When West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar was announced as the surprise choice of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for the office of the Vice President, political observers in Kolkata, where he has spent the last three years engaged in an almost daily sparring match with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, started reading the signals being sent out by the BJP top brass.
By naming Dhankhar, who was little known outside Jaipur and the city’s legal fraternity till July 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in a way sounded the poll bugle for Rajasthan, where Assembly elections will be held next year, and Jats form a substantial vote bank.
Analysts in Kolkata also see in the move a message being sent out to Banerjee — that despite her evident displeasure at the governor’s outbursts against her government, and the many representations made by Trinamool Congress MPs to Home Minister Amit Shah to have him removed from Raj Bhawan, Dhankar was being rewarded with a higher office.
On previous occasions, there had been tiffs between the governor and the West Bengal government, like when Gopalkrishna Gandhi and the then Left Front chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, differed over the police firing at Nandigram in East Midnapore district of West Bengal on March 14, 2007, which resulted in the death of 14 persons.
But never has the government-governor spat in West Bengal been a daily affair, as it happened during the tenure of Dhankhar. He was the first governor of the state in whose tenure the Raj Bhawan press conference became an almost daily affair, giving Dhankhar a platform to target the Trinamool dispensation.
The chief minister, in an unprecedented move, responded by blocking Dhankhar from her Twitter handle.
Dhankar is also the first governor to have expressed his displeasure with the state government via regular Twitter posts. What really irked the Trinamool Congress leadership was that Dhankhar had started firing similar salvos at official functions held in the West Bengal Assembly premises.
The Assembly Speaker, Biman Banerjee, once even said that if this continued, he would have to contemplate restricting the governor’s presence on the premises of the House, something that has never been heard of in a parliamentary democracy.
A seasoned lawyer, Dhankhar has maintained that he has just been using his power and rights as a governor given by the Constitution, which no other governor had cared to do before him.
In March this year, Dhankhar marked his presence in Jaipur as chief guest at a seminar on the ‘Role of Governors and MLAs in Furtherance of Democracy’, organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s Rajasthan chapter in the Assembly building.
There, he poured his heart out, saying a governor is like a punching bag, who is invariably called an agent of the ruling party. He clarified that was not a “proactive governor” but a “copybook governor”, who firmly believed in the rule of law.
Dhankhar then surprised his audience by declaring: “People might not know it, but I do share a brother-and-sister kind of relationship with the chief minister,” he said.
“How can the governor and the chief minister fight in public?” he asked and added: “I have always tried and will continue to cooperate with the government, but this cooperation isn’t possible with one hand. If there is no communication between the chief minister and the governor, then we will deviate from democracy.”
Before July 30, 2019, when he was appointed West Bengal Governor, Dhankhar wouldn’t have even found an audience, having transitioned from being a follower of the late Jat leader Devi Lal, to becoming the minister of state for parliamentary affairs in the short-lived Chandra Shekhar government (1990-91), to finding himself drifting to the Congress, where he was ignored by Ashok Gehlot, and finally landing in the BJP in 2003, to be kept at a distance by the then state party supremo and chief minister, Vasundhara Raje.
Born in a Jat family in Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu district on May 18, 1951, Dhankhar went to Sainik School, Chittorgarh, graduated from the University of Rajasthan, and became an acolyte of Devi Lal, who was served two terms as Chief Minister of Haryana and was the Deputy Prime Minister between 1989 and 1991, in the governments of V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar.
In 1989, when the Janata Dal challenged Rajiv Gandhi under V.P. Singh’s leadership, Dhankhar got the party’s Lok Sabha ticket from Jhunjhunu, where he defeated the sitting MP (and decorated war hero) Mohammad Ayub Khan by an impressive margin of four lakh votes. Dhankhar was a member of the Ninth Lok Sabha (1989-91), and when Chandra Shekhar became Prime Minister for seven months (from November 1990 to June 1991), he was picked up for the lame-duck ministry.
In the June 1991 general elections, Dhankhar could not retain his seat (Khan got re-elected and was made a minister in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government). With the political fortunes of his mentor, Devi Lal, on the decline, Dhankhar decided to join the Congress, which gave him an Assembly ticket and he got elected as the MLA from Kishangarh in Ajmer district in 1993. He served his full term in Rajasthan’s 10th Legislative Assembly till 1998.
That was the last public office he held till he was made West Bengal Governor. Of course, he did become the President of the Rajasthan High Court Bar Association in the days when his political career wasn’t heading anywhere, but it did not come with the perks, privileges and visibility associated with the occupant of Kolkata’s Raj Bhawan, which was modelled after the family home of Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of the British Raj.
The one-time acolyte of Devi Lal has found a political saviour in Prime Minister Narendra Modi — not once, but twice.