Chidambaram-Buddha letters renewing centre-state war?

By Pradipta Tapadar, IANS
Saturday, January 15, 2011

KOLKATA - The letter war between union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has prompted many to ask if the old battle between the central government and the Left Front-ruled state is raising its head again.

With seven letters being exchanged between the two since Christmas eve on the law and order situation and the killing of seven villagers at Netai in West Midnapore district, some Left Front partners say it could strain centre-state relations.

In the missives in December-end, the two leaders have crossed swords on the existence of armed camps of the ruling CPI-M in Maoist-hit areas, law and order issues and also fought over the word “harmad” (bandit) used by Chidambaram when he fired the first salvo.

Bhattacharjee has also attacked the home minister for leakage of the first letter from New Delhi to the media.

“This is not a good sign. If the relationship between the state and the centre gets strained, then it will have an adverse effect,” says Nripen Chatterjee, senior leader of the Forward Bloc.

“There are apprehensions that centre-state relations may be strained after this letter episode. This isn’t good for the country’s constitutional framework. It is unacceptable that a letter gets published in the media before reaching the recipient,” says Manoj Bhattacharjee, senior leader of another Front partner, Revolutionary Socialist Party.

Front major Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), however, doesn’t see it as the old battle revisited.

“No, I don’t see any kind of conflict. Rather, exchange of letters and opinion is welcome in a democracy,” CPI-M central committee member Mohammed Salim told IANS.

Opposition parties feel that Bhattacharjee is making it a prestige issue and that Chidambaram’s letter was a constitutional obligation.

“There is no question of a centre-state conflict. It’s a constitutional obligation. The chief minister is unnecessarily making it a prestige issue,” said Congress leader Pradip Bhattacharjee.

Trinamool Congress leader Partha Chatterjee said: “What the chief minister is doing is arrogance. They are destroying the country’s constitutional set-up.”

A look back shows the Left Front regime, in office uninterruptedly since 1977, has had regular run-ins with the central government.

In the 1980s, West Bengal led a strident campaign against the Congress governments of Indira Gandhi and son Rajiv Gandhi. The feisty chief minister Jyoti Basu, along with his erudite finance minister Ashok Mitra, carried out a high-pitched campaign alleging “stepmotherly treatment” of the state by the centre.

With Mitra providing economic inputs, Basu sought more powers for states and became the rallying point for non-Congress chief ministers. A series of conclaves were held in different parts of India, seeking review of centre-state relations that ultimately forced New Delhi to appoint the Sarkaria Commission.

On their part, ministers in Congress governments also regularly went on the offensive citing the central government’s parliamentary majority to time and again threaten the Left Front with imposition of president’s rule.

Congress veteran A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury’s constant refrain was, “We will throw this government into the Bay of Bengal”.

The Front used such comments to whip up public sentiment by making “conspiracy of the centre” as their electoral plank.

The script was re-enacted before the 2001 assembly elections when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in the saddle in New Delhi.

By then, Mamata Banerjee had appeared on the scene as the bete noire of the Left Front. With her Trinamool Congress being a principal NDA ally, Banerjee put pressure on the NDA leadership to either impose president’s rule in Bengal or bring parts of it under the Disturbed Areas Act, alleging the law and order had collapsed.

Top NDA leaders and ministers toured the state, home ministry officials were rushed, and then home minister L.K. Advani issued a series of advisories to the state on law and order. But the missives received stinging responses from Jyoti Basu, then nearing the end of his 23-year chief ministerial stint.

Political analysts say the war of letters would continue till the assembly elections to be held later this year but warned that the attitude of the two parties could worsen law and order.

“This will surely worsen centre-state relations. It’s for sure that law and order is a state subject. But cooperation between the state and the centre is very much needed for development and maintaining law and order,” said political analyst Samir Kumar Das.

“This thing will go on till the next assembly elections, where each and every thing will be politicised and there will be allegations of partisanship. It will surely have a short-term effect on centre-state relations,” said Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri, a political science professor.

(Pradipta Tapadar can be contacted at

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