On July 30, 2019 when Jagdeep Dhankhar walked into the premises of the majestic Raj Bhavan in Kolkata to take the mantle over from his predecessor and octogenarian Kesari Nath Tripathi as the 27th Governor of West Bengal, little could political observers foresee the level of political tussle which two of the highest offices of the state would be engaged in over the next three years.
The Raj Bhavan and Nabanna, the state secretariat housing the office of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, have been at political and administrative loggerheads bordering, at times, on bringing about a Constitutional crisis in Bengal.
Politically, the times were more than interesting when Governor Dhankhar assumed office. It was Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee’s second consecutive term as chief minister. But her party had only just suffered a serious jolt in the general elections held a couple of months back with the BJP snatching away 18 of the 42 seats, which were up for grabs in the state. It gave the ruling Trinamool a slender advantage of just four additional seats and a considerable unease from the BJP which had well and truly emerged as the primary challenger to the state’s ruling dispensation.
An “unfriendly” Raj Bhavan posing “hindrance to state administration” was the last thing that Banerjee must have hoped for at this juncture given the task which she and her party knew they had cut out for themselves with the state polls scheduled in less than two years.
But the curve nose-dived right from the word go. For the first time perhaps in the history of Bengal, the Raj Bhavan emerged as a vocal and assertive arm of state governance which began publicly questioning the performances of the Mamata Banerjee administration.
While Trinamool leaders began attacking Governor Dhankhar for “his indiscretion as a nominated and ceremonial figurehead” who was allegedly transgressing the Constitutional powers vested in him with impunity, the latter took to not just the mainstream media outlets but also to social media to make his criticisms public. Indeed, Governor Dhankhar’s Twitter handle has 439K followers and continues to remain as one of the most active spaces on social media when it comes to politics and administration in Bengal.
His deeply entrenched background as a practitioner of law and his experience in politics naturally gave Governor Dhankhar the upper hand in dealing with those allegations, nay countering them with confidence. But despite that, he seemed to have failed in shrugging off the perception that he has been most consistently accused of: “BJP’s man”.
There have been innumerable occasions in the last three years when verbal spats between the Governor and the Chief Minister (and her ministers, MPs and MLAs) have played out in public domains and hit new lows. On more than one occasions, Banerjee wrote to Governor Dhankhar alleging serious interference in state administration beyond his Constitutional brief only to be responded by longer replies in defense of his position and more.
On his part, the Governor too has repeatedly alleged “inappropriate behaviour” towards his chair by senior officers of the state government and political leaders of the ruling camp and even accused them of “showering him with insults” from time to time. The drama on Governor’s alleged “humiliation” over his seat position at the Durga Puja carnival in October 2019 and the controversy that erupted after he found himself shut out of Assembly gates and addressed media on the pavement outside the premises in December that year are only few of the many unprecedented developments which the state has remained witness to even as the relations between the two high offices of the state dipped from bad to worse.
The row between high offices in Governor Dhankar’s tenure, in fact, extended to that of, Biman Banerjee, Speaker of Bengal Legislative Assembly, on multiple occasions including those over alleged “pending Bills in Raj Bhavan” and the latter accusing the former on “trying to use Assembly premises for political interests”. In fact, acting on an obvious typographical error on part of the Assembly offices, Governor Dhankhar convened an Assembly session at 2 am in February this year instead of 2 pm, leaving the Speaker red faced and his office scampering for rectification of the notice.
Governor Dhankhar’s consistent cry over the state’s law and order situation (especially after allegations of post poll violence began pouring in), “a democracy in ICU”, alleged corruption and inefficiency in administration and his protests against “appeasement of a particular community” have doubtless remained a constant source of irritation for Mamata Banerjee who registered official complaints against Governor Dhankhar, both in writing and during her face to face meetings, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In one of its latest moves, the Bengal government passed two Bills in the recently concluded Monsoon Session of the Assembly where it removed the Governor as ex-officio Chancellor of state-run universities and as Visitor to private universities in Bengal and replaced him with the Chief Minister and state Education Minister respectively.
Both Bills, currently and ironically, await the Governor’s nod before they can be enacted as law.
The state’s primary opposition BJP, however, has time and again sought recourse to the Governor’s office for issues it urged for his intervention. Delegations led by Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari, BJP state presidents Dilip Ghosh and Sukanta Majumder, and others marching to Raj Bhavan and Governor Dhankhar, on his part, following them up with tweets and formal letters and summons to the government has remained a regular affair in the political mosaic of Kolkata in the past three years.
In one of his early interviews given to this correspondent in 2019, Governor Dhankhar had said: “I am not an RSS man like Mamata Banerjee says, but I have no hesitation in saying that would be happy to be one since it’s one of the greatest organisations this world has seen”.
Governor Dhankhar being named as BJP’s Vice Presidential candidate would surely leave leaders of Trinamool and other opposition parties claiming vindication for their bracketing him as a “BJP man”, but there is little doubt they would also heave a sigh of relief to see him leave Raj Bhavan.
But the closing of one battlefront could just mean the opening up of another. For in the run-up to the 2024 general elections, Trinamool Congress retains considerable stakes in the Rajya Sabha. And it could be in that floor the party members could meet a Chairman they wouldn’t quite look forward to meeting.