Cover Story: Bulldozing the idea of India

Ceaseless sparring in West Bengal: State government and Governor remain at odds

Print edition : May 20, 2022

Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at Biswa Bangla Convention Centre on April 19, a day before the two-day Bengal Global Business Summit 2022, in Kolkata. Photo: PTI

The West Bengal government and the State Governor continue to remain at loggerheads.

FOR the last three years, since Jagdeep Dhankhar became Governor of West Bengal (July 30, 2019), the Trinamool Congress government and the Raj Bhavan have been locked in a continuous and relentless battle, the like of which has never been witnessed in the State. The previous regime in the State also did not often see eye to eye with the Governor, but the hostility has never been quite so intense. The State government has repeatedly alleged excessive interference by Dhankhar and accused him of misusing his position as constitutional head to undermine the elected government’s authority. The differences were on display at the recent Bengal Global Business Summit, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Dhankhar were seen to be exchanging veiled barbs in the presence of representatives from 19 countries.

On April 20, at the inauguration of the summit, an important event for the industry-starved Bengal, Dhankhar, in his nuanced speech, hinted at the lacunae in governance and administration in the State while seeming to shower praises on the Chief Minister. “It will be appropriate for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to proactively catalyse development bonhomie with all concerned as it is imperative to distance development from partisan stance,” he said, adding that he was sure the State government was “alive to the need of investment friendly, wholesome ecosystem in governance as investors invariably look for political stability, democratic governance, transparent, accountable mechanism and systemic working, coupled with peaceful environment and rule of law”. He urged the government to avoid a “confrontational stance” with the Centre and try to be a “part of ongoing script of India’s economic rise by credibly exemplifying its commitment to transparent accountable decision-making that is pivoted on systemic and not individualistic functioning”. Mamata Banerjee struck back by half-jokingly telling the Governor that he should tell the Centre that “industrialists should not be disturbed through some agency”.

Almost right from the time when Dhankhar assumed office, the Trinamool Congress government has been alleging constant interference in legislative and administrative matters. Be it attacking the Chief Minister for her resolute stand against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or criticising the State government’s handling of the COVID situation, or regularly summoning administrative officials, or withholding assent to legislative Bills, or relentlessly highlighting the apparent failures of the government on social media, Dhankhar has been a constant thorn in the side of the State government. He has emerged as one of its most vocal and persistent critics.

Recently, elections to the Howrah Municipal Corporation could not take place with the elections to the other municipalities and civic bodies because the Governor refused to give assent to the Howrah Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Bill. One persistent allegation of the government is that Dhankhar delays clearing files and giving his assent, thereby slowing down the government’s work. In February this year, when he “remitted back” files seeking his approval for finance matters, Mamata Banerjee said, “Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar has been holding files and thus delaying the government’s work. He has not been signing the Bills on time.” In March he again delayed giving his assent to the West Bengal Finance Bill and the West Bengal Appropriation Bill.

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Dhankhar has also repeatedly locked horns with Mamata Banerjee on various issues of administration, law and order, relations with the Centre, and even selection of university Vice Chancellors. He has often alleged that the administration and the police are “politicised”. Even on National Civil Service Day, on April 21, he did not let go of the opportunity to attack the State administration and police, when he posted on social media: “Laud significant contribution in administration impartiality & incorruptibility, distancing from politics. Urge politicised WB IAS @chief_west and IPS @WBPolice to shed political gown.”

Following an outbreak of political violence in Rampurhat, Birbhum, between two factions of the ruling party in which seven women, a child and a man were burnt to death, Dhankhar posted on social media: “…Law and order is nose-diving. This ground reality makes it very difficult for me to resist the conclusion that the State of West Bengal is a laboratory for violation of human rights.” Mamata Banerjee reacted by writing to him: “It pains me that you have chosen an unfortunate incident… that resulted in loss of precious lives to pass sweeping and uncalled for comments on the law and order situation in the State” and urged him to “kindly refrain from making unwarranted statements and allow the administration to conduct impartial investigation to find out the truth….”

On an earlier occasion, she had tried to put Dhankhar in his place when in a letter to him she wrote, “You appear to have forgotten that I am an elected Chief Minister of a proud Indian State. You also seem to have forgotten that you are a nominated Governor….”

Trading of allegations

The Trinamool Congress alleges that Dhankhar has been blatantly partisan in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Governor maintains that he has never strayed from the principles of the Constitution. The political analyst Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay likened Dhankhar’s role to that of Dharma Vira, who was Governor of Bengal from 1967 to 1969. “Dhankhar is not the first governor to play dirty or be an obstructionist. I see close parallels with Dharma Vira. The Governor’s office can be constructive or obstructive, and it is the latter that has been more in evidence in Dhankhar’s tenure,” he said. He pointed out that Dhankhar’s actions reflected the Centre’s tendency to “centralise rather than decentralise”. “This is being deliberately done by Dhankhar. He seems to be a key tool in the reconstruction box required for this project,” said Mukhopadhyay.

Dhankhar's attacks, however, have not gone unanswered. The Trinamool and the State government have struck back, often viciously and at a very personal level. In June 2021, the Chief Minister called the Governor a “corrupted man” who was charge-sheeted in the Jain hawala diaries case. “He is a corrupted man, I am sorry to say—a corruption-oriented man. Why should a Central government allow a Governor like this? …He was charge-sheeted in the hawala Jain case, and later it was cleared by the court. But a PIL [Public Interest Litigation] is still pending,” she said. Trinamool MPs had even written to President Ram Nath Kovind, requesting him to “consider withdrawing your pleasure for holding the office of Governor of West Bengal by Hon’ble Shri Jagdeep Dhankhar for serious breach of oath of his office…”. The letter, dated December 29, 2020, drew attention to the “interminable critical tweets and statements” directed against the government and the Governor’s relationship with the State Legislature. “Hon'ble Shri Dhankhar has also not spared the State Legislature. He is sitting tight and refuses to sign a number of Bills passed by the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. Not only is he not signing the Bills, he is even asking for ‘explanations’ from the Hon'ble Speaker. This is a direct insult and attack on the sovereignty of the State Legislature,” the letter stated.

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On April 24, Firhad Hakim, the Mayor of Kolkata and one of the most powerful Ministers in the State Cabinet, openly referred to Dhankhar as “Dadu” (granddad) when talking about the Howrah Municipal elections that could not take place. “With the kind of work we have done, we will win [in Howrah], but that dadu is there; and he has held it [the elections] up, otherwise it would have taken place with Kolkata [Municipal Corporation election],” he said. Though Dhankhar has stayed clear of making personal attacks, he has nevertheless not shown any signs of lessening the pressure he has been putting on the State government. “I have been under constant attack by Ministers of the State government, yet I have never made any personal attack against anyone here. The only script I follow is the Indian Constitution, and no one else’s script,” Dhankhar had earlier told Frontline in an exclusive interview.

According to the well-known psephologist and political commentator Biswanath Chakroborty, neither Mamata Banerjee nor Jagdeep Dhankhar carries her/his constitutional role in the spirit of the Indian Constitution. “Both ought to respect each other and each must refrain from entering the other’s domain. But here we see both are constantly interfering in each other's domains. As per Article 163 of the Constitution, the Governor should act according to the advice rendered by the Council of Ministers headed by the Chief Minister. They are responsible only to the Legislature and not to the Governor. On the other hand, under Article 167, it is the constitutional obligation of the Chief Minister to communicate to the Governor on any matter on governance. However, we see the Governor repeatedly complaining that he is being kept in the dark; and the Chief Minister often alleging that the Governor interferes in the day-to-day affairs of the government,” said Chakraborty. He also pointed out that the manner in which the Governor has often been “snubbed” by government officers and vice chancellors of different universities is not desirable. “In the past there was definitely tension between the State government and the Governor, but it has touched unthinkable levels in recent times—something that even theoreticians of politics cannot imagine,” Chakraborty told Frontline.

Given the present political situation in the State, with the opposition clamouring for implementation of Article 355 and Article 356 of the Constitution, the relation between Raj Bhavan and Nabanna (the State secretariat) has become all the more sensitive. A mending of ties any time soon is unlikely.