Governor versus Bengal government: Replaying history

Kolkata, Jan 12 (IANS) Tussles between the governor and the state government, common in politically volatile West Bengal during the Left Front's 34-year rule, seem to have returned with the governor locked in verbal duel with a senior Trinamool Congress minister following recent clashes between the ruling party's and opposition CPI-M cadres.

The spat followed the attack on CPI-M legislator and former state minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah at Bhangar in South 24 Parganas last Sunday allegedly by Trinamool Congress activists led by former legislator Arabul Islam. While Mollah was hospitalised with multiple injuries, the attack triggered more violence, leaving many political workers injured and a number of cars torched.

Soon after, Governor M.K. Narayanan dubbed the clashes as "some kind of vandalism", and asked police and administration to be impartial while arresting the guilty.

Terming the violence as "not acceptable", Narayanan - a former national security adviser - also pointed at the weaknesses in the police in tackling the clashes.

A day later, the state government hit back. Panchayat and Public Health Engineering Minister Subrata Mukherjee called Narayanan a "Congress-appointed constitutional head" and said the governor was speaking more like a politician and his comments would provoke the people. Mukherjee also said that the government was keeping the governor under watch.

When mediapersons sought Narayanan's reaction, he said: "I stand by my comment."

The verbal duel continued on Friday.

Mukherjee - despite facing criticism from the opposition, civil society and some constitutional experts for taking on the governor - also stuck to his stand.

"I am not a constitutional expert. My position continues to be unchanged. Everything is on record," he said.

"I am glad that I am safe," the governor retorted, asked about the minister's comment that he was under watch.

He also refuted Mukherjee's accusation that he was a "Congress-appointed constitutional head" and added: "I said what I said as a governor. There is no conflict of interest. I am not aspiring to be an elected member."

However, Mamata Banerjee - far from a reticent person - kept mum during the verbal exchanges. Rumours from the chief minister's office were rife that Mukherjee would be sacked as the government's spokesman. Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim and Industries Minister Partha Chatterjee would don the mantle, sources said.

The Narayanan-Mukherjee row is only the latest episode in the Raj Bhavan versus the state government dispute played out in West Bengal over the last six decades.

The first such controversy arose during the gubernatorial tenure of Dharma Vira - an Indian Civil Service officer of the British era - when he dismissed the United Front government of Ajoy Mukherjee in 1967. The governor felt Mukherjee had lost his majority, but the CPI-M and other partners lambasted him and brought out huge rallies decrying his stand.

Sixteen years down the line, governor A.P. Sharma became the bete noire of the CPI-M-led Left Front government when it cried foul over many of his decisions, particularly the appointment of Santosh Bhattacharya as the Calcutta University vice chancellor. The then chief minister, Jyoti Basu, led the protests. Sharma's ten-month stint (1983-84) saw tumultuous scenes as cries of "A.P. Sharma gaddi choro, Bangal choro (A.P. Sharma leave your chair, leave Bengal)" rent the air.

The next friction came in 1989-90, when T.V. Rajeshwar became the state's constitutional head. Appointed by the Congress government of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the former IB chief's appointment was viewed suspiciously by the Left Front, which smelt a conspiracy. Rajeshwar and the Left Front never gelled, and he was replaced a few months after V.P. Singh became prime minister with support from the CPI-M.

The five-year term of Gopal Krishna Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi's grandson as governor between 2004 and 2009, saw frequent run-ins between him and the Left Front.

Gandhi took the regime to task repeatedly on law and order issues, especially during the violence in East Midnapore district's Nandigram where the state government wanted to acquire land for a chemical hub, but the peasants refused to part with their land.

The unrest culminated in police firing Mar 14, 2007, leaving 14 people dead. Gandhi issued a statement saying the deaths in police firing has "filled me with a sense of cold horror". Again when armed activists, allegedly of the CPI-M, violently entered Nandigam leaving a trail of death and destruction, Gandhi said in a press release that "darkness has descended during Diwali".

Left Front leaders were at hammer and tongs with Gandhi on numerous occasions, saying he had exceeded his brief. Marxist leader Benoy Konar even suggested that Gandhi leave Raj Bhavan and join politics straightaway.

(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at s.panth@ians.in)

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