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The battle in Bengal persists

The dispute between the Centre and the West Bengal government — with the former recalling the state chief secretary, Alapan Bandyopadhyay, with immediate effect and the state challenging the decision — is an outcome of four features

By HT Editorial

PUBLISHED ON MAY 31, 2021 08:05 PM IST

The dispute between the Centre and the West Bengal government — with the former recalling the state chief secretary, Alapan Bandyopadhyay, with immediate effect and the state challenging the decision — is an outcome of four features. The first is political. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have just emerged from a bitter electoral battle. The BJP’s shock at the loss, and its decision to go on the offensive from day one, has translated into the pursuit of corruption cases against TMC leaders and an over-interventionist governor. The TMC’s complicity in post-poll violence and chief minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee’s assessment that she could be the leader of an anti- BJP front has seen the TMC double down. There is both trust deficit and political competition at play.

The second element is the politics of natural disaster management. It was Ms Banerjee’s absence from a meeting called by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi on cyclone Yaas and her perceived lack of courtesy which triggered the new conflict. The CM said she met and took permission from the PM to leave, and has instead attacked the Centre for politicising the cyclone, by inviting leader of opposition (and her bête noire) Suvendu Adhikari to the meeting. The allegations have their roots in 2020 — the BJP made the issue of corruption in post-Amphan relief a key element of its campaign and believes it may have another opportunity to corner the government. The TMC is on its guard; it wants greater central funds, but also wants to insulate relief efforts from any BJP imprint.

The third, critical, reason is the erosion of institutional integrity. The story of the politicisation of India’s bureaucracy is well established. But a sudden decision to recall the highest-ranking bureaucrat of the state sends a wrong message to the civil service that it must not defy political red lines imposed by the Centre. The Centre’s decision to appoint a new chief secretary, and CM’s decision to appoint Mr Bandopadhyaya as her chief adviser (he retired on May 31, though a three-month extension was on the table) is another pointer to the erosion of institutional norms. And finally, this controversy is a reflection of the fracture in the federal system. Both the Centre and state must respect each other’s authority and institutional procedures, and insulate governance during a time of crisis where the state is dealing with both a pandemic and the aftermath of a cyclone from day-to-day political battles.

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