Kolkata: That West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee share frosty ties is no secret. Tuesday’s run-in, where the governor lashed out at the Mamata Banerjee government after officials at two districts refused to meet him, is just the latest in a series of clashes between the chief minister’s office and the governor.
Just days ago, Dhankhar had urged Mamata to rein in her ministers, claiming that they were making disparaging remarks about him.
Dhankhar has been at loggerheads with the chief minister and her Trinamool Congress government since taking charge in July. Earlier this month, he expressed anger at being ‘blacked out’ at a Durga Puja event, ruffled feathers when he said the Murshidabad triple murders were a “critical reflection” of the law and order in the state and irked the state government when he claimed he had to “rescue” Union Minister Babul Supriyo from angry students at Jadavpur University on 19 September.
The most high-profile flashpoint, however, was the governor’s request to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for central security cover after the state government failed to heed his request. It led to accusations of him “overstepping his constitutional boundary”. The MHA has granted him his request.
But Dhankhar isn’t the only governor who Mamata has had run-ins with.
In her eight-year tenure, the West Bengal chief minister has had to deal with three governors, none of whom she has particularly warmed up to.
The direct conflict between the state government and the governor’s office began with M.K. Narayanan, a UPA appointee who, in 2013, termed the political clashes in the state as an example of ‘Goondaism’.
His successor Keshari Nath Tripathi, an NDA appointee who served between 2015 and 2019, repeatedly fell foul of the Mamata government through his criticism of the law and order situation and political clashes in the state. Tripathi had even met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and submitted a report on the law and order situation.
While the Trinamool labelled Narayanan as a politically-motivated governor, Tripathi was accused of working as ‘RSS functionary’ by the state’s ministers and Trinamool leaders on several occasions.
A series of run-ins
Governor Narayanan angered the government when following violent clashes in some south Bengal districts in January 2013, he indicted the chief minister saying ‘goondaism’ was prevalent in the state. Trinamool leaders then urged the governor to refrain from making political comments.
Narayanan’s successor, Tripathi, time and again spoke of law and order issues in the state. After communal riots at Baduria in North 24 Paraganas in July 2017, Tripathi called the chief minister and asked her to take immediate action.
Following the conversation, the chief minister told reporters that she had never felt so “threatened and humiliated” adding that she felt like quitting. That prompted her party leaders to launch verbal attacks on Tripathi, accusing him of acting like an RSS functionary and turning the Raj Bhawan into a BJP office.
Tripathi retorted strongly, saying the conversation between the CM and the governor should have remained “confidential”. The two continued to indulge in a war of words.
On the number of deaths due to political violence ahead of the 2019 general elections, Banerjee claimed that the governor was feeding wrong information to the MHA and told him to not cross “constitutional lines”. Tripathi then called an all-party meeting to discuss political violence, a move that the Trinamool termed as being “motivated”.
Dhankhar ups the ante
Incumbent Governor Dhankhar, however, stepped up the battle and set a precedent by requesting the MHA for central security cover.
In a letter dated 2 October, the Governor’s office wrote to the state’s chief secretary Rajiva Sinha that “in view of the recent security challenge faced by Hon’ble Governor, he seeks revisiting the security aspect and it upgradation to Z+ category. This be kindly accorded priority, given the sensitive issue involved”.
According to sources, the governor’s office raised the security issue after the Jadavpur University incident, when Dhankhar had to “rescue” Union Minister Babul Supriyo.
For over two weeks, the government kept sitting on the request, said a senior official in Raj Bhawan. Following this, the governor directly appealed to the MHA for central security, he added.
On 17 October, the MHA acceded to the governor’s request but the modalities have to be now worked out.
Since the MHA notification, though, the West Bengal Police directorate and the CRPF are yet to hold a conclusive meeting. The state police directorate said the Mamata government has written to the Centre in this regard and it is waiting for a response.
The lack of response has led to the deferment of a meeting between the two forces scheduled for 21 October, said a senior police official. The CRPF and the state police need to hold joint review meetings to discuss modalities of the security cover for a Z+ protectee, he added.
To many senior bureaucrats in the state, however, Dhankhar’s request for security cover is unprecedented.
“This does not happen in a normal state,” said a former West Bengal home secretary. “Only the governors of Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur have been given central security cover as of now considering the threat perception. The situation is extraordinary in both states. But for Bengal, this is a first-of-its-kind situation.”
The constitutional boundaries
Experts are also divided on which office is disregarding its role.
Amal Mukherjee, the former principal of Presidency University and a constitutional expert said the Mamata government was making an “unnecessary fuss” over the governor’s role.
“A governor has the constitutional right to warn the government about law and order issues. All these three governors have done that,” Mukherjee said. “This should not prompt the government and its ministers to make politically-motivated comments. A governor should also show due respect to the government and its decision. There should be mutual respect between these two high positions.”
Mukherjee, however, sided with Dhankhar on some of the recent rows.
“The governor went to Jadavpur University where a union minister was being manhandled and humiliated. He was advised not to go by the chief minister but he did not agree,” Mukherjee said. “As a governor, he might take the advice of the chief minister. But he is the chancellor of Jadavpur University and as such, he has every right to visit.
“In another case, the governor claimed he was not given due respect in a carnival organised by the government. He was given a seat at the corner of the stage that is humiliating,” Mukherjee added. “According to the Constitution, governor is the head of the state and in a government-organised programme, he should be given the highest respect.”
Some political observers, however, also questioned the actions of Governor Dhankhar as the state’s constitutional head.
“Governor Dhankhar is challenging the Mamata government’s authority using his constitutional authority, which is quite symbolic in nature,” said professor Biswanath Chakrabarty, a political analyst. “He is, however, acting in some cases as the central government’s appointee or representative.”
The Trinamool, however, insists that the governor is continuously “overstepping his constitutional boundaries and crossing lines”.
“Governor Dhankhar is breaking all democratic conventions. He is trying to be a proactive governor and serve the party in power at the Centre,” said veteran Trinamool MP Sougata Roy. “In this way, he is bringing down the dignity of the high office. He is only using his position to keep commenting on the state, which is not desirable.”