he said. "West Bengal must be prepared for any eventuality."

Bhattacharya said that the State Government was surprised at the sudden announcement about the despatch of the Central team because only a week earlier it had submitted a report on the law and order situation. "It appears that the entire exercise is being conducted at the behest of the Trinamul Congress of Mamata Banerjee. The survival of the Vajpayee Government depends on a number of small political groups like the Trinamul Congress, which are resorting to political blackmail." He added: "If the Centre is really worried about law and order, it should send a team to Uttar Pradesh" (a BJP-led alliance runs the government in Uttar Pradesh).

THE Home Ministry team's visit to West Bengal is seen as a small victory for Mamata Banerjee in her tussle with State-level leaders of the BJP. She raised the demand for such a visit soon after the elections to local bodies, in which her party fared badly (Frontline, July 3). She alleged that in the run-up to the elections, activists of the Trinamul Congress and the BJP had been singled out for attacks by Left Front cadres.

Chief Minister Jyoti Basu.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

However, Mamata Banerjee suffered loss of face when a delegation of BJP MPs concluded after a visit to the State on June 13 and 14 that there was "no need to impose President's Rule." The six-member BJP team comprised Shanta Kumar, T.N. Chaturvedi, K.R. Malkani, Sumitra Mahajan, Major General (Retd) Khandauri and Tapan Sikdar. At the end of their visit, team leader Shanta Kumar told mediapersons that the situation was normal and there was no need to push the panic button.

Mamata Banerjee, clearly upset, is believed to have told central leaders of the BJP that unless they acceded to her demand for a Central team, she would recoonsider her decision to support the Vajpayee Government. It was then, as part of damage-control efforts, that a decision was taken to send a team of bureaucrats from the Home Ministry.

Representatives of the Trinamul Congress and the BJP met the Central team and painted a grim picture of the situation in the State. In a memorandum submitted to team leader P.D. Shenoy, the BJP said that the CPI(M) had "unleased organised violence" on its political rivals. Trinamul Congress MP Sudip Banerjee alleged that the CPI(M) was seeking to maintain its dominance by resorting to "large-scale violence", particulalry in the rural areas. Tapan Sikdar, State BJP president and the party's lone MP from West Bengal, said that the violence was a fallout of the new polarisation of political forces. He alleged that 93 people belonging to parties other than the CPI(M) were killed in the run-up to and immediately after the elections to the local bodies. Most of them, he said, belonged to the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes or minority communities or were women.

The Trinamul Congress and BJP leaders criticised the Left Front Government's refusal to cooperate with the Central team. They said that the Centre had a duty to intervene if the weaker sections of society were persecuted. Mamata Banerjee said that the State Government's attitude towards the Central team was "undemocratic"; by treating the team "shabbily," the State Government had confirmed her allegations, she claimed.

It was reported that members of the Central team had admitted in private that they were in a dilemma owing to the tug-of-war between the BJP and the Trinamul Congress. On the one hand, they were in no position to suggest that there was a total breakdown of law and order in the State. Such a report, they felt, would embarrass the Vajpayee Government. On the other, if the team made a mild observation about the law and order situation, it would anger Mamata Banerjee further.

It looks increasingly likely that, following the visit of the Central team, the BJP and the Trinamul Congress may be driven further apart by their differences over the use of Article 356. Ironically, it is not the State Government that is imperilled right now; it is the BJP-led coalition Government that seems in greater risk of collapse over the issue of invoking Article 356.

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