Centre-State Relations, 2011-2021: The Experience of West Bengal

1. Introduction

While the search for a smooth working relationship between the Union and its federating units has always been a central concern for all federal polities, it has remained ever elusive. Except for rare periods of peace and good will, such a relation-ship has usually been characterised by stress and strain. That is why it forms an important part of political discourse. In India, too, it has been a live issue since the introduction of the Constitution of India in 1950. The federal arrangement worked apparently smoothly till 1967. After that, new forces in the form of non-Congress governments in several states radically altered the existing relationship. It brought to the fore many issues of Union State relations which had been lying dormant or whose full potential was unmanifested till then. As a result of the surfacing of these new forces, stresses and strains in federal relationships developed.

2. The Phases of Indian Federalism

Indian federalism has evolved over the decades, and this can be broadly structured in four phases. The first lasted for four decades after Independence. The Constitution, in fact, does not use the term federal, but calls India a “union of states”. The backdrop of Partition and the recognition among founders that the country needed a strong Centre to consolidate the Republic gave India a quasi federal structure – where the Centre was more powerful than the states. The fact that the Congress was in power both at the Centre and in most states meant that politically too, Delhi remained more powerful than state capitals. The second phase saw the rise of the regional parties and the decay of the Congress, particularly since the late 1980s, changing the distribution of power. The emergence of the coalition era, where regional parties had extraordinary power to decide who would govern in Delhi, reinforced the trend. Suddenly, states were equally – if not more – powerful than the Centre. The third phase began in 2014 and subsequent state polls. India had a single-party majority government after three decades. The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) also swept polls in a majority of Indian states. This meant that Delhi was once again more powerful than the states, which largely abided by the Centre’s
political directives and implemented schemes and policies.

But the past two-three years have seen a new equilibrium emerge. The Centre is strong, but states have strongly begun asserting their independent identity. As more states slip out of the control of the BJP, and as politics becomes more polarised, India is headed towards a fourth phase where both the Centre and the states are strong, and there is an underlying tension within the federal compact. One among them is the example of West Bengal relations with the current BJP government at the centre.

3. The Assertiveness of the Regional Parties

In the 1980’s, the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, who was often accused of excessive centralization, was also compelled to set up Sarkaria Commission to look into the grievances of state governments. The Commission, which submitted its report in 1987-88 made some important recommendations, which included the reform of institutions like the Planning Commission and The National Development Council on the one hand, and the setting up of the Inter State Council under
Article 263 of the Constitution.

The coalition era of the late 1990s has resulted in a number of changes. First, regional parties begun to assert themselves in a number of economic and foreign policy issues. In the NDA Government (1998-2004), the Telugu Desam a regional outfit of Andhra Pradesh, was assertive not just in economic demands for the state but also in reaching out to the outside world, especially the US for closer economic ties.

Regional parties continued to hold sway even in the UPA government with the prominent ones being the DMK of Tamil Nadu, the NCP of Maharashtra, and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. A strong illustration of regional satraps punching above their weight according to many is the blockage of many important reforms like Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail by the Trinamool Congress,
which was an ally of the erstwhile government. When the government did pass the bill Trinamool walked out of the alliance.

In the realm of foreign policy as well, states have begun to assert themselves more. This includes not just the Teesta River Water Treaty, and the signing of the land swap agreement between India and Bangladesh which was opposed by the Trinamool Congress. A number of Chief Ministers have taken the lead in reaching out and sought Foreign Direct Investment (FD). Owing to the compulsions of
coalition politics, India was also compelled to vote against Sri Lanka at the United Nations in 2012 and 2013 due to pressure from the DMK, a regional party of Tamil Nadu, which ultimately walked out of the coalition.

4. Modi Vs Mamata

The most vitriolic of all of Modi’s political opponents, Mamata, didn’t relent on her hard-hitting criticism of the BJP and the prime minister even after he scored a thumping victory for a second term at the Centre. Mamata, who had declined an invitation to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony after the BJP’s Lok Sabha victory as a mark of protest, did not attend any meeting called by the Centre for chief ministers – whether they were convened by the prime minister, home minister, NITI Aayog or any other arm of the government – after Modi 2.0 began its term. During the Lok Sabha election, the feud between Modi and Mamata was at its peak. From demonetisation in 2016 to the latest NRC issue, and the abrogation of Article 370 in between – Mamata had fiercely criticised and opposed almost every decision by the Modi government.

Amidst the frantic political activity towards the end of the year and the plethora of administrative steps to contain the spread of the pandemic, something that stood out every time was the worsening of Centre-State ties. From counting the deaths due to COVID-19 to Central teams visiting the State and alleging that the State government was not allowing them to move freely, the friction between the State and the Central government came to the fore even when all resources should have been deployed to save lives. Whether it was the implementation of Central schemes like Ayushman Bharat or the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, the Centre and the State spoke in different voices. While the State insisted that they have a better scheme and the Centre should transfer funds to it, the Central government insisted that politics was coming in the way of the welfare of the people.

Even recently, In just three weeks since the Trinamool Congress returned to power, the face-off between the West Bengal government and the BJP-led Central government has sharply intensified with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee when she skipped a review meeting on Yaas cyclone called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the Centre recalling West Bengal Chief Secretary to Delhi to serve the Union government. Even though the Centre had just four days back approved a proposal by the state to extend his tenure by three months.

5. The Office of Governor Vs TMC

Bengal has had an uneasy relationship with her governors right from the days of Robert Clive. At times it has even been perilous, such as when a twenty-one-year-old student Bina Das fired five shots from her revolver at Bengal Governor Stanley Jackson at the Convocation Hall of the Calcutta University, where she was to get her degree from his hands the same day in 1932.

In the present time there has been a continuous controversy over the use of the governor’s post which highlight the urgent need to seriously revisit this much-maligned constitutional office – perhaps even go back to the Sarkaria Commission Report which had advised against using this office to accommodate or rehabilitate politicians of the ruling party. The differences between the current governor and the West Bengal government became so intense that ‘by the end of the year 2020 Trinamool Congress officially wrote to the President asking for his removal – an unprecedented and rare development in the constitutional history of the State’.

5.1 Why Governor Can’t Directly Summon Bureaucrats or the Police

Under the Parliamentary system, the governor, while the head of the state, is not the head of the government. It is also equally true that, unlike the president, the governor has a little more freedom in matters such as choosing the chief minister, dissolving the assembly, and recommending President’s Rule. In the Constituent Assembly, HV Kamath’s proposal to curtail these matters of gubernatorial discretion had not found favour. Invoking Article 167 of the Constitution of India, the governor can certainly insist that he be well briefed about the goings-on in the administration carried on under his name. However, it is always understood that this right is exercised through the Council of Ministers.

Most states, including Bengal, have framed the Transaction of Business Rules which set out the procedure of decision-making in government in the minutest detail. In several matters, as per these Rules, the files are not even put up before the Raj Bhavan, though the babu routinely issues the orders in the name of the governor.

5.2 Significance of Consultation Between the Elected and the Nominated

Our founding fathers not only understood the significance of ‘consultation’ between the elected and the nominated, they were conscious that the sanctity of this process should be preserved at all costs. English Constitutionalist Water Bagehot had said that the Sovereign has the right to ‘consult’, to ‘encourage’ and to ‘warn’. The Indian governor – some of our states are even more populous than the British Isles – is the mirror of that sovereign in our parliamentary democracy. The governor, despite being unelected – and precisely on account of not having to be tied to electoral compulsions – is ideally placed to play the role of a guide, the father-figure. Often, many governors have, behind closed doors, fallen back upon these tools to course-correct Executive action.

It is for this reason that the Constitution wanted to preserve this process from the public gaze and leave it to the wisdom of the holders of high office. What was not anticipated is that such a system of ‘moral authority’ – of the ‘unelected’ over the ‘elected’ – assumed that both of them would play by the rules. Sadly, present governor and his chief minister started off on the wrong foot, and it was only a
matter of time before this ‘dialogue’ – which Ambedkar’s men tried so hard to keep away from the politics of public gaze – started being conducted over social media.

5.3 Was Bengal Governor Able to Act as the ‘Goal-Keeper’?

The governor would not hesitate to vent his displeasure at being stranded without a proper welcome at a statue garlanding ceremony or on a district visit. Contrast this with a feud of much more severe in intensity that Lt Governor Tajinder Khanna waged with Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, unknown to the general public and behind closed doors.

Dhankhar started directly summoning bureaucrats and police officers demanding that he be briefed. In his defence, he claimed that he was compelled to do so as his ministers were starving him of ‘information’. The elected government also hit back with a vengeance.

When the governor, disregarding convention, would plan a district visit without the consultation of the elected government, strict orders would go out from Nabanna (State Secretariat), that officials at the district level were expected not to meet-and-greet Bengal’s First Citizen nor participate in his meetings.

Let history be the judge of who poisoned the well. However, the fact that the elected government and its unelected head are at war is for all to see. The TMC accuses the Rajyapal of acting like a ‘poddopal’ (‘poddo’ being lotus in Bangla, an allusion to BJP’s party symbol). They accuse the BJP of using governor and his office as an agent of disruption. Governor, in his defence, says that he is the goal keeper trying to protect the rule of law against the tyranny of the elected.

5.4 How Bengal Governor Kept His Chief Minister in the Dark

If people had hoped for better sense to prevail on both sides, post the electoral showings, they were sadly mistaken. Breaking tradition, at the oath-taking ceremony itself, the governor publicly shared his ‘advice’ with the chief minister to rein in her party cadre accused of post-poll reprisals against the opposition party workers. The chief minister shot back saying that her priority was COVID control. Defying the advice of the elected government, Dhankhar shot off to Sitalkuchi, the site of poll time violence in Bengal. There, inexplicably, he met with only BJP workers.

The response of the elected government was predictable. Governor himself, while wiping his tears with a handkerchief handed to him by his ADC, summarised his anguish at being boycotted by the administration and local police. There were news reports that he had been met with black flags and
jeering crowds.

Back in Kolkata, the governor sanctioned the prosecution of his sitting minister in the long-pending Narada sting case being investigated by the CBI, without even bringing this to the notice of his chief minister or giving her the option of securing a face-saving exit of the minister. The Speaker of the Assembly was also in the dark. The mayhem that followed the next day was for all to see.

5.5 Imperative for Bengal to Have a Stable Executive

In years past, wise rulers in Delhi have accommodated the wishes of even Opposition-ruled states in matters of gubernatorial assignments. A case in point is that of Surjeet Singh Barnala in Tamil Nadu. Bengal is a sensitive border state. It is imperative that it has a stable executive and its fight against the pandemic is not derailed by these side shows. While Bengal has just chosen its leader, and who,
for the present, cannot be wished away, certainly it is in the hands of the Centre to de-escalate this without going into the issue of who is in the wrong. After all, nation before ego – right?

6. The History of President’s Rule in West Bengal

The imposition of President’s rule in the states has been one of the most controversial issues. It should, however, be noted that since 1977 there has been no occasion to impose President’s Rule in West Bengal. In the recent years there has been few occasions when the speculations were rife surrounding an impending President’s Rule in the state. The crisis in West Bengal – the high voltage drama, rather – has added in an extra dimension to the already tensed and mercurial temper of Indian politics. while the West Bengal CM has openly challenged the centre to invoke Article 356, the BJP government at the centre maintains, though the unfortunate political incident of post-poll violence, and the unprecedented and prosecutable scuffle between CBI and Kolkata Police and the theatrics that ensued, were ‘bordered on the failure of constitutional machinery’, the situation in the state is not grave enough to impose President’s Rule yet. If at all, the highly conjectured situation becomes a reality in the coming days, it won’t be the first time that Bengal would be faced with a governmental shut-down; in fact, it would be the sixth, as the state has come under President’s Rule in five different occasions previously.

The first time Article 356 was enacted on West Bengal was upon the death of Chief Minister, Bidhan Chandra Roy in July 1962, albeit for a short span of 7 days, till the next leader was elected and Prafulla Chandra Sen assumed office on 9th July 1962. Introducing the President’s Rule in this one occasion was an organic and obvious step without any political hiccups and the state could come out of it smoothly.

The state came under President’s Rule again on 20 February 1968, after Chief Minister Dr. P.C. Ghosh relinquished his authorities and submitted his resignation to the Governor of West Bengal, Mr. Dharma Vira. His was a short-lived coalition government that went out of office in just three months. Subsequently, President Dr. Zakir Hussain signed the proclamation affirming the emergence of circumstances that rendered it impossible for the government to function in accordance with the provisions of the constitution, thereby obligating him to exercise his powers as bestowed under Article 356 and dissolving the State Legislative Assembly. West Bengal was governed under President’s Rule for over a year, till Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee assumed office as the elected Chief Minister in the state’s fifth Legislative Assembly elections.

Unfortunately, this coalition government of Bangla Congress and CPI(M), much like the one it succeeded, on account of growing disharmony and unsettling differences among members, was fated to collapse. Following a short tenure of a year and 19 days, Mukherjee presented his resignation to the governor, leading the state to its third phase of President’s Rule. The state ran without an assembly for over a year: from 19th March 1970 to 2nd April 1971.

Now these were tumultuous times for the people of West Bengal as the state was on a roller-coaster ride that swapped between a government and President’s Rule every 6 months to 1 year. In April 1971, Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee, was appointed the Chief Minister of the state, to preside over a coalition government, again. Came as a shock to no one, when, in less than 3 months, the governmental machinery came crashing down, leaving voters exhausted, and the state in shambles. The inevitable break-down resulted in a 265-days-long President’s Rule under V.V Giri.

In March 1972, West Bengal got its first stable government since the Third Assembly. The INC government led by Siddhartha Shankar Ray stayed in office for 5 years and 41 days. The assembly was dissolved on the 30th of April 1977, and the vacant office was brought under President’s Rule for the fifth time, though for an expanse of only 51 days, this time. On June 21st, 1977, the newly elected CM, Jyoti Basu assumed the Office of Chief Minister, thus, marking the dawn of an uninterrupted three-decade-long regime of the communist empire in Bengal.

It’s been over four decades since those wavering years of legislative uncertainty suffered by the state; the Communists and the TMC have given stable governance to its people. Satisfactory? Let that be a debate for a different day. Issue at hand is, ‘will or will not the center wield the ultimate weapon in its armory’. If dissolving the Mamata government is the sole impetus, it will. But will that prove to be rewarding enough for the BJP in the longer run? West Bengal is home to people who are driven by raw and overpowering emotions; dislodging their voted leader would only secure her sympathy and more electoral gains in the coming battles.

7. Conclusion

India had been envisioned as a federation by our Constitution makers, and so states were assigned some important subjects in which the centre could have no or only limited authority. Thus state governments run by opposition parties could pursue policies different from those of the Central Government in a number of ways.

To ensure that this does not slide into a dysfunctional polity, there is a need for accommodation on both sides. The BJP must recognise that while it has a brute majority in the Lok Sabha, running a diverse country like India requires sensitivity to regional aspirations and a working relationship with parties opposed to it nationally, but which exercise power in specific geographical domains. The states too must recognise that the division of powers in the Constitution is sacred – and abide by the spirit of the Union, State and Concurrent lists that specify which unit has the authority over which subjects. A collision between the Centre and states will undermine Indian unity.


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