The Rajasthan lawyer-politician who has become a headache for mighty Mamata

The Rajasthan lawyer-politician who has become a headache for mighty Mamata

Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar regularly fires salvos at CM Mamata and her govt, prompting even some BJP leaders to believe he is ‘occupying the opposition space’. 

File image of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar | By special arrangement

File image of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar | By special arrangement

Kolkata: As she heads into an election year, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee biggest challenges appear to be coming from an unexpected quarter — state Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar. 

The lawyer-politician from Rajasthan, with no real political standing, is proving to be a constant thorn in the flesh for the mass leader with two chief ministerial terms under her belt.

From firing salvos at the chief minister, her government and her party leaders, meeting with civil servants to shooting off letters on Constitutional provisions, Dhankhar has changed the very conventions that Raj Bhavans normally function by in his 11-month long tenure.  

The governor has been such a constant irritant to the chief minister that the ruling Trinamool Congress now refers to the Raj Bhavan, his official residence, as an ‘extension of the BJP office’, while there are rumblings even within the BJP that he has been “occupying the opposition’s space”.   

Political experts in the state now say that Dhankhar could even play a role in the elections scheduled for 2021.  

Professor Partha Pratim Bose of Jadavpur University describes the governor’s actions as “binary politics” from Raj Bhavan.

“Politicised Raj Bhavans are part of BJP’s politics and there are many instances to establish it. This has been the case in Maharashtra too,” he said. “Having said that, I would like to mention that Dhankharji’s comments and statements are not whimsical but well-designed.

“In a state like Bengal, where people have grievances against the government and resentment is brewing, Dhankharji’s tweets, statements, media interactions appear to be credible opposition to our mighty chief minister. So people have started believing in him,” Bose added.

“It is also a reflection of the BJP’s state unit. Since they do not have a credible enough face to attract people’s attention. Dhankharji’s suave and sophisticated anti-establishment expression and argument appeals to people. He will surely have an impact in the upcoming election.” 

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A cyclic face-off

The Mamata government’s tussles with the Governor have been a never-ending cyclic stand-off.   

It began soon after the governor took over in July last year. In September, Dhankhar commented on the functioning of universities in the state, saying the vice-chancellors of universities should have ‘strong spines’.  

Another flashpoint came in September, when the governor reached Jadavpur University and rescued Union Minister Babul Supriyo, who was being gheraoed by students protesting against the violence in JNU and the proposal for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).   

It escalated after the governor was not received well at the Bengal legislative assembly and at a couple of universities in December and January. The government also began ignoring his directions, letters for responses and requests for logistic support to travel to places to attend government programmes. 

Things really flared up in December when the chief minister led the protests against the CAA and the NRC in the state. The governor objected to the TMC government’s advertisements against the CAA and the NRC in the media, saying it was legally untenable to spend public money to protest a legislation passed by Parliament. He sought explanation from the government, which it refused to provide. 

Between October and February, however, there were efforts at a reconciliation. Mamata invited Dhankhar to her residence during Kali Puja and Bhai Phonta in October. The governor also stuck to the government’s script and read it during his first budget speech in February, even though the speech included Mamata’s stand against the CAA.

The chief minister also experimented with more than one way to make him less reactive but she has failed. She sent her ministers and civil servants to brief the governor on a number of issues and also wrote to him in April against making communications between them public. 

But the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis and the relief efforts in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan have sparked another round of wrangling. At the start of the pandemic, Dhankhar wrote a dozen letters to the state government seeking responses on various issues — from testing kits, details of Tablighi Jamaat members in the state to delayed test results. 

He also made statements on the health infrastructure in the state, testing protocol and the “miserable” condition of the government’s Covid facilities. Sources told ThePrint that he was instrumental in getting the inter-ministerial central teams (IMCT) to the state, following which the government revised its Covid-19 numbers. 

The latest flashpoint came on 14 June, when the governor tweeted on a viral video, showing highly decomposed dead bodies being dragged by municipal workers near a South Kolkata crematorium, calling it “horrendous and unimaginable” and demanding a public apology from Mamata. 


While the chief minister has remained quiet, her party MPs such as Dinesh Trivedi and Mahua Moitra and senior ministers like Partha Chatterjee and Firhad Hakim have taken over the mantle and have been relentlessly tweeting against the governor. 


Unfortunate situation in the country: Dhankhar

On his part, Dhankhar told ThePrint that he only abides by the Constitution.   

“This is an unfortunate situation in the country that whenever the party in power at Centre and the party in power at state are different, the Governor is invariably seen as the Centre’s man,” he said.

“It is easy to brand the Governor as the Centre’s affiliate but I take counsel from all, and commands from the Constitution only. It is also unfortunate that the ruling party in Bengal is taking a rope to be a snake.” 

But the governor took a dig at the chief minister on issues like media freedom. 

“Several distinguished guests including some senior journalists who called on me, requested to register different names at the Raj Bhavan gate,” he said. “At least a couple of MPs who are trading charges against me on several platforms — social media and otherwise — called me to apologise. This is the extent of fear. People breathe fear in the air in Bengal. That is a sad situation for Tagore’s state.” 

On whether the election year would be any different, Dhankhar’s response was prompt. 

“I have vouched to make it fair and free. I will reach out to people and do everything I can to make people reach polling booths. I am not concerned about who forms the government as that is the people’s choice,” he said. “But I can make sure that the police and bureaucracy function and don’t buckle under political pressure. I can promise that people will see a change in polling.” 

But some political experts feel that it would be ‘extremely unfortunate’ if the governor does become a “factor in the elections”. 

“Constitutionally, morally and ethically, he should have limited himself to constitutional approach only. There are many issues related to governance, which I feel, could have been dealt with a bit differently and without involving media attention,” said Shikha Mukherjee, a Kolkata-based political analyst.

“But he has chosen to do it in a different way. A governor should not steal the opposition’s space; he is part of the government. I feel his actions are an assault on federalism.” 

ThePrint contacted several senior TMC leaders but they refused to comment, saying the tweets by the leaders were the only “official stand and statement” of the party.

But there are rumblings within the BJP too about the governor “occupying Opposition’s space. A section of leaders feel that ‘tu tu main main’ between the governor and the Trinamool Congress is harming the BJP’s image.

“Governor raises some serious concerns and there is no doubt about it. But there are certain issues which only the Opposition should question. We are here to do that but he occupies too much of that space now,” said a senior party leader.

BJP’s national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, however, said, “He is trying to address the corruption at ground level. His tweets are meant for people to know and understand the situation. We should respect the chair. One needs to understand that he tweets only after he fails in getting a response from the government.

“He does not want to malign the state. He tries to address a particular issue,” Vijayvargiya said. “For Mamata didi, anybody who shows her the mirror is BJP. Her party calls out journalists if they dare to write against her. None can speak against her and that is the extent of her dictatorial politics.” 

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