The Bengal battle

Print edition : September 30, 2000

The National Democratic Alliance stops with offering just symbolic support to the Trinamul Congress in its tussle with the Left Front government in West Bengal, but it may develop into a major political war as the Assembly elections come closer.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

DEFENCE MINISTER and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) convener George Fernandes released on September 23 a resolution of the ruling coalition that requested the Union government to "take whatever steps it deems necessary to prevent destruction of democ ratic institutions in West Bengal". Although this sought to signify that the NDA stood united behind the Trinamul Congress and its chief Mamata Banerjee, who has been carrying on a relentless campaign against the Left Front government in West Bengal, the overwhelming impression in political circles was that the rest of the NDA leadership had offered only symbolic support to Mamata Banerjee.

Home Minister L. K. Advani.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

This feeling was evident among Trinamul Congress leaders and activists themselves. Obviously, they had expected a more specific and concrete proposal from the NDA meeting in the form of a directive either to impose President's Rule in West Bengal under A rticle 356 of the Constitution or to bring certain districts of the State under the Disturbed Areas Act. It was the build-up before the meeting that had aroused such expectations.

For three weeks, several constituents of the NDA had unleashed an unprecedented campaign against the West Bengal government. Top leaders, including George Fernandes and new Bharatiya Janata Party president Bangaru Laxman, visited the State and declared t hat the law and order situation there had collapsed. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani and officials in his Ministry engaged Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and his government in an exchange of letters, and the process became more and more acrimonious. According to these NDA leaders, the State presented a fit case for the imposition of President's Rule. In fact, even as the resolution was formulated on the evening of September 23, at the meeting of the NDA Coordination Committee chaired by Prime Minister Atal B ehari Vajpayee, Laxman was in West Bengal expressing support to the idea of imposing President's Rule.

Mamata Banerjee claimed consistently that not only the NDA, but even the Congress(I) wanted concrete steps against the Left Front government. According to her, Congress(I) leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi had written to the Prime Minister seeking impositio n of the Disturbed Areas Act in districts such as Midnapore, Bankura and Hooghly, which recently witnessed intense political clashes. At the NDA meeting, Mamata Banerjee reportedly pressed her plea for action against the Left Front government with the su pport of photographs and documents. She reportedly concluded her speech with a demand that at the minimum the Disturbed Areas Act should be enforced in some parts of the State.

In the event, the meeting did not oblige her: and all that she could get was offer of support and solidarity. Trinamul Congress leaders, however, claim that the September 23 resolution was nothing but what NDA constituents had been demanding - Central ac tion in West Bengal. The constituents held that the nature of the action should, however, be left to the Union government. "We have done our bit. Now it is for the Centre to decide. The allies were unanimous that the law and order situation in West Benga l was going from bad to worse," said Mamata Banerjee after the meeting.

By all indications, a variety of political and legal factors prevented the NDA leadership from deciding on a more specific course. The prime reason was the inability of NDA partners to agree on either imposing President's Rule or using the Disturbed Area s Act. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) opposed in clear terms both the proposals, while the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) expressed the view that Article 356 should be invoked only after careful consideration. The DMK leadership said that the party had al ways held that the Disturbed Areas Act should be brought into play in accordance with the procedure laid out for the purpose - that it should be done only with the concurrence of the State government concerned.

The Act pertains specifically to tackling the insurgency situation in the northeastern States, and if it is to be enforced in any other State the consent of the State government is a pre-requisite. This norm can be bypassed only by issuing a presidential Ordinance and getting it approved by Parliament. Here again, the NDA leadership was unsure whether President K.R. Narayanan - who has repeatedly shown that he is a thinking President, and not one given to signing on the dotted line - would agree to sign such an ordinance.

And even if an ordinance is issued, getting it approved by Parliament, particularly the Rajya Sabha, is not an easy task. Parliamentary approval depends on the support of the Congress(I) in the Rajya Sabha, and the NDA leadership knew that the Congress ( I)'s support cannot be taken for granted, despite statements from leaders such as Das Munshi and West Bengal Congress(I) president Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, who have generally supported Mamata Banerjee's campaign. The Congress (I) had "similarly let down" the NDA when the Rabri Devi-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) government in Bihar was dismissed, although Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi had earlier questioned the RJD's moral authority to continue in office.

Das Munshi had, however, qualified his association with the Trinamul Congress. Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Mamata Banerjee, he said that Congress(I) workers in West Bengal were concerned about the political violence and that he was "pers onally" in favour of declaring some of the areas as disturbed. The emphasis was on the "personal" nature of the opinion.

NEVERTHELESS, it is clear that the major constituents of the NDA, including the BJP and the TDP, have resolved to harass the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Front and its government, in order to keep the Trinamul Congress happy. The NDA resolution as well as the way Advani briefed the media about the exchange of letters between him and Jyoti Basu indicated this. While the resolution commended the "courage and fortitude" shown by Mamata Banerjee and her party persons, Advani pres ented a strong defence of Mamata Banerjee and branded Basu's criticism of her as "intemperate". Advani said that Basu had chosen not to respond to specifics raised by the Centre but had, instead, called names. The resolution said that the CPI(M) had "per petrated" violence on the people of West Bengal because they had voted for NDA candidates in the recent panchayat elections and the byelection to the Lok Sabha from the Panskura constituency.

The reasons for this defence of Mamata Banerjee are not far to seek. The Trinamul Congress is indisputably the main Opposition party in West Bengal and its support is vital for the BJP to gain ground in the State. On her part, Mamata Banerjee has indicat ed that she does not allow considerations of ideology and commitment to come in the way of choosing political partners and that she can ditch them the moment she feels that they have served their purpose. In fact, a day before the NDA meeting, she gave a n indication to the BJP leadership that she was not averse to swinging 180 degrees and having the Congress(I) as her main ally in the State. This was done rather ingeniously, by taking Das Munshi to a meeting with the Prime Minister. Although the matter discussed was reportedly the flood situation in West Bengal, the underlying political message was not lost on the BJP leadership.

The TDP's spirited support to the Trinamul Congress has apparently to do with the developments in Andhra Pradesh. Together with the Congress(I), the CPI(M) launched an agitation against the steep increase in power rates by the TDP government. The struggl e between the government and the CPI(M) turned violent, and the government was in the dock following police excesses against the agitators. Interestingly, the TDP had consistently opposed the invocation of Article 356.

The CPI(M) has repeatedly highlighted the political gamesmanship that determines the position of NDA constituents such as the BJP and TDP on West Bengal. In a statement its Polit Bureau issued a day before the NDA meet, the party said that the NDA's blin d support to the Trinamul Congress' demands "would only serve to bring public ignominy to the Vajpayee government" for "putting a coalition partner's narrow political interests above democratic norms". The CPI(M) had earlier asked the BJP's allies to cla rify their stand on the use of Article 356 and other means of subverting Centre-State relations. Recalling that the TDP itself was a victim of the abuse of Article 356 in 1984, CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat said that even the Disturbed Areas Act could be u sed against States such as Andhra Pradesh and in a manner that is directed against parties such as the TDP at a later stage. The party said that the barrage of charges against the Left Front government were baseless and were made only to justify the "mis use of government machinery" that the Centre contemplated.

It is important that though the NDA has not approved either of the two "concrete steps" favoured by the Trinamul Congress, it has at least vaguely requested the Union government "to take whatever steps it deems necessary to prevent destruction of democra tic institutions in West Bengal". Possibly the next move by the Home ministry will be the dispatch of a team of officials to the State. Clearly, that will be a bid to build up a record of complaints regarding the law and order situation. Informed sources in the NDA say that the leadership is of the view that this would come in handy at some stage before the Assembly elections, due in March 2001.

At another level, they would serve the purpose of harassing Jyoti Basu and the State government. In fact, the run-up to the NDA meet provided ample indications of this, and they attracted a stern and strong reaction from the Chief Minister.

It all began with the tour of West Bengal by an NDA team led by TDP leader S. Venugopalachari. The team submitted a report to the Union Home Ministry, and the Ministry sought clarifications from the West Bengal government on certain points it raised. The NDA followed it up with high-profile visits by leaders including Bangaru Laxman and George Fernandes. These visits, portrayed as "inquiry missions", saw these leaders going around a few places in the State and condemning the government.

The Left Front government reacted sharply. Jyoti Basu and his ministerial colleagues termed them and the protestations of the NDA leaders politically vindictive and biased action. The letters between Basu and Advani followed this.

Defence Minister George Fernandes.-V. SUDERSHAN

While the basic effort of the Chief Minister was to emphasise that the law and order situation was all right in West Bengal, the letters from Advani and Home Ministry officials questioned this claim. Every one of the State government's reports was dismis sed as unsatisfactory and lacking in substance.

These exchanges many a time acquired a distinctly personal and rancorous tone. When Jyoti Basu said that George Fernandes' fact-finding mission was a joke since he neither met nor interviewed any CPI(M) functionary, Fernandes retorted: "Jyoti Basu and h is men treated my visit as if I was an intruder in the State." Basu replied that the Defence Minister did not seek any appointment with him or the Deputy Chief Minister. Fernandes dismissed as "absolute nonsense" Basu's charge that he rushed to West Beng al only to placate Mamata Banerjee.

The contention in Advani's letters and public pronouncements was that Basu had not denied the basic fact of the prevalence of political violence in the State or contradicted the charge about attacks by CPI(M) cadres on political adversaries. And hence, h e said, action should be taken against the Left Front government. Advani also said that the use of "intemperate language" against Mamata Banerjee by the Chief Minister was a "clear manifestation of the Left Front's panic at the challenge raised by her ag ainst their hegemony in the State". On his part Basu asked Advani to "restrain one of your Cabinet colleagues from this State who has a propensity to incite people to take to the path of violence" through speeches and other activities. He asserted that t he Left Front government was not in power at the Centre's "grace".

This war of words is bound to continue, whether or not the NDA Ministry takes any precipitate action in the matter. According to sources in the NDA, not many in the BJP itself are convinced about the propriety of Central intervention in West Bengal on la w and order grounds although everybody has subsumed themselves to Mamata Banerjee's tactics. These sources rate that one round of "Operation West Bengal" has come to a close with the September 23 meet. The next round, they believe, is bound to start arou nd the winter session of Parliament. That would be followed by a final round before the Assembly elections. Predictably, the war would feature politics at its acrimonious worst.

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