Two very assertive governors, one emotional, one clinical
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"This has nothing to do with political culture. This is goondaism," said M K Narayanan, the current governor, expressing outrage at the latest outbreak of political violence, involving largely Trinamool Congress musclemen who last week torched dozens of vehicles and assaulted a 70-year-old former CPM minister.
His predecessor, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, had reacted no less strongly to the 2007 firing in Nandigram that killed 14 villagers. "The news of deaths by police firing in Nandigram this morning has filled me with a sense of cold horror," Gandhi had said.
As Gandhi's comments did, Narayanan's have now raised a debate over how much a governor, who holds a constitutional post, should air his political views, apart from bringing the two governors' personalities into focus.
Governor Gandhi and Governor Narayanan assumed office in starkly different political circumstances. Gandhi had arrived in Bengal when the opposition, after three decades of unbroken communist rule, was just beginning to consolidate, a process that peaked with the Singur and Nandigram agitations. Political and bureaucratic sources say Gandhi acknowledged the new alignment of forces that was taking shape and assumed the role of a guardian, often trying to play an impartial judge.
Narayanan, on the other hand, took over the mantle when key political forces had realigned themselves, the transition having already started to take place. Politics was now extremely polarised, one reason why violence was mounting.
"Gandhi was emotional and flamboyant," says a bureaucrat who has watched both governors work. "On at least two occasions I saw Gandhi in tears, once after he witnessed the plight of Nandigram villagers when he visited there, and again during a visit to Darjeeling where he saw the plight of starving workers of shut tea gardens. He made a detour of almost 150 km from Darjeeling to meet the workers, sought immediate reports from the government and ensured that they got food and medical relief."
Narayanan, on the other hand, is probably not quite as impulsive though he is no less incisive, says the bureaucrat. He draws his strength from a deep reach in the bureaucracy; his letters and reports to the Centre, including those to the home ministry, are said to be much more aggressive than his manner suggests, and are backed by data and facts. Gandhi's criticism of the state government reflected his principles, while Narayanan's criticism is based on a facts-based analysis of the situation. He appears restrained but can be scathing should the situation demand that, the bureaucrat says.
Narayanan, 78, sprang his first surprise as governor a year after his arrival in Kolkata. He visited Netai in Lalgarh, where nine villagers had been massacred by armed CPM cadres in 2011. A former National Security Adviser in the PMO with a long background with the Intelligence Bureau, Narayanan took a first-hand look into one of the worst carnages the state had seen. It was indicative of the tough stances he would take in volatile political circumstances.
On arrival at Netai, he refused to be taken on a "conducted tour" by policemen. He charted his own route, inspecting the site minutely, talking to villagers, visiting the local police station and questioning senior officers there. The statement he came out with was: "...For our state, it is a day of sorrow and shame. This has gone on far too long. It is time to act and not talk..."
"It is very difficult to bluff Governor Narayanan. Beneath his quiet, serene exterior, there is an extremely tough administrator. Maybe he is tougher than Gandhi," says a Trinamool Congress leader who has interacted with Narayanan while in opposition and now in power.
"Narayanan's long association with the high-ups in the corridors of power works to his advantage. He does not depend merely on official government reports for making an assessment of a situation. He has several parallel and authentic channels to source his information from, and to make independent assessments."
A Raj Bhavan official says Narayanan is not one to limit himself to an elite intellectual club. "He might not be seen too often in public events, but he invites and meets a lot of people."
Gandhi was a governor who would practice "Gandhigiri", the official says. He maintained a daily schedule of self-imposed power cuts in Raj Bhavan to show solidarity with the masses suffering under load-shedding. He set an example by installing a rain-harvesting project to show how it could take care of Raj Bhavan's water requirements. On a couple of occasions, he travelled in public transport, including a tram, without attendants and guards, "to listen to voices".
"Gandhi was sensitive, articulate and intellectually endowed. Narayanan is competent on other counts, such as intelligence and building information-gathering networks. He has an unmatched, decisive competence," says Debabrata Bandopadhyay, a former IAS officer, leader of a civil society forum, and now a Trinamool MP.
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