Kolkata: On Saturday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee described her Chief Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay as an officer who is available all 24 hours in a day.
“He is an extremely efficient and experienced officer, who takes my call at 7 am and also at 10 pm; he is available for work 24 hours,” Mamata said. “He is being harassed because he is Bengali and works for the people.”
The remarks came on the back of the Modi government Friday recalling the 1987-batch IAS officer, after Mamata and Bandyopadhyay did not attend a review meeting on Cyclone Yaas chaired by the prime minister.
On Sunday, the chief minister wrote a five-page letter to PM Modi refusing to release Bandyopadhyay, following which her government got another letter directing the senior-most civil servant of the state to join office in Delhi as instructed earlier.
The West Bengal government, however, Monday appointed Bandyopadhyay as an Advisor to the chief minister for three years effective Tuesday, after allowing the civil servant, who had been granted a three-month extension, to retire.
The post has been created just to rehabilitate the 1987-batch officer and grants him sweeping powers to take policy decisions.
“We respect his guts; he chose to retire rather than bowing down. We need his service in the interests of Bengal,” the chief minister said after re-appointing him.
Mamata’s actions over the past few days, sum up just how much she values Bandyopadhyay and his importance to the civil service structure in West Bengal.
But why has the chief minister gone to such extra lengths to protect the officer even to the extent of earning the ire of the Modi government?
According to sources in Nabanna, the state secretariat, Mamata values the civil servant for more than one reason.
For one, apart from giving credit to her poll strategist Prashant Kishor for her incredible election victory, Mamata, sources in Nabanna said, praised some of the schemes like Duare Sarkar (government at doorstep) designed by her chief secretary, as ones that turned the tide in her favour.
The chief minister trusts Bandyopadhyay to such an extent that he heads almost all committees formed for relief and rehabilitation work in the past two years, from Covid-19 pandemic to cyclones Amphan and Yaas.
A retired civil servant, to whom Bandyopadhyay once reported, said the officer’s nature endears him to all.
“Alapan is seen as one of those bureaucrats whose transition in terms of shifting loyalty has been smooth from one political dispensation to another. He never struggles to fit into a particular system, he makes it rather easy,” the retired civil servant said. “He never confronts his political boss with rules or legalities. He does what the government wants done. And his logic has always been a belief in bureaucratic flexibility.”
A senior serving officer in the state said that both chief secretaries — Bandyopadhyay and Rajiv Sinha — have in the past few years made it a habit of opening their speeches, during televised district review and administrative meetings, with praises for the chief minister.
“Mamata Banerjee, like PM Modi, likes being praised all the time. But it suits them the most when bureaucrats do this,” the officer said. “It is expected of their party colleagues but when bureaucrats, seen to be neutral educated officers, do this, it gets extra attention. Alapan babu does it best.”
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Mamata’s favourite officer
Alapan Bandyopadhyay, a Ramkrishna Mission-educated and a Presidency college graduate, started his career as a journalist with Bengal’s most popular vernacular daily Anandabazar Patrika.
Praised for excellent command over both Bengali and English, he rose through the civil service ranks faster than his colleagues.
During the Left Front tenure, he was known as one of closest officers of the then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Bandyopadhyay held important positions under Bhattacharjee’s government, including as the Kolkata municipal commissioner.
When the Trinamool Congress took over, Bandyopadhyay never lost out. He made his way through bureaucratic reshuffles and became home secretary in late 2019 from his position as MSME secretary.
He had then replaced Atri Bhattacharya, another comparatively young IAS officer, who had superseded at least 20 seniors to become the state’s home secretary, because the chief minister liked his way of functioning.
Before he was home secretary, Bandyopadhyay had served as transport secretary when Suvendu Adhikari, who is now a BJP MLA and leader of the Opposition in Bengal, was the transport minister.
When Adhikari began drifting away from Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress following the 2019 Parliamentary elections, Bandyopadhyay was given full charge of the department and allowed to take decisions.
But the fact that he is endearing was evidenced by Adhikari’s statements on the CM and her chief secretary skipping the PM’s meeting at the Kalaikunda airbase near Kharagpur.
Terming “Alapan babu” as an “efficient officer”, Adhikari said, “He is not at fault. I worked with him as transport minister. He always did what he was asked to do.”
On the personal front, Bandyopadhyay’s wife Sonali Chakravarty is the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, and he is the son-in-law of eminent Bengal poet Nirendranath Chakravarty.
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