Head to head

Clash over transfer of IPS officers burdens strained ties between Centre & Bengal

48-mamata-pawar Reaching out: Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar at the Trinamool Congress’s united opposition rally in 2019 | Salil Bera

Political temperatures in West Bengal are soaring in the run-up to the assembly polls. The clash between the Mamata Banerjee government and the Narendra Modi regime came to a head with the Centre's decision to send three IPS officers on deputation out of the state. Delhi’s decision came in the wake of an attack on BJP President J.P. Nadda's convoy during his state visit. It laid bare the fault lines in the strained relations between the Centre and the state government. It also reignited the debate over the Modi government's perceived disregard for the niceties of the country's federal structure.

The Centre claims that the decision to transfer the officers is well within its rights, while the Mamata regime contends that, as per the norms, the Union government may ask for names of officers to be sent on deputation but it is up to the state to release them or not.

To make the Centre’s alleged high-handedness a talking point before the polls, Mamata has reached out to NCP supremo Sharad Pawar.

“The practice so far has been for the Centre to requisition officers from a state based on the vacancies that exist. Never before has the Centre deputed officers by name,” said Kalyan Banerjee, Trinamool Congress's chief whip in the Lok Sabha. “Obviously, the departure from the norm was motivated by politics. The state is not bound to carry out the decision. I wrote a letter to Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla, telling him that he should act like a government official and not like a servant of Amit Shah.”

During his visit to Santiniketan, Home Minister Shah, however, said that the state “should quote the provisions of the federal structure and the Constitution to prove where the MHA orders have faltered”.

While the animosity may have intensified in the run-up to the elections, the Centre and the state have often clashed at regular intervals. In the past, West Bengal has agitated over the Centre not heeding its pleas on shortage of IAS and IPS officers in the state, not consulting states over its decisions on the rural employment scheme and complained that the National Education Policy undermined the federal structure. During the pandemic, it clashed with the Centre over non-payment of GST dues and the absence of any Covid-19 package for states. Mamata was furious when a Central team conducted a surprise visit to the state to ascertain the Covid-19 situation. She also went into dharna mode over the CBI investigation into allegations of corruption against former Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar.

“At every stage, the Centre has adopted a vindictive attitude towards the state and tried to put pressure on it,” said Banerjee. “They have damaged the federal structure. Decisions have been imposed on the state governments. And during Covid-19, when the Centre could not handle the situation, it brought the states into the picture.”

On the other hand, deteriorating law and order is just one of the issues on which the Centre has confronted the state government. The BJP has highlighted that Mamata did not allow Shramik Special trains to ply to the state during the pandemic. Its campaign has stressed on how the state government has now allowed the implementation of the PM-Kisan and Ayushman Bharat schemes in West Bengal. And, Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar has often accused the Mamata regime of adopting an adversarial stance towards the Centre.

“The strategy of the BJP is to convince the people that it can upstage Mamata Banerjee,” said Abhay Kumar Dubey, scholar at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “It is a battle of perception and a major exercise is underway to persuade the electorate that with the BJP in power in the state, it will do better as there will be better coordination.”

The Centre-West Bengal confrontation, meanwhile, is being perceived by critics of the Modi government as a microcosm of the problems in its handling of Centre-state relations. This feeling was reflected in the support that Mamata got from chief ministers in the opposition bloc, including Arvind Kejriwal, Ashok Gehlot, Capt Amarinder Singh and Bhupesh Baghel as also DMK President M.K. Stalin.

State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, even as he condemned the attack on Nadda's cavalcade, said, “The manner in which the Centre is showing utter disregard for the rights of the states, the federal structure will collapse. If Union Home Minister Amit Shah is really so bold, he should impose President's rule in the state.”

To make the Centre's alleged high-handedness a talking point before the polls, Mamata has reached out to NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, and Trinamool sources say that a rally featuring the two may be held in the state in January. “It has become a routine for the BJP government to usurp the rights of the elected state governments and destabilise them,” said NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik. “It is happening in West Bengal, too, where the Centre is withdrawing officials at will before elections. Mamata Banerjee and Pawar sahib have spoken on the issue. The issue will be discussed with leaders of other parties in Delhi, and if necessary, Pawar sahib will travel to West Bengal.”

Also, the opposition has claimed that governors are being used as agents of the Centre, and points of confrontation between governors and state governments have increasingly reached the court. Dhankhar, too, has been accused by the Trinamool of being the BJP's “conduit pipe”.

“All governors are agents of the Central government. We saw it in the time of Manmohan Singh and Indira Gandhi, too,” said Dubey. “Unless some radical change is brought about with regard to the appointment of governors or their role and jurisdiction, the situation is not going to change. It is just that Dhankhar, in acting as the Centre's agent, has been more blatant than others.”

It may well be an old story of the Centre's dominance and a pushback by the state that has taken an ugly turn ahead of elections.