AS YOU LIKE IT DAYS- Bengal’s chief minister aims to set up a personalized hegemony
In the forenoon of a working day last month, West Bengal’s minister for municipal services and urban development called a press conference at the Writers’ Buildings, headquarters of the state government. He had important news to convey; the chief minister had decided to relieve the mayor of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation of three key portfolios he was holding charge of and reallocate them among other members of the mayor-in-council; this was being done pursuant to the chief minister’s intense concern to improve the functioning of the corporation. Later in the day, the mayor, looking appropriately sheepish, admitted to the press that, yes, such a reshuffling of portfolios had indeed taken place.
This was an extraordinarily curious occurrence. For the CMC is not a corpus of the state government. It is a separate body set up under a statute enshrining the principles of local self-governance. The jurisdiction of the corporation spreads over more than one hundred wards, each of which elects, on the basis of adult suffrage, a councillor for the corporation. The councillors, in their turn, elect the mayor, who then chooses, from among the councillors, an executive body known as the mayor-in-council. The allocation of portfolios among members of the mayor-in-council is the exclusive prerogative of the mayor.
The state chief minister has per se no business therefore to decide which portfolio or portfolios the mayor of the corporation or members of the mayor-in-council will hold. What she did was altogether outrageous. The outrageous is however tending to emerge as the standard rule in the neighbourhood since she took over nine months ago. Her party has an overwhelming majority as much in the corporation as in the state assembly. Far more important, whatever she says is the final word in the party; all power is controlled by her, all power flows from her. This basic datum is casting its shadow on the state administration she presides over. The dividing line between the party and the government is also turning into a nearly invisible blur. The precincts of the government are being treated as catwalk for the party as well. The chief minister has made it known to everyone around that in her reign, only her mind matters; she makes up the mind for every other minister. She decides anything and everything not just in the state administration but for the municipal, panchayat bodies and public sector undertakings as well. She is no longer the minister for railways at the Centre. So what; since the successor is her crony, she keeps announcing, on her own, new rail routes for West Bengal almost every week.
The episode of reallocating the responsibilities of individual members of the mayor-in-council of the CMC is merely a more glaring specimen of the new order roaringly asserting itself. None dared to question even the propriety, leave aside the legality, of the usurpation by the government of the corporation’s jurisdiction. There was not a squeak even from the Opposition ranks. Nor did any civil society enthusiast rush to post a public interest litigation with the high court. Demoralization has obviously entered the soul on a very wide scale; as if it is being taken for granted that where political power is captured by a party in which only the leader counts, the rule of law must come to a standstill.
This should not have been so. The country has a Constitution which lays down norms of demeanour and conduct for administrative agencies at different levels. It also details mechanisms that will get activized if these norms are breached. The West Bengal chief minister, however, has circumstances in her favour. The polity, she knows, is now stuck at a stage where no discipline is enforceable. She can, for instance, hold the government in New Delhi hostage and give free rein to her arbitrary ways. The series of heady political successes she has scored in the recent period might also be in part responsible for a touch of megalomania affecting her reflexes.
These reflexes can have disturbing implications for a democratic system. The chief minister is, on the face of it, determined to see that her party is established as the only relevant category in the state, she wants to wish away the existence of other formations. Of late, she has been visiting district towns and holding discussions with functionaries of the district administration on developmental issues. A strange pattern has been unfolding. Where the district panchayat chief is her acolyte, the person is invited to these discussions. In case the individual concerned has a different political affiliation, he/she stays uninvited.
That rules and grammar do not matter anymore is illustrated by another lurid episode. Campus disturbances are the order of the day in the state. In one college, a group of students aided by outsiders owing allegiance to the party of the chief minister badly roughed up the college principle. They were allowed to get away. Following public outcry, they were later gathered in, a bailable charge was casually registered, and they were released immediately on bail. A similar incident of alleged manhandling of the principal was reported for another college. This time, the students accused of the offence had their allegiance with a political party in the Opposition. They were promptly arrested on multiple non-bailable charges and were repeatedly refused bail. After spending a full month in jail, they finally got back their liberty on the intervention of the high court. In both instances, the police had evidently been following the directives of the state government; the minister for home affairs is the chief minister herself.
Also consider the strange decision that has caused much heartburn among the Opposition. Ministers use the press corner at the state secretariat all the time to talk on political issues. A recent order, on the other hand, prohibits legislators from using the premises of the state assembly to address the press when no session is on. It can be a case of lapse of decency, but can it not as well be interpreted as an advance warning of creeping authoritarianism?
The worst victim of the chief minister’s purposive contempt for norms is her own finance minister. He was unable to present a proper budget and had to satisfy the minimum requirements of the Constitution by putting together a patchwork or an annual financial statement. No precise budgetary estimates have been possible because it will be a tale of trying to put up a structure on shifting sands. The expenditure side of the state’s budgetary accounts has been getting continuously revised since the chief minister persists with the habit of proclaiming a new scheme, involving a not-at-all negligible outlay, at every public function she addresses morning, afternoon and evening. At the same time, she will not, repeat not, allow the finance minister to make any fresh tax proposals that might be detrimental to her populist image. The only way out for the finance minister is, therefore, to pretend to provide for the ever-mounting public spending by imagining additional accrual of revenue through a toning up of administrative procedures and modalities of revenue collection. The eyewash does not deceive anybody. It is an impossible arithmetic for the state finance minister and he can only hope for extra funds from the Centre to bail him out, or, alternatively, a moratorium on loan repayments. At this point, the problem ceases to be his concern, and becomes, as it should be, that of the chief minister.
She has her weaponry. She believes she can threaten to withdraw her support to the United Progressive Alliance regime at the Centre unless special dispensations keep travelling from New Delhi in her direction. The strategists in the nation’s capital will not like to be blackmailed in this manner. A cat and mouse game is currently on. Those precariously perched on their seats of power at the Centre will perhaps be reluctant to allow a situation to develop where the government of West Bengal is unable to meet even the salary bill of its employees. It has, however, its own constraints. It will have difficulty entertaining the demand of the West Bengal chief minister for ‘untied’ funds that she could use to finance the freebies she promises unceasingly to her electorate. Nor can it agree to a moratorium on debt repayments for the state. One particular state can hardly be treated as sui generis, the other state regimes are closely watching the proceedings.
The West Bengal chief minister has embarked on an experiment. She aims to set up a personalized, near-authoritarian hegemony in one part of a country that has a formal Constitution with a framework of democratic norms. Governance, she has decided, is no different from an as-you-like-it sporting event. She is an optimist; the chaos in New Delhi, she believes, will act to her advantage. The Centre is in no position to lecture her. It is so enfeebled that it is incapable of disciplining even its own ministers, they go their different ways, the concept of collective responsibility has found its way to dusty death. Just as A. Raja did his own 2G allocations, never mind the views of the prime minister, the law minister, no less, defies the electoral laws, never mind the Election Commission; the home minister flaunts provisions of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, which tramples provisions of the Constitution. It is a free for all. The West Bengal chief minister is savouring — and availing of — the bedlam even as she, quite conceivably, guides her own state into a state of bedlam.