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Kolkata: West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who was announced as the ruling coalition’s choice for vice-president, had become India’s most-talked-about governor in the past four years with his prolonged confrontation with the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal.
The 71-year-old former lawyer was announced as the NDA’s VP cancidate on Saturday, a day after he met Union home minister Amit Shah in New Delhi. He was chosen over other apparent frontrunners like Kerala governor Arif Mohammed Khan and former Union minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
Dhankhar, in all likelihood, produced even more news headlines than his Kerala counterpart concerning confrontations with the respective state governments. West Bengal had never seen a governor who engaged in such consistent and prolonged confrontation with the state government, even targeting the chief minister on several occasions.
The Twitter and media-friendly governor targeted the state government and the state’s ruling party on issues ranging from allegations of corruption, political violence and politicisation of the administration and academic institutions to an alleged undemocratic attitude.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC), in response, repeatedly branded Dhankar as the ‘real leader of the opposition’.
Began career as Janata Party, Congress leader
Dhankhar was a Janata Party member of Lok Sabha from Jhunjhunu seat in Rajasthan during 1989-91 and served as the minister of state, parliamentary affairs, in V.P. Singh’s Janata Party government between April and November 5, 1990. In 1991, he switched over to Congress and contested the Ajmer Lok Sabha seat but lost. In 1993, he became a member of the Rajasthan assembly from Kishangarh, but in 1998, he came third in the Jhunjhunu Lok Sabha seat.
He joined the BJP in 2003 and was part of the party’s 2008 assembly election campaign committee. In 2016, he was the national convener of the BJP’s law and legal affairs department.
On Saturday, after his nomination, some political observers saw it as “reward for harassing the TMC government”, while others saw it as the BJP’s ploy targeting the Rajasthan assembly election due next year. Dhankhar was known as a prominent Jat leader in Rajasthan during the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century.
Jats make up around 15% of the population in Rajasthan – where polls are due next year, while the move is also meant to woo Jats of Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, who had distanced themselves from the party during the year-long agitation against the farm laws. As a result, the BJP had to depend on consolidating caste groups that are considered inimical to the Jat community.
Jagdeep Dhankhar is a “kisan putra” (son of farmer) who established himself as “people’s governor”: BJP chief J P Nadda
— Press Trust of India (@PTI_News) July 16, 2022
Columnist Udayan Bandyopadhyay, who teaches political science at Bangabasi College in Kolkata, thinks Dhankhar became the BJP’s choice because of his performance in Bengal and also from the party’s Rajasthan election perspective.
“His determined confrontation with the state government and his habit of trying to take a higher moral ground, being a person who liked to lecture people on morality, have probably given the BJP confidence that he would be able to run the Rajya Sabha ably,” said Bandyopadhyay.
The vice-president chairs the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament.
“Besides, fielding a Jat as the vice-presidential candidate will also send a message to the upper castes ahead of the Rajasthan assembly election,” Bandyopadhyay added.
Dhankhar, who was sworn in on July 30, 2019 as the Bengal governor, replaced Keshari Nath Tripathi, who was a former BJP leader of higher stature. Tripathi, who too faced the TMC’s accusation of acting like a BJP worker, had left Bengal with a parting shot – alleging that the TMC’s “policy of appeasement” had adversely affected social harmony in the state.
Dhankhar started where Tripathi left off and got engaged in a confrontation with the state government, the chief minister and the Jadavpur University authorities in September 2019 when then Union minister Babul Supriyo was gheraoed on the campus by leftist students. Since then, confrontation continued, relentlessly. Dhankhar, too, accused Banerjee of “appeasement,” among a list of other things.
This had resulted in an unprecedented situation where the governor and the chief minister attacked each other in long letters and all such documents came to the public domain almost as soon as they were being shot off.
While the TMC repeatedly accused him of overstepping his jurisdiction, Dhankhar kept saying he was discharging his Constitutional duties.
In April 2020, amidst a raging war between theMamata government and the Narendra Modi-led Union government over COVID-19 management, Dhankhar’s consistent public criticism of the chief minister and the state administration led to a war of letters between Dhankhar and Banerjee. Aggrieved by a text message that Dhankhar sent her, Banerjee wrote in a letter to him, “You appear to have forgotten that I am an elected chief minister of a proud Indian state. You also seem to have forgotten that you are a nominated Governor.”
Following this, Dhankhar first sent her a six-page letter within a few hours, and a more detailed, 16-page letter the next day. They read more like chargesheets against Banerjee on a multitude of issues – from being “sagacious” to achieving “monumental failure.”
“I can figure out that your entire strategy is crafted to deliberately divert people’s attention from your abject failure in combating and containing coronavirus in West Bengal. Your appeasement of the minority community was so explicit and awkward that as regards a question about the Nizamuddin Markaz incident by a journalist, your reaction was ‘Do not ask communal questions.’ This is most unfortunate and cannot be appreciated,” Dhankhar wrote in his second letter.
Dhankhar refused to be a “rubber stamp” of the state government and wanted to actively participate in the decision-making process of various institutions where he is the titular head, including state-run universities. On several occasions, he has threatened university vice-chancellors and IAS officers with action for defying his institutions.
The governor’s confrontation with the universities, of all of which the governor is the chancellor, went to such an extent that vice-chancellors avoided repeated meetings he had called and the state government finally passed a Bill in the assembly to replace the governor with the chief minister as the chancellor of state-run universities. The Bill is still awaiting the governor’s approval – like several others.
The confrontation resumed with renewed zeal soon after Banerjee’s return to power in 2021. Just a day after the results were out and the date for the new government’s oath-taking had been decided, Dhankhar accorded sanction to the CBI’s plea to arrest three prominent TMC leaders in a five-year-old case. The party strongly reacted to this, and assembly speaker Biman Banerjee told the media that Dhankhar’s sanction was illegal because the speaker’s chair was not vacant. The leaders, including two ministers, later got bail.
Even before this controversy could die down, a team from the Union government landed in West Bengal to enquire into the allegations of political violence against BJP workers and supporters and Dhankhar was quick to join the chorus in alleging violence against the TMC’s opposition. He shared on Twitter a letter he wrote to the chief minister that very day, alleging that the “post poll violence, violation of human rights & dignity of women, destruction of property, perpetuation of miseries on political opponents” were “worst since independence” and that the chief minister’s continued silence & inaction ill augurs for democracy.”
The state responded with a series of five tweets, alleging that the governor’s communication format was “violative of all established norms” and that the contents of the letter were “not consistent with real facts. “The unusual step of going public in this manner abruptly and unilaterally has shocked the Government of West Bengal all the more because the contents are fabricated,” the state home department had said.
In June 2021, following another series of conflicts, the chief minister told the media that Dhankhar’s name had featured in the charge sheet of the Jain Hawala case. “The governor is a totally corrupt person. He was named in the Jain Hawala charge-sheet. He had moved the court and got his name removed. But one writ petition is still pending and it has his name,” Banerjee had said, adding that she had already written three letters for the president for the removal of the governor.
Dhankhar subsequently refuted the charge, telling the media, “Your governor’s name does not feature in the chargesheet.” However, he also ruled out taking any legal action against Banerjee, saying, “You can’t take action against your younger sister.”
His relationship with the chief minister had soured so much that in January this year, Banerjee told media persons that she had blocked Dhankhar on Twitter. Dhankhar used to tweet, tagging her, mostly to flag concerns, quite frequently. Banerjee said that she used to get irritated seeing his tweets every day. “He will tweet every day, abuse officials and sometimes abuse and accuse me. He does these things by speaking in an abusive, unethical and unconstitutional way,” she had said.
On Saturday, after his name was announced, Modi wrote in a tweet, “Shri Jagdeep Dhankhar Ji has excellent knowledge of our Constitution. He is also well-versed with legislative affairs. I am sure that he will be an outstanding Chair in the Rajya Sabha & guide the proceedings of the House with the aim of furthering national progress.”
Veteran TMC Lok Sabha MP Sougata Roy, however, said that Dhankhar was “being rewarded for harassing the TMC.”
“Tackling Dhankhar was more than handling any other opposition party leader,” a West Bengal minister told The Wire on Saturday, unwilling to be named. The formal response to Dhankhar’s candidature would come from the party’s top leadership, the minister said.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist.
Note: Additional details about Dhankar’s run-ins with the Mamata Banerjee government were added to this article after publication.