When the CPI(M) decided to pull out of UPA1, another blunder by the Marxist party, Somnath Chatterjee would have been the Jyoti Basu of his time.
On Monday, the former Lok Sabha speaker and the senior communist leader Somnath Chatterjee passed away in Kolkata. The 89-year-old leader was a parliamentary giant having 10 terms on his record. One of the tallest leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from Bengal serving the party for almost 4 decades, he won all the Lok Sabha elections that he fought except one in 1984- in which he lost the Jadavpur constituency to current Chief Minister of Bengal Mamata Banerjee.
Even though tributes poured in from across the party lines for Somnath Chatterjee, surprisingly enough, CPI(M)-the party he was closely associated with for several years, did not even consider mentioning this very fact in their “late response”. Five hours after the demise of Chatterjee, the CPI(M) politburo issued a weak-willed statement expressing the party’s grief and sorrow. The response read, “Somnath Chatterjee played an important role in defending the foundations of the Indian Constitution, particularly its secular democratic foundations and federalism.”
The statement also noted that as “an eminent lawyer by profession” Chatterjee “also took up the cause of the working class and the deprived to ensure justice is delivered to them”. For a leader, that gave the country its first communist speaker of the Lok Sabha, this tribute seems more of a formality than a heartfelt condolence.
Somnath Chatterjee is mostly remembered for his rebellious act in the political history. But his rebellion began early in life by taking a detour from his father’s ideology. Born in Tezpur, Assam, on July 25, 1929, to Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, the Calcutta High Court judge, Somnath Chatterjee too went on to study law from Cambridge University in 1950. His entry into left politics is rather an eventful incident considering the fact that his father was closely associated with Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha and had even held the President’s post. However, after Jawaharlal Nehru banned the CPI(M) in 1948, it was Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee who came to the rescue of arrested leaders. He formed the All India Civil Liberties Union and agitated for their release. In this process, he came close to Jyoti Basu, who in later years became the mentor of his son- Somnath Chatterjee.
Though Somnath Chatterjee officially became a member of the CPI(M) in 1968, he fought the 1971 by-election caused by the death of his father independently with the support of CPI(M). From 1989 until 2004 for almost 15 years, he was the leader of his party in the Lok Sabha. In 2004, he was elected for the record tenth time as a member of the 14th Lok Sabha from Bolpur Lok Sabha constituency. After the UPA assumed power in 2004, Somnath Chatterjee was appointed as the speaker of the house, unanimously.
As a Speaker, Chatterjee whom MPs fondly remember as Somnath Da was a strict and was even called “headmaster” at times. He brought several reforms during his tenure such as ensuring the live broadcast of Zero Hour on Lok Sabha TV. He had introduced a children’s corner to Parliament Library building. Chatterjee earned immense respect among the officials and staff of Lok Sabah secretariat.
As a leader, Chatterjee always puts the principles and values of the constitution and the temple of democracy above the petty partisan politics. Of course, he had to pay the hefty price of his loyalty towards non-partisan politics by being expelled from the party that he was a part of for 40 long years.
It was in mid-2008 when the Congress and CPI(M) who were partners in ruling UPA were going through a strained relation. Headed by PM Manmohan Singh Indian government signed a nuclear deal with US which invoked a massive opposition from the CPI(M). Amidst the entire political tension, the CPI(M) decided to pull out of the UPA-1. The first No-confidence motion was brought against the Manmohan Singh government. The party asked Somnath Chatterjee to step down from the position of speaker. But Chatterjee, bound by the constitutional duty refused to follow the order.
He was of the opinion that voting against Congress would mean helping the opposition BJP which he saw as a more divisive and vicious force. Some party leaders even claim that he has grown close to Congress especially the Gandhi family. Miffed with his stance, the party led by Prakash Karat expelled him the very next day on 23rd July. In his book, ‘Keeping the Faith: Memoirs of a parliamentarian’ he called it the “saddest day” of his life. He even announced his retirement from the political life, but he was still to complete his tenure.
However, after his fallout with the party, the CPI(M) MPs behaviour towards him changed. The MPs would overlook his instructions in parliament and would even target him accusing him of bias. So much so that on 23 October the same year he even cried inside the Lok Sabha.
Somnath Chatterjee had his share of differences with his party, especially with the leadership of Prakash Karat. In his book, Chatterjee even accuses Karat of “arrogance and intolerance” and says his “disastrous and misguided policies” have weakened the Left. He refused to buy in Karat’s policy weighing Congress and BJP both on same parameters and calling them both enemies of the CPI(M).
The CPI(M) in its lifetime has committed several grave mistakes. How can one forget the “historical blunder” as depicted by Jyoti Basu himself when the party did not let him become the Prime Minister during the third front rule? Well, when the CPI(M) decided to pull out of UPA 1 over India-US Nuclear deal, which was, in fact, another blunder by the Marxist party, Somnath Chatterjee would have been the Jyoti Basu of his time. But Chatterjee stayed true to his grounds. However, his loyalty towards the party that abandoned him was such that he never joined any other party.
The contribution of Somnath Chatterjee to the Indian Democracy and the parliament is immense. Not recognizing the contributions of the communist-nationalist to the party is betraying the memories and legacy of Chatterjee. More so, it is yet another addition to the list of blunders by the CPI(M).