Battle Lines Drawn in Bengal: 'Election Still Far Off, Relax,' Mamata Tells Governor Dhankar

"What he is doing is worse than BJP’s party mouthpiece. If he forces us, we will fight it out politically, democratically and peacefully."

Kolkata: With Assembly elections due in the state in less than a year’s time, all semblance of constitutional courtesy was thrown out of the window on Thursday as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, possibly for the first time, unequivocally linked Governor Jagdeep Dhankar’s recent criticism of the state government to BJP’s electoral game plan.

The chief minister went to the length of saying that she was ready to fight the governor “politically and democratically.”

The Trinamool Congress government and the Bengal governor have been at loggerheads over various issues ever since Dhankar assumed office just about a year ago.

Various state ministers have in the past accused the governor of working hand in glove with the ruling party at the Centre, but Mamata’s stance against the constitutional head of the state surpassed all previous instances of acrimony as she said, “We are still tolerating everything. But my humble request to the honourable governor: Don’t go too far. If you force us, we shall fight it out politically, democratically and peacefully.”

The most recent bones of contention between the Raj Bhavan and the ruling party in Bengal have been the unnatural death of a BJP MLA in the state and the governor’s letter to vice-chancellors (VC) asking them to attend a video-conference with the chancellor, i.e., the governor himself, over the prevailing impasse in universities. 

Also read: North Bengal Shuts Down Partially as BJP Raises Pitch Against Mamata Govt Over MLA’s Death

The body of Hemtabad BJP MLA Debendra Nath Roy was found hanging in a marketplace in Uttar Dinajpur district on July 13.

Roy had won the 2016 Assembly elections on a CPI(M) ticket and joined the BJP in 2019. Uttar Dinajpur superintendent of police Sumit Kumar said prima facie, it was a case of suicide and a suicide note had been found.

A delegation of BJP leaders met the governor on Tuesday, seeking a CBI investigation into the death. Tweeting about his meeting with the politicians, Dhankar called the incident a ‘political murder’ and alleged that police officers were working under political compulsion. 

In the other development, the state vice-chancellors’ organisation, the Upacharya Parishad, on Tuesday issued a statement saying that they had received ‘humiliating’ and ‘intimidating’ letters from the governor’s office on July 13 and 14, the language of which ‘hurt the prestige’ of the VCs.

They refused to attend the virtual conference unless the invitation was routed through the state higher education department. It termed the entire episode ‘extremely undesirable’. Reacting to the snub, Dhankar took to Twitter and said that he could not allow students’ issues to be ‘politically caged’. 

Mamata came to Thursday’s press conference prepared with notes, phone records and reams of paper, apparently containing her government’s communication with the Raj Bhavan. She spent at least half-an-hour of the hour-long session at the state secretariat explaining her position vis-à-vis the governor’s accusations.

She began by saying, “I don’t hit out unless I am provoked. But it’s becoming a one-sided game.” Waving the papers, Mamata said, “These are our replies to the governor’s queries. Besides, the education minister has met him. So has the chief secretary, on numerous occasions. Only yesterday, I spoke to him four times. I have the records in my phone. Still, he says we don’t get back to him.”

She took her time swiping her phone in an apparent attempt at looking at her exchanges with the governor, but said she would not read out the messages as “it won’t look nice.” “We are elected representatives. We respect his chair, but we also deserve courtesy. Are we here to run his errands? Are we his servants?” Mamata said, visibly worked up. 

Reminded by a journalist that the governor had showcaused the vice-chancellor of Cooch Behar Panchanan Barma University in February for his alleged failure to follow rules in convening the convocation, Mamata lost no time in saying that the step was an insult not only to the Rajbanshi community of which Panchanan Barma had been a leader and reformer, but to the people of North Bengal as well.

Also read: Jadavpur University Students Decide to ‘Rusticate’ Jagdeep Dhankhar

The showcause notice to professor Debkumar Mukhopadhyay had said that it began the ‘process for consideration of his removal from the office of VC’. With a hint of smile on her face, Mamata dared the governor to take action against the academics saying that he had no right to do so and the government would stand firmly by the VCs. “Look at the state of affairs in JNU, Jamia Millia or Nalanda University. In Bengal, VCs have freedom to function. Do I ever go to the campuses to show off my power?” Mamata said, repeating the phrase “mananiya rajyapal mahoday” a number of times. 

Detailing her experiences as a central minister who held important portfolios and has been a seven-time MP, Mamata said, “I have the experience of working for the entire country. I am still tolerating [Dhankar’s behaviour]. But the language that he is using is stinging and unacceptable. I am shocked. What he is doing is worse than BJP’s party mouthpiece. If he forces us, we will fight it out politically, democratically and peacefully.”

Mamata, who is home minister, and in charge of police in the state, said that the death of the BJP MLA was being looked into by the state CID and repeated the ‘suicide’ claim.

“So far, it appears to be a case of suicide. There is also a money angle which is being probed. Either Mr Dhankar must prove that it is a political murder or he must accept that he has lost the credibility to continue as the governor,” she said throwing an open challenge to the former BJP Lok Sabha member from Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan.

Then, Mamata added, “I wish him good health and peace of mind. The election is still far off. Relax.” 

Also read: Kolkata: Teen’s Death After 3 Hospitals Refuse Entry Puts Focus on Collapsing Health System

Like most other aspects of democratic polity, the Indian constitution ensures checks and balances in the relationship between the Governor’s office and CMO, too. Article 163 provides that the governor should exercise his function as aided and advised by a council of ministers with the chief minister at the head. Article 167 says that the chief minister has to communicate to the governor all the decisions of the council of ministers relating to the administration of the states and whenever the governor calls for any information relating to the decisions taken or regarding the administration, the chief minister has to provide him with the same.

Tiffs between ruling party leaders and governors are not new in Bengal politics. In the 1960s, the United Front government often sparred with then governor Dharam Veer. In the 80s and 90s, the Left Front government’s relationship with the then governors Bhairab Dutt Pande and Anant Prasad Sharma had turned sour too.

More recently, Jyoti Basu had confronted Gopalkrishna Gandhi over the latter’s self-imposed power cuts at Raj Bhavan in 2008. Trinamool leader Subrata Mukherjee had called former governor M.K. Narayanan a ‘Congress-appointed constitutional head’ in 2013 over the latter’s comments on violence in at Bhangar in South 24 Parganas. 

Even judging by these standards, Mamata’s comments stand out as they drag the constitutional head directly into electoral conflict between the ruling party and its principal opposition in the state. It would not be surprising if in the coming days leading up to the state elections, her party leaders see the governor’s office and the BJP establishment in the state as one and the same thing. 

Also read: Riding on Tireless Relief Work, the Left Charts a Return to Bengal’s Radar

Speaking to The Wire, CPI(M) leader and Jadavpur MLA Dr Sujan Chakraborty said, “The CM’s comments reveal that she can’t think of anything but elections even at such difficult times and in her subconscious, she knows that people will vote her out in 2021. That is why she is getting unnerved. Secondly, the chancellor and the vice-chancellor should share a cordial relationship and should be able to exchange ideas freely without the intervention of the state government. But the TMC government has always tried to build a wall between the two so that it can control the universities. Thirdly, about Hemtabad, I strongly feel the governor should not have used the phrase ‘political murder’ just as the state government should not impose its suicide theory on the investigation. What all of this does is shifts our focus from the pressing issues of the state. It certainly does not augur well for the state.”