The Union government’s move of recalling West Bengal Chief Secretary Alapan Bandopadhyay, at a time when the State was struggling with the COVID pandemic and the ravages of Cyclone Yaas, was abrupt and unprecedented. It not only raised allegations of political vindictiveness but also pointed to a blatant attempt at subverting the country’s federal structure. The move, which came days after the Centre gave its assent to the State government’s request to extend the Chief Secretary’s tenure by three months in view of the pandemic, has resulted in a further deterioration of ties between the Centre and the State.
Alapan Bandopadhyay’s recall came hours after both he and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee skipped a post-cyclone review meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Kalaikunda in West Bengal on May 28. Subsequently, even after Alapan Bandopadhyay opted to retire from service on May 31, he was given a show-cause notice by the Centre. On the day of his retirement, Alapan Bandopadhyay was appointed Chief Adviser to the Chief Minister.
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Alapan Bandopadhyay, considered indispensable by the Chief Minister, has always been seen by her side during the pandemic and other crises. But what seemed to have irked Mamata Banerjee most was the unilateral manner in which the Centre acted, without consulting either the State government or the official concerned. On May 10, she had requested the Centre to grant Alapan Bandopadhyay an extension for three months, and the Union government gave its formal approval for it on May 24. Four days later, hours after Mamata Banerjee skipped the post-Yaas cyclone review meeting with Modi, the Centre wrote to her requesting her to “relieve the officer with immediate effect and direct him to report to the Department of Personnel and Training, North Block, New Delhi by 10 a.m. on May 31, 2021.”
‘End your political vendetta’
On May 29, an outraged Mamata Banerjee addressed a press conference where she accused the Modi government of indulging in political vendetta after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of her Trinamool Congress. Appealing to Modi to withdraw the recall order, she said: “We have won a landslide victory—is that your only worry? You tried your best… but the people of the State voted for us and they ousted you. Please accept the mandate of the people… I appeal to you to end your political vendetta against the Chief Secretary and withdraw your letter. Allow the Chief Secretary to work for the COVID-affected people and those affected by the cyclone.”
On May 31, Mamata Banerjee wrote to Modi categorically stating that the State government “cannot, and is not releasing its Chief Secretary at this critical hour…” She alleged that the “unilateral” order was issued “without any prior consultation whatsoever with the Government of West Bengal, without any volition/ option of the officer, without meeting any of the pre-conditions of the Indian Administrative Service (Cadre) Rule, 1954 and other applicable laws under reference”. She said it was “legally untenable, historically unprecedented and wholly unconstitutional”.
An adamant Centre sent Alapan Bandopadhyay another letter the same day, directing him to report at North Block by 10 a.m. on June 1. The Chief Secretary opted for superannuation and was immediately appointed Chief Adviser to the Chief Minister for three years.
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The matter did not end there. The very next day the Centre issued a notice against him under Section 51 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, for “abstaining himself” from the Prime Minister’s review meeting on May 28. The letter alleged that Alapan Bandopadhyay had acted in a manner “tantamount to refusing to comply with lawful directions of the Central Government and is thus violative of Section 51 (b) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005”. It asked him to explain in writing within three days “as to why action should not be taken against him under Section 51 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005”.
The notice sent to Alapan Bandopadhyay said: “Upon arrival at the meeting room, where the review meeting was scheduled to be held, Prime Minister and his entire entourage waited for nearly 15 minutes for the officers of the State government to arrive. In view of the absence, the Chief Secretary was called by an official as to whether they wanted to participate in the review meeting or not. Thereafter, Chief Secretary, Government of West Bengal arrived, along with the Chief Minister of West Bengal, inside the meeting room and left thereafter immediately.” On May 3, Alapan Bandopadhyay sent his reply to the Union government clarifying his position.
Mamata Banerjee refuted the Centre’s charge of the Chief Secretary “abstaining” from the review meeting. She said both she and Alapan Bandopadhyay had met the Prime Minister and handed over to him a preliminary report of the damages caused by the cyclone. Countering the allegation that the Prime Minister was kept waiting for 15 minutes, she said it was she and Alapan Bandopadhyay who were made to wait for around 15 minutes before they were allowed to meet the Prime Minister on May 28. “We had requested that we please be allowed to meet the Prime Minister for just one minute, but we were told that it cannot take place before one hour,” she said. She also pointed out that what was earlier supposed to be a meeting between the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister was later revised.
In her letter to Modi Mamata Banerjee wrote: “I had pre-scheduled aerial surveys and review meetings in the affected areas myself, but I re-scheduled everything to rush to Kalaikunda to attend the meeting with you, accompanied by the Chief Secretary of my State… You however revised the structure of the meeting to include a local MLA from your party and I am of the view (based on my knowledge of the affairs of the state for about 40 years) that he had no locus to be present in a PM-CM meeting. You had invited the Hon’ble Governor and some Union ministers also to the meeting, which I had not objected to… but an individual MLA having no locus attending the meeting was unacceptable.”
The “individual MLA” was Mamata Banerjee’s bete noire and former Trinamool heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) months before the election and defeated the Chief Minister in the Nandigram Assembly constituency. He is the Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly.
The perceived attack on the country’s federal structure in this fiasco has raised the hackles of not just West Bengal’s ruling party but also the State’s non-BJP opposition parties. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress did not mince words in condemning the Modi government. The CPI(M), like the Trinamool, was of the view that the BJP was indulging in political vendetta because it was still smarting from its humiliating defeat in the Assembly election.
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Senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty told Frontline: “We condemn the attitude of the government in Delhi. It is as though after losing the election they are now in a vengeful mood, and that is not acceptable. After granting him an extension to work for the State government, the Centre had no right to recall the Chief Secretary.”
An All-India Congress Committee (AICC) statement issued on May 29 said: “The abrupt, malicious and unilateral recall of West Bengal Chief Secretary by Modi govt has shocked the conscience of the entire Nation… If the Union Govt is permitted to recall the All India Service Officers i.e. IAS and IPS from the states for bipartisan political considerations and at its whims and fancies, the entire architecture of the rule of law and the Constitution will crumble.”
Both the CPI(M) and the Congress have questioned the timing of the Centre’s move (that is, immediately after a natural calamity and in the midst of the COVID second wave).
The Centre’s action did not go down well in the Indian Administrative Service fraternity. While those still in service were wary of going on record with their views, retired bureaucrats did not pull their punches.
Jawhar Sircar, a former Secretary to the Government of India and former Chief Executive Officer of Prasar Bharati told Frontline: “It is a question of federal choices. As long as the federation is alive, both governments are equal. But the votaries of the presidential system, who are espousing a single presidential governance to override the federal arrangement, are more inclined to smother regional space under an overarching central hegemony. This narrative arrived after the most radical proponent of State autonomy pole-vaulted to the Central chair himself and thereafter demanded absolute obedience to the Centre. The point is, had he been Chief Minister, would he have ever allowed his Chief Secretary to be overawed by the Prime Minister?
“Just as it is a fact that the Chief Secretary must be loyal to the Chief Minister and the Cabinet Secretary to the Prime Minister, it is also a fact that the Indian Administrative Service is a physical, mental and psychological link between two separate spheres and it is our duty to ensure that these two never reach any major friction point. We are not supposed to have any particular love for either government.”
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Biswanath Chakraborty, a political analyst and an academic, pointed out an interesting fact when he said that that prior to Modi becoming the Prime Minister, the struggle between the Centre and the West Bengal government was largely over economic autonomy. “During the 34-year rule of the Left Front, we saw the Bengal government often engaged in a bitter confrontation over autonomy over economic issues; but now, between the Trinamool and the BJP, this struggle is primarily over political and administrative autonomy,” Biswanath Chakraborty told Frontline.
Though the matter took centre stage in West Bengal politics, most observers feel that it was nothing more than a storm in a teacup which could have been avoided easily. A retired secretary to the Government of India, who did not wish to be named, told Frontline, “Ultimately it is a very trivial issue and both the Centre and the State displayed remarkable immaturity in handling the situation. The poor Chief Secretary found himself in the middle of this pointless political crossfire.”