Atal Bihari Vajpayee. (File photo) Exclusive
Atal Bihari Vajpayee. (File photo)

As Bengal battle persists, lessons from Vajpayee-era on Centre-state tensions

Two past incidents stand out as parallels to events unfolding in New Delhi and Kolkata. What saved the day was the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s sagacity to pull back from the brink
By Vinod Sharma
UPDATED ON JUN 04, 2021 12:26 PM IST

Politicians in power often tend not to learn from the experience of their rivals, peers or predecessor regimes. The realisation that they could have done it better dawns when the clock can’t be reversed.

The Centre’s face-off with Bengal over Alpan Bandopadhyay isn’t the first of its kind. The man in the eye of the storm retired as the state chief secretary on May 31 — giving up a three-month extension that was available to him — and has since assumed duties as chief minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee’s chief advisor.

New Delhi is cross with him for turning up late for a cyclone review meeting with Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi. The department of personnel and training (DoPT) under the PM’s charge has slapped on him a notice under the Disaster Management Act. But in reality it has been stung by the official choosing to superannuate rather than get deputed to the Centre and be at its mercy.

A substantial segment of older civil servants — both serving and retired — are flabbergasted by the Centre’s approach which, they insist, should have taken note of Bandopadhyay’s immediate brief. As an official of the state government, he had no option but to follow the instructions (under the same DMA) of his immediate boss — the CM. He reportedly was travelling with Banerjee and had on that account got delayed in showing up for the May 28 meeting with the PM. “Required as much to be available to the visiting PM, his was a classic case of being caught in a cleft,” remarked a former state chief secretary who didn’t want to be named. “He had to be a phantom to be present with both....”

Caught in the middle

Officials do get caught in political fights that aren’t of their making. It’s a hazard of their duties. Two past incidents stand out as parallels to events unfolding in New Delhi and Kolkata. What saved the day was the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s sagacity to pull back from the brink.

“Good sense prevail when leaders are receptive and their advisors evocative,” remarked another veteran civil servant. “In our polity, that’s as rare as blood moon...”

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One such sighting, so to speak, was in 1998-99. Banerjee then was on the BJP’s side at the Centre and fighting the communists in Bengal. The other came in the wake of the sensational 2001 arrest, on J Jayalalithaa’s watch, of her bête noire M Karunanidhi along with ministers of the union, Murasoli Maran and TR Balu.

Like Banerjee now, Jayalalithaa was high on her assembly poll win a little over a month before she went for the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham chief’s jugular on freshly minted graft allegations.

The Chennai imbroglio

The Tamil Nadu incident compares better with the battle of egos over Bandhopadhyay. The then secretary in the union home ministry, former Delhi police commissioner MB Kaushal, has detailed it in his upcoming memoirs, which this writer has reviewed.

Dispatched to Chennai on Vajpayee’s “direct orders”, he was tasked to submit his report for the union cabinet’s consideration this next day. The urgency of the matter needed no emphasis. The PM couldn’t have been a mute spectator to the public humiliation of a key partner in his National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

On his return, Kaushal reported that the Chennai police acted against the former CM (Karunanidhi) on a duly registered FIR and arrested the two union ministers “correctly” for obstructing public servants in performance of their duties. There was nothing legally remiss with the action that “smacked of vengeance” on two counts—the 78-year-old DMK leader’s midnight arrest within hours of the FIR and the rough treatment meted out to him and Maran. In jail, Karunanidhi was kept in the same cell in which the incumbent CM, Ms Jayalalithaa was earlier lodged — but on the face of it, there was nothing illegal.

The report wasn’t taken kindly by George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar, Vajpayee’s cabinet colleagues and leaders of another NDA ally. They pitched for a stronger riposte to Jayalalithaa’s audacity. Amendments were suggested to Kaushal’s report in discussions at the residence of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and minister, Arun Jaitley.

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But Kaushal stood his ground. He said he received no specific brief from the PM who asked him to see things for self and make a report. That was what he did on the basis of his interactions with the Governor, Fatima Beevi, (Union minister) Maran and officials of the state government, including the police top brass. As both sides had video recordings of the incident, he “walked the razor’s edge” while putting together the report.

At one stage, Kaushal told those present at the meeting that his report be ignored if it wasn’t acceptable and the one authored by Fernandes (who too had visited Chennai) be adopted. The matter was resolved when the BJP minister disclosed that the PM was appreciative of the report. Even the then additional solicitor general, Kirit Rawal, who was part of the parleys, found it in order.

The haggle over Kaushal’s findings showed the lead stakeholder in the government, the BJP, was under pressure from its allies to act tough with Jayalalithaa. That became more evident when the anti-Jayalalithaa lobby prevailed on home minister LK Advani to order the recall of the Tamil Nadu DGP and the Chennai police commissioner on deputation to the Centre. The objective, a la Bandopadhyay, was to initiate departmental proceedings against them.

An official note prepared to that effect by the then home secretary was put up for onward transmission to Kaushal, who unequivocally opposed the move. “I was not consulted and was shocked to see this attitude. Since nothing could be done against Jayalalithaa, it was decided to punish the officers who acted on her orders,” reads the manuscript of his book.

Of enduring relevance to all administrations is his recording on the file: “the central government is the country’s highest executive authority….and (it) should not be seen as acting in vengeance.”

But the deputation orders were issued, with the Centre deciding not to respond to the state’s request to retain their services. In the meanwhile, a notice was received in the home ministry from the Tamil Nadu high court seeking reasons for the officers’ deputation. The judicial intervention had everybody in a tizzy with Advani hurriedly convening a meeting to find a way out.

On being asked at that late stage to suggest a solution, Kaushal advised reversal of the deputation notice: “I said if the case was allowed to proceed, it might result in an embarrassment to the central government as the court could ask for the MHA file with all the notes (including his objections) recorded on it.” In a belated acceptance of the state’s request, the officers were thus allowed to continue in Tamil Nadu. The same was conveyed to the high court — the response rendering the case infructuous and saving the Centre from cutting a sorry figure !

How Vajpayee averted a showdown with Jyoti Basu

A quintessential conciliator, Vajpayee had the knack of choosing the right emissaries for difficult tasks. In 1998-99, that helped him avert a major confrontation with Jyoti Basu. The dispute arose from a petition Banerjee made to the PM alleging violent tactics by the Left Front she was battling in Bengal. Fernandes again was in the thick of it, playing a pivotal role in the decision to rush a central team to probe the charges against the state government.

A full blown crisis erupted when Advani, on emerging from a meeting he and Fernandes had with the PM, let the decision be known to TV channels. That caused a domino effect. In response to newsperson’s questions, Basu declared that he won’t allow the central team into Bengal. To the plausibility of him having a word with Advani, he uncharitably called the home minister an “uncivilised person” to whom he wasn’t interested in talking.

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As that wordy duel played out on TV screens, Fernandes landed up in the office of the then home secretary, BP Singh, who till then was oblivious of the meeting at the PM’s residence. An official who then held a key position in the ministry and wished to remain anonymous disclosed that Singh, a seasoned bureaucrat who later served as Governor, was curtly informed by the Samata party (later Janata Dal-United) leader that his advice on the matter wasn’t solicited as the decision was already taken.

The official remembered the top echelons frantically working the phones on hearing of Basu’s threat. In no time, Vajpayee was on the line with the home secretary, asking him to constitute the central team and ensuring its visit to Bengal. On the strength of the PM’s carte blanche, Singh reached out to the state chief secretary, and through him the CM who knew him for his scholarly work on the Northeast. He implored the veteran Marxist that his stature and seniority enjoined upon him to make the constitution work: “Agar apke aur Vajpayeeji ke rehte samvidhan nahi chalega to kab chalega? (If the constitution does not work with you and Vajpayee, then when will it work?)”

The result: Bengal received the central team headed by an additional secretary, PD Shenoy, provided them an official vehicle and a place to stay. Their enquiry was facilitated, not obstructed.

The Nehru-Annadurai episode

For his part, Singh refused to discuss the incident with this writer. But his colleagues at the time remembered digging into the home ministry’s institutional memory before reaching out to Basu. The impasse at hand had to it a familiar ring dating back to the time of Jawaharlal Nehru.

The PM was resolute about visiting Tamil Nadu (Madras state) in the middle of an anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s but the then chief minister, CN Annadurai, would have none of it. Advised to call off the visit, Nehru rebuffed the idea, insisting that India was one and he could go anywhere as its PM.

The middle ground worked out by the Centre through intermediary officials entailed the CM observing protocol without abandoning his political stance. In the end, Annadurai received Nehru at the airport and accompanied him to the Raj Bhawan, from where he quickly departed without engaging with the PM.

The fine balance was in the Centre having its way — but not its say.

Sarkaria Commission and Centre-state relations

Was it for the lack of numbers of it its own in Parliament that Vajpayee’s BJP was more accommodative than Modi’s? There isn’t to it an easy answer. Maybe yes, perhaps not.

The truth is that Vajpayee’s career straddled three eras, starting from Nehru through Indira Gandhi to Morarji Desai and Rajiv Gandhi. Before become the PM, he had seen it all from the Opposition’s perspective. If he witnessed Indira Gandhi commit the blunder of jailing her rivals (during the emergency), he also watched her retributive imprisonment by Charan Singh, the Janata Party regime’s home minister. The ill-advised action paved the way to her return to power.

Vajpayee also lived through the phase when the report of Justice RS Sarkaria on Centre-state relations was, for the non-Congress parties, the guide to greater autonomy for states within the union. At the heart of that campaign which peaked in the 1980s was the creeping influence of the PM’s office (PMO) over the institutions of the State — towards the creation of a “committed” judiciary and civil service.

Very much part of that hangover was the highly disagreeable spectacle of Rajiv Gandhi announcing his foreign secretary AP Venkateshwaran’s removal in response to a Pakistani journalist’s question at a press conference. The foreign service officer sat in the front row as the PM spoke. “Come, walk past me...I’m lying in state,” he later told journalists seeking a meeting to know his side of the story.

Governmental quests for a pliant judiciary and bureaucracy have since continued unabated. Some have done it with finesse, some rather crudely. It has been years since one heard the BJP quote Sarkaria.

Vajpayee to be sure was an early votary of the balance of power between the Centre and the states in a seemingly unitary arrangement. That’s so because the Constitution describes India as a Union of States. The plank of cooperative federalism Modi raised but didn’t apparently carry forward isn’t a new construct. Successive Supreme Court rulings have explained it variously.

For instance, in its 1977 State of Rajasthan versus the Union of India, the court quoted Granville Austin, an American historian of the Indian Constitution, to aver that our Constitution was among the first to embrace what British scholar AH Birch and others called cooperative federalism. Former chief justice of India MH Beg was closer perhaps to reality when he called the constitution “amphibian” for creating a central government that “was amphibian in the sense that it could move either on the federal or on the unitary plane, according to the needs of a situation and the circumstances of a case.”

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Another CJI, AM Ahmadi, made the same point but phrased it differently in the SR Bommai case: “It would thus seem that the Indian constitution has in it not only the features of a pragmatic federalism which, while distributing legislative powers and indicating the spheres of governmental powers of the state and central governments, is overlaid by strong unitary features.”

The rising tensions

The Congress hasn’t been in control of the Centre since 2014. But the focus on the unitary that one associates with the Indira raj, sustains; the full-majority BJP being less reassuring on its promise of cooperative federalism or promoting the spirit of Team-India. The twin-slogan with which it took office seven years ago have frequently rung hollow amid mounting Centre-state attrition.

New Delhi’s relations are testy or less than cordial with the states led by non-BJP formations — West Bengal, Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Jharkhand. Other non-BJP CMs seem to have bought peace for fear of ongoing anti-corruption probes under hyper-active federal investigating agencies. The actions of these arms of the State frequently come across as being clocked by the party in power at the Centre. The copyright in use is, of course of Indira Gandhi who had no qualms deploying sleuths of the central bureau of investigation (CBI) not as much to fight malfeasance as to stifle intra-Congress dissent or fix political rivals.

Even on broader issues of national import, the Centre has fallen short of the Team-India spirit. Bar the GST Council where collective decision-making is institutionalised by law, there hasn’t been any full meeting on the Covid-19 vaccination crisis, of either the governing council of the Niti Aayog or the Inter-State Council (ISC) set up for such discussions in 1990 on the recommendation of the Sarkaria panel.

The last meeting of the ISC that has all CMs as members was held five years ago, on July 16, 2016. The forum has mostly been in disuse. It did not take up the contentious citizenship amendment act (CAA) or the three agriculture laws against which farmers from across states have been protesting for six months. Likewise, the Niti Aayog’s governing council last met in February 2021 to celebrate the country’s success in controlling the first Covid wave.

Isn’t it time then for the Aayog which fancies itself as the national institution for transforming India (NITI) to deliberate the procurement, delivery and administration of vaccines for over 1.3 billion citizens? Shouldn’t Team-India cooperate federally instead of getting goaded collectively or severally by the apex court?

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