War of words

The spat between Mamata Banerjee and Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi in the wake of a communal flare-up takes the relations between the Trinamool Congress government and the BJP-led government at the Centre to a new low.

Published : Jul 19, 2017 12:30 IST

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi after she was sworn in at the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata on July 24, 2014.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi after she was sworn in at the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata on July 24, 2014.

MAKING public a telephone call to her by Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi, a visibly angry West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee told a press conference on July 4: “Today the Governor said a lot of things to me and I have been highly insulted. The office of Governor is a constitutional post and he has to work as per the Constitution. I have not come to power thanks to the Governor. I have been elected by the people; the Governor has been nominated by the Centre. The language he used while speaking to me on behalf of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] was humiliating. I have never been so insulted in my life.”

Relations between the Trinamool Congress government and the Centre hit an all-time low with a bitter public spat between the Chief Minister and the Governor over a communal flare-up in Baduria town in the Basirhat subdivision of North 24 Paraganas district. Such a direct and strident confrontation between the nominated head of the State and the elected head of the government is unprecedented in West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee said the Governor had “threatened” her. “I told the Governor that you cannot talk to me like this. The Governor was speaking like a block president of the BJP. Why should this happen? We are not servants. After today’s insult, I even thought of quitting…. The Governor cannot threaten me,” she said.

The phone call from the Governor came almost immediately after a BJP delegation met him at the Raj Bhavan and expressed grave concern over the communal tension at Baduria. An objectionable post on Facebook by a 17-year-old student unleashed communal fury on July 2. The police stood by helplessly as rioters went on the rampage. The violence continued unabated even after the arrest of the teenager. Private property was looted and destroyed, police vehicles were torched and one shopkeeper, Kartik Ghosh, was stabbed to death by miscreants. The violence spread to the surrounding areas. Four companies of the Border Security Force (BSF) were deployed to bring the situation under control. Although the violence had abated by July 8, the region continued to remain tense (as of July 11), and the security forces remained on high alert.

Governor’s reaction

The Governor expressed surprise at the “attitude and language used by the Hon’ble Chief Minister during the press conference”. A statement issued by the Raj Bhavan that evening said: “The talks between the Hon’ble Chief Minister and the Hon’ble Governor were confidential in nature and none is expected to disclose it. However, there was nothing in the talks for which the Hon’ble Chief Minister may have felt insulted, threatened or humiliated. The Hon’ble Governor did say to the Hon’ble Chief Minister to ensure peace and law and order by all means.” The statement further clarified that the Governor, being head of the State, “is the guardian of all citizens of the State and not of any particular party or section of society”.

The war of words did not end there. Rather the tones got even more abrasive and the attacks sharper. State Parliamentary Affairs Minister and Trinamool secretary general Partha Chatterjee said: “The Governor is the State’s constitutional head, can he speak in this manner, which is beyond the limits of his authority? We would clearly like to remind the Governor that Raj Bhavan can never become a BJP den. We strongly condemn the language he used with the Chief Minister, threatened her, hurt her feelings…. It has repeatedly come to our notice that Raj Bhavan has been instigating/helping those people who fan communal passions.” He pointed out that the Governor’s phone call came after a BJP delegation met him. “We had written to him on many issues earlier. We had written to the Centre repeatedly seeking financial assistance. But he never spoke out then. Today, he is behaving exactly like a [BJP] cadre,” said Chatterjee.

In a strongly worded press release, Raj Bhavan said Chatterjee’s statement was an “attempt to cover the lapses of the State government and divert the attention from the main issue of law and order”, and the allegations of the Chief Minister amounted to “insulting and humiliating the Governor and his Office”. It said her allegations were “baseless” and were “meant only to emotionally blackmail the people of West Bengal”.

“The Governor says that instead of making accusations against him, it is better for the Chief Minister and her colleagues to direct their attention to maintain peace and law and order in the State without making any distinction on the basis of caste, creed or community,” the press release from the Raj Bhavan read.

Mamata Banerjee announced a judicial inquiry into the communal outbreak and claimed that those responsible for starting the riots had come from across the border, from Bangladesh. Aiming her guns at the Centre, she wondered: “How did the border suddenly open up? The State government is not responsible for guarding the border; it is the Centre’s job.” The Trinamool Congress received another handle to attack the Governor with, when, much to the embarrassment of the BJP, senior BJP leader and the party’s national secretary, Rahul Sinha, described the Governor as a “sainik” (soldier) of the “Modi bahini” (Modi army).

“The cat is finally out of the bag. We have been saying for a while that the Raj Bhavan has been turned into a BJP office; Rahul Sinha’s statement confirms it,” said Chatterjee. The BJP, however, dismissed Sinha’s comment as his own. “The party does not agree with him. It is not the party’s stand,” said Kailash Vijayvargiya, BJP national general secretary who is in charge of West Bengal. It was at Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s intervention that decorum was restored.

Governor’s role

Interestingly, neither Mamata Banerjee nor Raj Bhavan went into the details of the conversation that took place between the Chief Minister and the Governor. Even at her emotionally charged press conference, Mamata Banerjee did not mention what it was that she found insulting and threatening in the Governor’s words. Although the point of conflict remained unclear, the issue has once again revived the age-old debate on the role of the Governor and the scope of his functions and powers.

According to the former Advocate General and noted constitutional expert Bimal Chatterjee, there is really no boundary line to curb the functions of either the Governor or the Chief Minister. “It is their conscience, their sense of propriety and awareness of their duties, that ultimately dictate their functioning. I am not aware of any constitutional provision or legislation laying down the limits of a Governor’s functions and powers. I do not know of any provision that says that beyond this point a Governor is overstepping the boundaries of his powers and functions. The boundary is defined by the mutual respect for each other and the mutual consciousness of their respective responsibilities,” Bimal Chatterjee told Frontline .

The social scientist and professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University Biswanath Chakraborty pointed out that the Governor, being a constitutional head, had full right to aid and advice the Council of Ministers headed by the Chief Minister, but it was up to the Council to use its discretion to heed the advice or not. The Governor can express concern and even caution the Chief Minister on a particularly sensitive issue.

“The Governor, I feel, is totally justified in expressing concern to the Chief Minister over the disturbance in Basirhat, as there was widespread lawlessness and no sign of any Central forces. He did his normal constitutional work. But the way the Chief Minister reacted is unprecedented. We have seen conflicts between the Governor and the Chief Minister in several States, including West Bengal, earlier, but we have never seen such a public outburst against the Governor by the Chief Minister. This goes against the spirit of the parliamentary form of government,” Chakraborty said. He also felt that the Governor’s repartee, particularly the second one, was unnecessary and it aggravated the situation. Many point to Tripathi’s long association with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the BJP to justify the apprehension of the Trinamool Congress that he is behaving in a partisan manner against the State government. “It is precisely for this reason that the Constitution framers had preferred the post of the Governor to be occupied by a non-political person,” he said.

Centre-State relations

The State government’s bitter feud with the Governor marked a new low in the relationship between the Trinamool government and the BJP at the Centre—a relationship that has never been cordial, despite the fact that Mamata Banerjee was once part of the National Democratic Alliance (1999 to 2001, and again in 2004). In her tirade against the Governor, Mamata Banerjee also launched a thinly veiled attack on the Centre and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Some people are destroying the country and then going abroad to talk of unity. They are setting fire to the harmony between communities and religions and then saying sweet words on religious unity in foreign lands,” she said.

The spat served to throw open the floodgates of grievances against the Centre. The main complaint of the State is that of non-cooperation of the Centre, particularly with reference to the deployment of Central forces to the Darjeeling hills, which have been on the boil since June 8.

“It has been a month since trouble broke out in the hills…. We have been asking for additional Central forces, but the Centre is sitting on the requisition…. This is a clear case of non-cooperation that goes against our federal structure,” Mamata Banerjee said.

Trouble seems to be erupting all at once in different places and in different forms for Mamata Banerjee, creating immense pressure on her government. The Darjeeling hills continue to burn as the movement for a separate State of Gorkhaland has taken a violent turn, communal flare-ups have led to a serious law and order crisis in the State requiring Central forces to quell the situation, and some of the most influential leaders of the Trinamool Congress are being summoned one after the other by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate in connection with the Narada case (a sting operation carried out by the news portal Narada in which several top Trinamool leaders, including its Members of Parliament, Ministers, MLAs, and the Mayor of Kolkata, were seen accepting cash on camera).

“This is the first time since she turned her political career around in 2009 that Mamata Banerjee is facing challenges from every corner, and her past successes are fast collapsing. Most of the problems she is facing are also being exacerbated owing to the complete lack of support from the Centre,” Chakraborty said.

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