Onus on Delhi

Centre and Mamata Banerjee government must respect federal rules of the game. First, Centre must call a halt to hostilities.

The image of the empty chairs at the Cyclone Yaas review meeting presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kalaikunda on May 28 brings into sharp relief the steep slide in relations between the Centre and West Bengal government. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee skipped the meeting — reportedly upset at the presence of a BJP MLA and Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar at what was to have been a PM-CM meeting. Banerjee may have made her point, but given the office that she holds and the large mandate she has just won, she could have made it less belligerently. It is the Centre, however, that has now pushed the stand-off to a new low by asking Chief Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay, due for retirement on May 31 but given a three-month extension at the request of the state government a few days earlier, to report for central duty in Delhi. Bandyopadhyay has chosen to retire rather than report to the Centre — he has subsequently been appointed as adviser to the West Bengal government. The onus is on the Centre to call a halt to the hostilities.

Bengal saw a polarising election campaign and the BJP suffered a decisive defeat despite PM Modi leading the campaign. The continued adversarial approach of the Centre towards the new West Bengal government, however, makes the BJP look like a sore loser. The decision to provide central security to BJP MLAs in Bengal — unprecedented for extending the cover to all MLAs of one party alone — further stoked bitterness. Governor Dhankhar has also contributed to the deteriorating equations with his partisan overreach. With 76 MLAs, the BJP has the strength to be an effective opposition in the West Bengal Assembly but it seems more inclined to use the power and resources of the Centre to corner the Mamata Banerjee government.

In showing disrespect to the new West Bengal government, the BJP-led Centre may be undermining the federal pact, and setting an example that can return to haunt. Office is not permanent in a democracy — both winners and losers must abide by the rules of the game, and are, in turn, protected by them. In a time when strong regional parties are emerging as a political alternative, the BJP needs to work as a constructive opposition in the states. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi had rightly insisted that the Centre respect the dignity and autonomy of the state administration. As PM, he encapsulated the idea in that evocative phrase, cooperative federalism. Now his government should engage with Chief Minister Banerjee in that spirit.

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