Former Lok Sabha speaker and veteran communist Somnath Chatterjee died in Kolkata on Monday. He was 89 years old. A member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for some four decades, Chatterjee was expelled from the party in 2008 after refusing to step down as Lok Sabha speaker following his party’s decision to pull out support from the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
A ten-time member of the Lok Sabha, Chatterjee occupied the post of speaker from 2004-2009. The sole exception to his electoral winning spree was when he lost Kolkata’s prestigious Jadavpur constituency in 1984 to the present Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, then only 29 years old.
A powerful and persuasive speaker for his party in the Lok Sabha, Chatterjee owed his oratorical skills to his training at Cambridge University, where he studied law in the 1950s, and his work as a lawyer.
Born in Tezpur, Assam, on July 25, 1929, Chatterjee’s association with the CPI(M) began through an unconventional journey. His father, Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, a former judge at the Calcutta high court, was closely associated with the All India Hindu Mahasabha. Though the senior Chatterjee eventually snapped his links with the organisation and turned to taking up civil liberties issues, Somnath took an ideologically different route.
In his memoirs, Keeping the Faith: Memoirs of a Parliamentarian, published in 2010, Chatterjee writes about how Jyoti Basu along with Bengal’s communist stalwarts like Promode Dasgupta and Harekrishna Konar persuaded N. C. Chatterjee to prevail upon his son to contest the Lok Sabha polls. Backed by the CPI(M), which he had joined in 1968, Chatterjee stood as an independent candidate in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections. That is how he launched into an eventful political journey spanning four decades. “As far as I am concerned, my victory was also that of the party’s,” he wrote.
However Chatterjee’s differences with his party on critical questions surfaced time and again and were well known. Some of these centred around much of the present political churn visible in the CPI(M). For instance, what kind of relationship should the CPI(M) have with the Congress in light of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political and electoral advance? Such differences of political tactic and strategy between the CPI(M) and Chatterjee manifested soon after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.
Both Chatterjee (and fellow comrade Saifuddin Chowdhury) argued that given the BJP’s rapid ascension, the CPI(M) should help the Congress in keeping the BJP out of power at the Centre. In other words, the CPI(M) should target the BJP as the main enemy rather than paint Congress and BJP with the same brush. However, the majority in the party, in favour of equidistance from both national parties, accused Chatterjee and Chowdhury of proximity towards the Congress and going against the party line. Both leaders were censured at the party’s central committee meeting. Chowdhury was expelled in 2000.
More than a decade later, however, Chatterjee refused to submit to the party on the question of the Congress. He collided with the top leadership, particularly, Prakash Karat, who insisted that Chatterjee quit the speaker’s post, following CPI(M)-Congress face-off over the Manmohan Singh government’s civil nuclear agreement with the US.
In 1996, yielding to his party’s central committee decision, Jyoti Basu gave up the option of becoming the prime minister of a third-front led government at the Centre. Basu would later term the decision to forgo the position as a “historic blunder”. Chatterjee believed quitting the speaker’s post would hurt not just the party but the very fabric of Indian democracy. In defying Karat, he argued that the speaker’s office was essentially non-partisan in nature, transcending party lines. To resign in the face of a party decision would, in his view, denigrate the independent stature of this office.
The CPI(M) refused to accept this argument and summarily showed Chatterjee the door, even without serving him a show-cause notice. When he did break his silence on the issue, the veteran parliament, described it as the “saddest day” in his life.
In his memoirs, Chatterjee firmly blamed the then leadership for inflicting such a harsh punishment on him. He also revealed how his “mentor” Jyoti Basu, to whom he turned for advice, had told him not to quit the speaker’s office.
It is indeed ironic that the central issue that created dissension between Chatterjee and his party continues to be as relevant if not more than before. With Chatterjee’s death, the curtain rings down on an epoch of Communist history which saw the Indian Marxists play a crucial role in Bengal and at the centre.