Narendra Modi has surely lost his cool after 48% of the voters of Bengal rejected him quite decisively in the recent state elections by sinking their fierce political differences. Then followed the first real thrashing from all sections that Modi received in his seven years as prime minister for his disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

His previous chillingly-cold and calculating demeanour, which was invariably accompanied by a remorseless steely indifference, has disappeared. It has given way to unconcealed malice, knee-jerk actions and uncalled-for over-reactions.

This is clear from the ludicrous show cause notice of May 31 that his home ministry served on Alapan Bandyopadhayay the very day after he retired as chief secretary of West Bengal. This was obviously a last-ditch attempt to save Modi’s face by shadow-kicking the state chief minister’s trusted chief secretary after the missives fired by his directly-controlled department of personnel failed in its task of fixing her.

With its juvenile drafting and its use of archaic bureaucratese, the notice directs Bandyopadhyay to show cause in three days flat why he should not be charged with criminality under Section 51 of the Disaster Management Act. This could entail a fine and up to two years in jail.

More than misplaced audacity

The act of threatening a chief secretary of a rather-annoying opposition-run state is more than just an exercise in misplaced audacity. The fact that the prime minister wants to send a chief secretary to jail to punish his boss for annoying him indicates that he has embedded petulance as part of state policy. No other prime minister in history and none of the imperial overlords or the despised despots who preceded them could even imagine displaying such untamed expressions of imperiousness.

Let us run over the charges constructed by hapless officials of the ministry who are too terrified of the prime minister to tell him not to be ridiculous.

The first charge is that Alapan Bandyopadhyay and his chief minister had the temerity to keep the prime minister waiting for full 15 minutes at a planned meeting. It would be interesting to know which part of the heavens fell down because of this, as it were the same heavens that actually caused the delay in the aftermath of Cyclone Yaas.

The chief minister has informed us through her letter of May 31 addressed to the prime minister that she and her chief secretary were unable to take off in their helicopter in time from her last point of embarkation, the badly-affected Sagar Island, because “flight permissions were delayed to make room for your movements”.

This letter was not objected to by the prime minister or his associates and thus the law admits it as an “estoppel” – a truth that is accepted by the recipient. Perhaps the Central government would also like to suspend or take criminal action against those central officials such as the Air Traffic Controllers for these 15 minutes of unpardonable delay.

Bandyopadhyay does not know how to fly, though he surely learnt some horse riding at the IAS Training Academy. Or else, he may even have the option of flying the helicopter himself.

If one reads the chief minister’s letter carefully, one would note that she arrived well in advance of the time actually fixed for the meeting at Kalaikunda Airport near Kharagpur. This was 2.30 pm. But the terrible offence for which Alapan is sought to be jailed is that he and his chief minister were not already present in Kalaikunda before the prime minister’s aircraft touched base, with flowers in hand.

Programme adjusted

The charge is surely not that of delaying the prime minister’s meeting and someone should brief the poor under secretary who may have no idea of where this Kalaikunda is and how far it is from Kakinada. Until we amend the Indian Penal Code or the Disaster Management Act and include the failure to receive high dignitaries with bouquets and accompanying of pleasantries as a criminal offence, no one can be really be charged with such a crime. Psychologists may say that the real issue is moving from the ridiculous to the domain of dangerous derangement.

The chief minister had explained to the prime minister well in advance that she had fixed her aerial and ground surveys of the cyclone-affected areas well before prime minister had announced his tour to Bengal and adjoining states and that she had altered her original programme to adjust with his visit. There must be sufficient evidence in the form of messages and correspondence to substantiate this and unless a martial law is declared in a federal setup, the prime minister cannot demand more.

Besides, the control room monitoring the prime minister’s visit maintains minute-by-minute records and these may be useful to Bandyopadhayay. His fate is invariably linked to his boss’s programme and this needs to be understood clearly. If we had a differently educated prime minister like Atal Behari Vajpayi or Manmohan Singh, they would have rung up the chief minister themselves and taken her on their aircraft for a joint survey. But those who take pride in having sold tea in a non-existent railway station or claim to be detached fakirs function differently – obviously more maliciously.

The next charge against Alapan Bandyopadhayay is that “he abstained himself from the review meeting taken by the prime minister, who is also the chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority”. Section 51 of the Disaster Management Act, applies mainly to “whoever, without reasonable cause” causes offence under the act. It is, indeed, a dark day for both federalism and democracy if chief secretaries are now charged under such sections, for abiding by the legitimate orders of their chief ministers – during a disaster-related emergency, instead of massaging egos.

The section is meant to punish someone who defies “any officer or employee of the Central Government or the State Government, or a person authorised by the National Authority or State Authority in the discharge of his functions under this Act”.

Let us also remember that the chief minister is chairperson of the State Disaster Management Authority and the chief secretary is chairperson of its executive committee, under Section 20 of the act. It is more than ridiculous to imagine them as obstructionists in their own state – just because they did not attend the review meeting called by the prime minister. It is not clear whether this meeting was summoned as prime minister or in his capacity as the chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority.

If the latter is now sought to be established so as to punish under the act, then more corroborative evidence requires to be placed in the public domain. Was the invitation issued by the Disaster Management Authority secretariat in the home ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office? Which other Disaster Management Authority official or committee member was present, because reports indicate that none of them were present at Kalaikunda when the meeting took place.

The prime minister was literally on a flying visit, with the state’s rather-interesting governor and some other Union ministers of his party, who are not involved at all under the Disaster Management Authority.

A menacing blow

Clause 1(b) of Section 51 under which Alapan is questioned is meant to punish those who “refuse to comply with any direction given by or on behalf of the Central Government or the State Government or the National Executive Committee or the State Executive Committee”. The moot point is that since Narendra Modi desires to open new fronts to attack the federal structure that is envisaged under the Act, he must state clearly which direction of his did the chairpersons of the State Authority and the State Executive Commitee “refuse to comply” with. Where is that direction in writing?

Busy public personalities do not really have time to practice telepathy and in government. Instructions have to be in writing under the authority’s letterhead, to prove that they existed at all and to establish that they were violated. Charging the highest levels of the State Authority under the Disaster Management Act in writing is a menacing blow to federalism and cannot just be laughed away as the tantrums of a bad loser.

The important issue that we need to remember is that the chief minister had consistently objected to the presence of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subhendu Adhikari at the meeting. She had repeatedly wanted (in writing) a serious one-to-one prime minister-chief minister meeting instead of a durbar. She had every right to do so, because the ultimate responsibility is hers, and she was not allowed or advised to bring her ministers and leaders, who knew more of the subject under discussion than those VIPs in the prime minister’s entourage.

If the prime minister insists that Subhendu Adhikari be present as the leader of the opposition, we would like to know how many times he himself has invited Adhir Chaudhary, the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, to his review meetings, though he does calls him occasionally as leader of the opposition to select heads of important organisations.

The chief minister needed the chief secretary to accompany her to note her observations and orders at different places. She had specifically taken the prime minister’s clearance before leaving for Digha, both for herself and her chief secretary. If the prime minister wanted the same chief secretary to be present in his meeting, he should have given prior instructions, or at least said so, when the chief minister and the chief secretary were taking their leave.

Sulking and subsequent vengeance are not acceptable in governance. If the prime minister wishes to establish new records in preposterousness, let him issue a show cause notice to the chief minister herself.

We may remember that the chief minister is the head of the State Authority under the Disaster Management Act, just as the prime minister is that of the National Authority, and that she also has the same powers to issue notices for prosecution under Section 51 of the Act – to those who either obstruct functioning or defy instructions. She has not exercised these powers to retaliate.

Mamata Banerjee is known to be mercurial but she has shown, in this episode, that she possesses qualities essential to function effectively under serious laws like the Disaster Management Act in the interests of federalism. It is unfortunate that her senior, the prime minister of India, has not established either his willingness or his capacity to operate likewise – nor has he displayed evidence of the mature mindset and accommodative culture that the a federal Constitution expects of him.

Jawhar Sircar is a former secretary to the government of India and ex-Chief Executive Officer of Prasar Bharati.

This is a longer version of an article published in Bengali in Anandabazar Patrika.