However the problematic the CPI (M) handled this issue in a very problematic way. This gave credence to the arguments of critics of CPI (M) who have always raised questions about credibility of CPI (M)’s commitment to Parliamentary Democracy. After the CPI (M) withdrew support from the UPA-1 government, questions were repeatedly raised about the status of Somnath Chatterjee as Speaker. ‘Will CPI (M) ask him to resign?’ was the question in everyone’s mind.
The death of an eminent personality was ignored by both, the Media & by experts in recent times. Neither has much time passed, nor is the contribution of the person so insignificant that we can allow him to be forgotten so easily. In fact we will need to regularly revisit his legacy in the times to come. Especially for one particular action of his, this person will always deserve a special mention in the political history of post-independence India. He set a global standard, through his actions, by showing us what one should do when someone faces a dilemma between having to prove their loyalty towards their political party vis-à-vis one’s loyalty to Democratic norms & institutions. For this, he truly deserves to be saluted. Who is this person? It is no one else but Somnath Chatterjee!
Born in 1929, he was blessed with a life 89 years long, till it came on an end on 13th August 2018. Born & educated in Kolkata, he received his higher education in Cambridge University & went on to become a lawyer at the Calcutta High Court. It was not until that he crossed his forties that Somnath babu took a leap into electoral politics. He spent his latter half of life as an active politician. He held an impressive & enviable record of winning 10 Lok Sabha elections (He lost only one Lok Sabha election in 1984, which was held in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s murder. In the 1984 election he lost to Mamata Bannerjee, who was then a candidate of the Indian National Congress). He fought his first election as an ‘Independent’ candidate with the support of Communists in 1968. From his second election onwards, he always contested elections as an official candidate of the Communist Party of India [Marxist] (CPI [M]) For more than a decade, he was CPI[M]’s leader in the Lok Sabha. That is why when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA-1) formed the government in 2004, with external support extended by the Left parties, the seat of Lok Sabha speaker was bestowed upon Somnath Chatterjee. The office of the Lok Sabha speaker, which was not bound by any commitments to either the government or any political party, was the only important political post that was accepted by CPI(M) in exchange of extending support to UPA-1. The Left parties did not enter the UPA-1 alliance & neither did they become a part of the government. During the days of UPA-1, the Congress led alliance had as many as 18 political parties, whereas the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had at least a dozen parties. But inspite of this political divide, Somnath babu’s candidature as Lok Sabha speaker was accepted by all parties unanimously, as a consensus candidate! (The only other person throughout India’s political history to be elected by consensus was G.B.Mavlankar, the very first Speaker of the house.) Thus during the era of UPA-1, Indian Democracy was proud to showcase an unique triad- of a Scientist as the President (Dr.Abdul Kalam), of having an Economist as our Prime Minister (Dr.Manmohan Singh) & having a Communist as the Speaker of the ‘House of the People’/Lok Sabha.
The Communists after the 2004 were in an unique & enviable position. The Left could now stop the juggernaut of the Right-wing represented by the BJP & also be able to simultaneously keep a check on the opportunistic politics of the Congress. With the Congress party possessing only 142 Members of Parliament (MPs) & the UPA falling short of a majority in 2004, the key to political power fell into the hands of the Communists with their tally of 62 Left MPs. This, in a way, ensured that the UPA-1 government, formed in 2004, was able to perform & govern well. Later however, the issue of the ‘Nuclear Deal’ between India & USA became a bone of contention. From the Congress’ & PM Manmohan Singh’s perspective, the issue of the Nuclear Deal had become an issue of National Interest & National Prestige (apart from the fact that it was also an issue of the Congress’ own interests & prestige) On the other hand, the Communists could not bear to see that the ‘Capitalist Indian Government’, which was surviving on the external support extended by the Left parties, was signing a deal with the ‘Imperialist American Forces’. For the Communists, such a deal with the Americans was an affront to their ideals & dignity. One should also not forget that when this issue emerged, the Lok Sabha elections were just 8-10 months away (which were also to be followed by the West Bengal State Assembly Elections in 2011). How could the CPI[M] fight in these elections on an Anti-Congress plank, if it continued to extend support to the UPA-1 government? Thus it was quite natural for the Communists to end their association with UPA-1, by making some or the other excuse. That the Communists acted in this manner is certainly not worth appreciating, but can be understood as an act of political expediency & thus can be forgiven. (Regarding this stance of the Communists, ‘Sadhana’ had on 12th July 2008 published an Editorial titled- ‘Should the Left leave behind its Left-ness?
On the 9th of July 2008, the CPI (M) submitted a letter to the President of India conveying their decision of withdrawing support from the UPA-1 government. The letter suggested that since now the UPA-1 government was in a minority, the President should either dismiss the government or ask the government to prove its majority on the floor of Parliament. In the meanwhile the BJP declared its intention to against the ‘Vote of Confidence’. Thus in a very limited sense, it can be said that the Left & BJP were on the same page. As a result of these developments, the issue of the ‘Nuclear Deal’ was pushed to the sidelines & the issue of the very survival of the government came to the forefront. This became the main focal point of most National & even International debates. However, PM Man Mohan Singh was able to ensure the government’s victory in the ‘Vote of Confidence’ by displaying great Political Will which the country had never seen before from him. (He won the ‘Trust-Vote’ by garnering the support of the 29MPs of the Samajwadi Party, which was neither a part of the UPA nor the NDA) As can be expected, there were many allegations from many quarters that there was large scale ‘Horse-trading’ of MPs before the ‘Vote of Confidence’. That the UPA-1 government won the ‘Trust-Vote’ was major political & tactical defeat of the CPI(M). But the larger & more embarrassing defeat was that of the certain ‘Key Democratic Principles’ that CPI(M) has trampled upon in this whole process.
The Political atmosphere created by the CPI(M)’s withdrawal of support from the government & the subsequent ‘vote of confidence’ motion in parliament, was such an unexpected, thrilling & exciting chain of events that even a Cricket match would pale in comparison. Back in those days, only one issue dominated the Media’s headlines- ‘What will happen with Somnath Chatterjee? What will he choose to do? What decision will CPI (M) take in this regard? Will Somnath babu resign from the Speaker’s post & vote against the government? Or will he preside over the ‘Vote of Confidence’ and then resign afterwards? Or will he remain the Speaker of Lok Sabha till the term of the 14th Lok Sabha ends?’ If one considers the Conventions of India’s Parliamentary Democracy, it would have been appropriate for Mr. Chatterjee to preside as the Speaker of Lok Sabha at least till the Parliament dealt with the inevitable ‘Vote of Confidence’. Acting in this manner would have in no way undermined his loyalty towards his own political party. That apart, one must also not forget that he was unanimously elected as the Speaker of the ‘House of People’ by all political parties across the spectrum. Thus, he was under an obligation of all those MPs who elected him, to continue to serve as the Speaker of Lok Sabha till the term of the 14th Lok Sabha ended in 2009. All these arguments are in accordance to both, common sense & also with basic norms of etiquette in a Parliamentary Democracy. We must always remember that once a MP has been elected as the Speaker of the house, he/she is no longer accountable ‘only’ to his/her political party. A person who occupies such a high political office has a wider accountability to the Parliament & established Constitutional norms as well. In the event of a ‘tie’ of votes, the Speaker gets to make use of his ‘Casting Vote’, which ultimately decides the collective will of the ‘House of the people’. While casting her/his ‘casting vote’, the speaker can vote even against his parent political party. To have its own member being elected as the Speaker of the house, should be a matter of great pride for any political party, especially smaller parties who cannot aspire to form governments.
However the problematic the CPI (M) handled this issue in a very problematic way. This gave credence to the arguments of critics of CPI (M) who have always raised questions about credibility of CPI (M)’s commitment to Parliamentary Democracy. After the CPI (M) withdrew support from the UPA-1 government, questions were repeatedly raised about the status of Somnath Chatterjee as Speaker. ‘Will CPI (M) ask him to resign?’ was the question in everyone’s mind. Responding to this question, the then General Secretary of the CPI(M), Mr.Prakash Karat, on more than occasion stated that the ‘Decision in this regard is left to the individual discretion of the Speaker himself’. But in a grave departure from their statements to the Media, the CPI(M) sent their Politburo member Mr.Biman Bose to the Somnath Babu’s house the night before the ‘Vote of Confidence’ motion with a clear message-‘ The party has taken a decision, you must resign’. However, 40 years of experience of being a parliamentarian (in the process also being awarded the ‘Best Parliamentarian’ award in 1996) of having served as the Speaker of Lok Sabha for 4 years between 2004-08, of having represented the country in the capacity of being a ‘Speaker’ at various national & international forums & possessing a deep sense of commitment towards Constitutional values, helped Somnath babu to arrive at the decision that the party’s diktat was not applicable to him. That moment when he took this decision was the most challenging moment of his life. His decision was guided by not only his inner sense of conscience but it was also an act of complete selflessness. It was a decision that would make Indian Democracy proud across the ages. (On the 26th July 2008, ‘Sadhana’ had in this regard published an editorial titled- A Salute to Somnath Babu’
On the 21st & 22nd of July 2008, the country witnessed a scathing debate on the ‘Vote of Confidence’ before it was successfully passed. The government survived and many people across the country heaved a sigh of relief. But on the very next day came the news that Somnath Chatterjee was sacked by the CPI (M). In this context, CPI (M) Politburo member Biman Bose gave a statement to the media stating that- “ Somnath Babu may have adhered to the Constitution of India through his actions, but he violated the Constitution of the CPI(M). For us, the party’s constitution is Supreme”. Many experts were of the opinion that with such an offensive statement, the CPI (M) in one go, lost all the goodwill it had managed to garner in the preceding 4 years. Somnath Chatterjee however remained as Speaker of Lok Sabha till the term of the 14th Lok Sabha ended in 2009. He had already declared earlier that he did not intend to contest any Parliamentary elections in the future.
Its exactly 10 years since these momentous events took place. In these past 10 years Somnath babu has led a retired & partly lonely life. He was rarely seen on public platforms in this past decade. He wrote just one memoir (‘Keeping The Faith’) & published a compilation of his speeches. Some Communist activists kept in constant touch with him, but communist leaders maintained their distance. He was completely ostracized by the party; one can say in a way he was subjected to a kind of Political Untouchability. Some local level leaders of the Communist party took efforts to bring him back into the party. But as per the rules of the CPI(M), once a person is expelled from the party, he can return to the party only if he himself makes such an application. The CPI(M), as a firm rule, does not re-invite any leaders who it has expelled in the past. Thus, neither Mr.Chatterjee nor the CPI(M) took the necessary initiative to bury the hatchet. Somnath Chatterjee was invited by many political parties but he turned down all such invitations. On this issue, the CPI(M) maintained a studied silence. Till his last breath, he was deeply attached to the party & its volunteers. However the same cannot be said about Somnath babu’s relationship with the CPI(M) leadership.
Given this backdrop, one can understand why Somnath Babu’s family vehemently rejected the party’s proposal to display his last remains at the CPI(M) headquarters & wrap him in the Communist flag. His body was eventually wrapped with the flag of the football club, Mohun Bagan, with whom Somnath Babu had a deep affinity. Mr.Chatterjee’s last remains were kept for display at the Calcutta High Court, where he had worked as a lawyer in the past. In the presence of the current Lok Sabha Speaker Mrs.Sumitra Mahajan & current West Bengal Chief Minister Miss Mamata Bannerjee, his last remains were bestowed with full State Honours, after which his body was donated to a Medical college. Some Communist activists, along with the present General Secretary of the CPI(M), Comrade Sitaram Yechury, offered their last respects to Somnath Babu. But a majority of Communist leaders chose to stay away. Some Communist leaders who did turn up, were asked to leave by Mr. Chatterjee’s Family. CPI(M) leaders such as Biman Bose & Suryakant Mishra were literally shooed away. Pratap, Somnath Babu’s son was unable to hide his emotions when he stated- “A person who devoted his entire life to the party(Somnath Babu) was in return insulted & mistreated by the party. I’m ashamed to even make a mention of Mr. & Mrs. Karat”. Somnath Babu’s daughter gave the following statement-“On some occasions, we tried to provoke our father to issue statements against the developments in the party. But he never uttered a single word against the party. That was because deep inside he was still deeply attached to CPI(M). The divorce between the CPI(M) & our father was only on paper.”
The biggest tragedy is that the Communists seem unaffected by this mistreatment that was meted out to Somnath Chatterjee. The official statement released by the CPI(M) after Somnath babu’s death describes him as a 10-time Member of Parliament, as a ‘true son’ of West Bengal. But despite the fact that Somnath Babu spent more than 40 years in the CPI (M) the party did not refer to him as a ‘Comrade’ in its official statement.
Translated By- Anish Tore
Originally Published in Marathi as कर्मठ कम्युनिस्टांनी बळी दिलेला कॉम्रेड
On Date of Issue : 1 September 2018
Tags: 14th Lok Sabha Hardocore Communists Comrade Somnath Chatterjee Editorial weeklysadhana Sadhanasaptahik Sadhana विकलीसाधना साधना साधनासाप्ताहिक