The years when central governments would blithely topple democratically elected state governments ruled by their political adversaries are mercifully behind us. The imposition of President’s Rule—a codeword for political arrogance—has lost its currency in the corridors of power. Yet the politics of vendetta that engendered such undemocratic actions continues to thrive. Bearing testimony to this is the current conflict between the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dispensation at the centre.
This bitter face-off between the two political adversaries brings to mind an older history of fraught centre-state relations. The site of that protracted battle was Bengal. The victim, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI [M]), and the aggressor, the central government, then led by the Congress prime minister, Indira Gandhi. The similarities between the two sets of political confrontations, despite being situated in different geographical locations and in different times, are pronounced enough to bear commenting upon.
There is a striking analogy between how the BJP now and the Congress then used Constitutional heads to harass their rivals. If, at present, the BJP is leveraging Najeeb Jung, the lieutenant governor of Delhi NCR (National Capital Region) as an instrument to settle scores with the AAP government, the Congress central government in 1968 appointed Dharam Vira as Bengal’s governor to go after the Communists, who were a part of the state’s ruling United Front government. Following the collapse of the eight-month-old United Front alliance in February 1968, Dharam Vira, in consultation with Indira Gandhi, dismissed the elected government without convening a democratic floor test.
Between 1970 and 1971, Indira Gandhi appointed Siddharth Shankar Ray, the education minister in the central cabinet, as the West Bengal Affairs Minister. Ray’s mandate essentially included the elimination of Naxals and the targeting of the CPI(M). He supervised the mass rigging of the infamous 1972 polls, the only election—the first and the last—that Jyoti Basu, who served as the chief minister of Bengal from 1977 to 2000, lost in his five-decade-long political career. In his autobiography Jotodur Mone pore (As far as my memory takes me), Basu described the scene he witnessed on arriving in his Baranagar constituency at 10:30 am on the day of the elections: “I found that in most places voting was over. Of the 135 polling booths, the Congress had thrown out our agents in as many as 100 booths. They snatched away the ballot boxes, stamped ballot papers … and stuffed them into the boxes.” Following this election, the CPI(M) boycotted the state assembly for five years.
In 1977, the CPI(M)-led Left Front government roundly defeated the Congress—a humiliation from which the party has not yet recovered in the state. With this electoral turnabout, the CPI(M) entered a new stage in its war against the party. It was a battle in which Bengal’s economic lifeline was choked as collateral damage. The central government stalled the new Left Front government’s economic projects for years.