How governors conduct themselves in the office during the BJP regime

WB Governor Jagdeep Dhankar emerged as challenger to the non-BJP government
Syed Sibtey Razi, a veteran Congressman from Uttar Pradesh’s Rae Bareli, is perhaps remembered by few in the party, but Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders of a certain vintage will never forget him. Months ago, a senior minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government spotted Razi, alone and forlorn, in Parliament’s Central Hall. He went up to Razi, inquired after his health and reminded him, half in jest, that as Jharkhand governor, he ensured a plane the minister (then a BJP functionary) took to Ranchi to manage a major political crisis was not allowed to land. Razi wouldn’t have wanted to recall the episode because he was about to bring disrepute to himself and then ruling dispensation of the  United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

The elections were over in Jharkhand in March 2005, but the outcome was unclear. The BJP was the single largest party with 36 MLAs. With the support of five Independents, its strength was 41 in the 82-member Assembly (that had one nominated representative). It staked claim to form the government under Arjun Munda’s leadership. Evidently directed by the Congress high command, Razi invited the then Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief, Shibu Soren, to put together a government with the Congress and gave a date for the floor test.
The BJP’s strategists swung into action. They moved the Supreme Court, spirited away the Independents, who alleged they were intimidated by the JMM-Congress, to Delhi, and paraded them before then President A P J Abdul Kalam. Kalam summoned Razi. The court stepped in and advanced the date of the floor test. Soren resigned, Munda was sworn in as CM and proved his majority. The BJP trumpeted the outcome as a “moral and political victory” and bayed for Razi’s blood.

Cut to Bengaluru, May 2018. The Karnataka polls yielded an inconclusive verdict although the BJP was the single largest party. Governor Vajubhai Vala — a loyalist of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Gujarat — called B S Yediyurappa, the BJP’s legislature party leader, to form the government and gave 15 days for a floor test. Yediyurappa was short of the half-way mark and had not mustered the required support. The Congress moved the apex court that ordered an immediate vote of confidence. The Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) got the numbers and Yediyurappa backed off. The difference was unlike Razi, Vala was spared a major embarrassment but the power dynamics at work in Raj Bhavans and the legislatures remained the same.

“A governor is appointed by the Centre and holds office at its pleasure. It’s unlikely that incumbents will work contrary to what the Centre desires, whether it’s the BJP or the Congress,” said a senior BJP leader. Lately, Bhagat Singh Koshyari and Jagdeep Dhankar, the governors of Maharashtra and West Bengal, virtually emerged as the main challengers to the non-BJP governments for different reasons.

Koshyari sat on a recommendation from the Maha Vikas Aghadi Cabinet to nominate Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray from his quota to the Legislative Council because holding elections to fill in the eight vacancies appeared almost impossible in the current circumstances. As the May 28 deadline to elect Thackeray approached, the CM of the Covid-19-ravaged state, sought the PM’s intervention. The Election Commission directed that elections to the House be held and a constitutional crisis was averted. In 2019, like Vala and Razi, Koshyari swore in Devendra Fadnavis as chief minister despite the BJP lacking the numbers. More tellingly, by then the Shiv Sena had snapped ties with the BJP, aligned with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party to put together a government, and offered support letters that the governor disregarded. The apex court ordered a floor test before which Fadnavis quit.
So far, Dhankar has a mixed record in taking on West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. For instance, days after the national lockdown when Sukanta Majumdar, the BJP’s Balurghat MP, violated the curfew and tried to reach a village in his constituency, he was stopped by the traffic police. Majumdar messaged Dhankar, who called and reprimanded the cop. The policeman stood his ground.  The gloves came off when warts and blemishes in West Bengal’s pandemic management started showing. The government’s marked reluctance to audit the deaths and conduct tests was ammunition to the BJP. Dhankar sent a report to the Union home ministry, expressing “concern” over the alleged disregard of the lockdown protocol in “certain” areas that coincidentally were Muslim-dominated. Mamata was on the defensive.

However, BJP sources did not endorse Dhankar’s “pro-activism”. “A governor can’t be our answer to a powerful Mamata. We have to nurture a strong state leader but we haven’t. We can’t depend on entertainers and sportspersons to confront her,” an office-bearer said, alluding to the BJP’s attempts to project singer Babul Supriyo, former actor Roopa Ganguly, and BCCI President Sourav Ganguly as its frontline warriors.

In cherry-picking governors, the BJP dips into a pool of pracharaks, recommended by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its out-of-work seniors, former bureaucrats, and army and police officials. Those like Kiran Bedi — who’s neither a pracharak nor a BJP veteran — were “rewarded” for picking up the gauntlet when it was thrown at her and not losing heart in defeat. Bedi was the BJP’s CM candidate in Delhi against Arvind Kejriwal in 2015. She and the party lost but she was sent to Puducherry as lieutenant governor. Bedi lost little time in cornering the CM, V Narayanaswamy, for riding pillion helmetless on a scooter while campaigning for a by-poll in 2019. Their spat goes on.

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