POST TIME: 6 June, 2021 03:29:56 PM


It is West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee versus Prime Minister Narendra Modi yet again.
Even while targeting Modi, Banerjee was smart enough not to attack him directly. Instead of naming Modi, she shifted the onus to the Centre castigating it for the sudden transfer of the state Chief Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay.

The Centre, Banerjee said, is behaving like “Adolf Hitler and Stalin”. It may be recalled that Hitler and Stalin, from Germany and USSR respectively, are known for their dictatorial regimes. 

This is not the first time the feisty Chief Minister has made the Hitler-Stalin comparison with reference to the Modi led dispensation in the Centre. Earlier in a public meeting, Banerjee had gone as far as calling  Prime Minister Modi as the “king of fascists”. She did not stop there  but continued by saying that had Adolf Hitler witnessed Modi’s activities he would have committed suicide. As if that was not enough, she added by saying that “Modi was baptized in politics through violence and riots”.

That Banerjee and Modi’s relationship has been stormy is a given. During election campaigns, his ‘Didi…O didi’  catcall, not only hit a new low but was completely unbecoming of a Prime Minister. This led many of Didi’s critics also to condemn Modi for stooping so low. Some went as far as using the term “lewd” for his comment. 

After the humiliating defeat in West Bengal, the Modi led dispensation is like a wounded tigress: waiting to get back at the diminutive Chief Minister who braved the arrows, bullets and all other ammunition that the BJP had fired at her. She fought and she fought valiantly: a one-person army versus several battalions let loose by the enemy and that too one that rules the country. 

Therefore, be it the constitutional authorities like the Election Commission or official agencies like the Enforcement Directorate, all were hand in glove in the “target Mamata”  campaign unleashed by the BJP led Government at the Centre. That this was counter-productive was a given because the lone five feet nothing lady had taken it upon herself to fight unto Death. And that she did except she gave the BJP and their muscle a run for their money and all the ammunition the Modi-Amit Shah combine fired, it came back to hit them, somewhat fatally.

Mamata Banerjee not only won the election but won it far beyond everyone’s expectations.

For those who thought the war was over, did not comprehend that it had just begun. Not the ones to give up, the big bad boys decided to make  it difficult for her to govern: the  recent salvo being the abrupt transfer of West Bengal Chief Secretary which has erupted into a full-scale war between West Bengal and the Centre: actually, Banerjee versus Modi to state it correctly in  political terms.

While it is true that everything between the Centre and West Bengal must be viewed in political terms, equally, the fact that governance and administration are made subservient, is a sad commentary to the way things have unfolded. Apart from damaging the federal structure it will adversely affect the polity of the country. While the opposition ruled states often spar with the ruling party and more so during the BJP regime, it is the politics of vengeance that needs to be leashed. The BJP, sadly, does quite the opposite by unleashing it with all its might.

A case in point is the transfer row in which the state versus Centre conflict has peaked. To call it bitter would perhaps be an understatement.

It all started with Cyclone Yaas which ravaged   the eastern coast of India and played havoc in the states of West Bengal and Odisha inflicting large scale damage to human habitats. It also kicked up a political storm.

Prime Minister Modi undertook an aerial survey of the two states to take stock of the damage caused by the cyclone. Mamata Banerjee was scheduled to attend a review meeting with the Prime Minister but decided to give it a miss. Ostensibly, she was busy with an “important administrative meeting” in the cyclone affected region but the real reason was her reservation about the presence of her protégé turned rival Suvendu Adhikari with Prime Minister Modi. Adhikari, it may be recalled, had won against Banerjee in the recent elections from Nandigram assembly constituency, though with a slender margin.

However, Banerjee met the Prime Minister separately and handed over the report of the damage and the funds required for reconstruction and left before the meeting began: “I could not” she later said, “ stay in the meeting because of the state’s administrative review meeting  at Digha”.

Expectedly, swords were out: the BJP defended Adhikari’s presence on grounds that he was leader of Opposition in the state assembly: a norm not followed when Modi met 

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Neither was the leader of Opposition present when Prime Minister Modi visited Gujarat to review the damage caused by cyclone Tauktae. That Adhikari’s presence was less a norm and more scoring  a political point against Mamata Banerjee is, therefore, obvious.

True to its grain, the BJP cried foul and came down heavily on Mamata’s absence. Union Minister Amit Shah called her conduct “an unfortunate low”; Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said her behavior was “painful”. The common thread: arrogance overrode public welfare and political differences placed above duty. 

Mamata loyalists hit back on grounds that it was the BJP that was doing politics and central ministers had “ganged up”  to target her. They further charged the current dispensation of murdering federalism and asked them to “learn” from Banerjee rather than “lecturing” her. Federalism, TMC leaders said, “is not a one-way traffic”.

The war was not limited to words. The Centre chose to act and it did so rather swiftly.

In an unprecedented move, the Centre recalled West Bengal Chief Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay, directing him to report to the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) in Delhi. 

The Department of Personnel and Training  governs Central government officers, including those belonging to the IAS. The Department functions under the Ministry of Personnel and Public Grievances, a portfolio which Prime Minister Modi holds. 

A 1987-batch officer Bandyopadhyay, was set to retire on May 31, but was granted three months extension by the same department, which within days, was summoning him to report back.

A close aide of Banerjee, Bandyopadhyay was leading the state’s Covid control as well as chairing task forces for cyclone relief. His deputation to the Centre was reportedly on grounds that he had failed to attend a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss the damage caused by the cyclone. 

Not the one to take things lying down, Mamata Banerjee got even. Amid the row over his deputation, Bandyopadhyay chose to retire instead of reporting to Delhi. This followed his appointment as Chief Advisor to the Chief Minister. Banerjee later said that while she acceded to Bandyopadhyay’s request to let him retire she decided to utilize his services as Chief Adviser. Meanwhile, she shot off a letter to the Prime Minister stating that she was “shocked and stunned” by the transfer through a “unilateral order. True to her grain, she said that her government will not release Bandyopadhyay at this “critical hour”.  

Things got murkier by the minute with the Centre issuing a show cause notice to Bandyopadhyay seeking an explanation for his failure to report to Delhi. 

While there is hair-splitting on how far the Chief Minister or the Centre can go and whether there has been any violation, the situation is indeed ugly. Irrespective of the fate of the now retired Chief Secretary and current Chief Adviser, he is but a pawn in this battle royale’ where a Chief Minister is pitched against the Centre. 

This is not the first time that Banerjee has stood her ground against the Centre; nor is it the Centre’s first in recalling officers. 

Last year in December, the Centre had transferred three police officers to other units because they had failed to prevent an attack on BJP President J.P. Nadda’s convoy. Thanks to Banerjee, not only were they retained in the State, but two of them were actually promoted within two days of the face-off with the Centre. 

Coming to Banerjee’s defense is Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who has said that this is the time to work with state governments rather than fight them: “This is the time to work with all the state governments as Team India. The whole life is left for politics” he said. 

Kejriwal, too,  has been at the receiving end with the Centre needling him now and then.

As for playing politics, it is clear that the Modi led dispensation will not let Banerjee rule in peace. Nor will it make any attempts to iron out differences. Far from it. If anything they would continue to create problems for the State government and instead of dousing fires will continue to ignite them. Therefore, when Banerjee called the transfer a “political vendetta” she was not off the mark. Besides terming Modi as a “ruthless Prime Minister” she hit out at the Centre adding “injury” to the Centre-State federalism structure. 

However hyper or high strung Banerjee may be, this time around popular opinion is with her. Even her critics seem to understand where she is coming from. Therefore, if she is crying foul it is not without reason. 

The Modi-led government has certainly been shown in poor light: as one getting even with a state government they recently lost an election to; a defeat that was not only humiliating given that they had pulled all sops but also one which the Modi-Shah duo has been unable to accept or digest. Hence the we will teach her a lesson mode. That this is reflecting badly on the BJP leadership and garnering sympathy for Mamata Banerjee is a given. 

Add to this, her calling upon all Chief Ministers, senior politicians, bureaucrats to raise their voice against the Centre’s “autocratic approach” and the writing on the wall is clear. This, it seems, is the first round and if the Centre does not back off, Opposition ruled states are likely to rally around Mamata Banerjee and work towards a joint front to check the Centre’s march. As it is post the second surge disaster, the Modi government is on a weak wicket facing people’s ire, hence it is an opportune moment for the Opposition to strike and what better way to do that than with  Mamata Banerjee leading from the front?. (ends)