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Somnath Chatterjee (1929–2018)

Remembering the ‘Gentleman’ of Indian Politics

Suvojit Bagchi ( is with the Hindu.

Somnath Chatterjee’s demise on 13 August 2018 saw politicians across party lines unanimously grieving the loss of this stalwart parliamentarian who had inherited the ideology of liberal democracy and nurtured it all through his long and eventful political career. 

Sometime in the middle of the 1950s, a young man was often seen at the visitors’ gallery in Parliament, listening to the stalwarts of ­Indian politics. This young man, Somnath Chatterjee, on his return from London’s Middle Temple as a barrister, was set to start a career in law. But, Parliament, too, made a strong impression on him. He eventually joined it first as a member of Parliment (MP) (1971) and then became the speaker of the Lok Sabha (2004). On 4 June 2004, while acce­pting the post of speaker, Chatterjee reminisced about his days in the visitor’s gallery taking down notes. 
I had the great privilege of hearing some of the most ­inspiring interventions by, amongst others, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Pandit Pant, Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Shri N C Chatterjee, Professor Hiren Mukherjee, Nath Pai and many others. (Chatterjee 2012: 487) 
Born in 1929 in Tejpur, Assam, Chatterjee in fact continued a family legacy by entering Parliament. His father, Nirmal Chandra (NC) Chatterjee, was a very successful jurist and parliamen­tarian. By 1940, he “owned more than one car” (Chatterjee 2014: 6), and later became a justice in the Calcutta High Court, much before he entered the Lok Sabha in 1952 on a Hindu Mahasabha nomination. Somnath, thus, clearly was not attached to the community of Kolkata’s urban poor or East Pakistan refugees, who were the key source of strength for the communist party during its formative days at the Bengal legi­slative assembly. He rather was working for his father, a Hindu Mahasabha leader, during the elections. 
What, however, was surprising about NC, was his relationship with the left leaders. While leading Hindu Mahasabha, NC fought several pro bono cases for communist leaders, like Jyoti Basu, who had been detained under the ­Defence of India Rules. “My father got the orders of their detention quashed,” said Chatte­rjee (2014: 17).
Seven times MP, Communist Party of India’s (Marxist)—CPI(M)—Rupchand Pal rec­alled, 
In 1948, when Nehru banned the party (CPI), it was NC, as a civil rights acti­vist and a lawyer who took up the case. When leaders like A K Gopalan were in prison (1965), NC addressed public rallies demanding release. Somnath babu inherited this legacy of situating himself in liberal democracy from his ­father. 
Top communist leaders “Jyoti Basu, Benoy Choudhury and Hare­krishna Konar often visited my father,” Chatterjee noted (2014: 17). 
By the late 1960s, Chatterjee was taking up cases of the party and “started representing workers, trade unions …functionaries of the CPI and CPI(M)” (Chatterjee 2014: 18) in the courts, often without charging any fee. By then, the ailing senior Chatterjee found it difficult to work and as the fifth Lok Sabha (1971–77) elections were announced the CPI(M)’s top leaders approached him to permit his son to contest from his seat in Bardhaman. The father,  who by then had campaigned for the CPI(M) in the 1969 assembly polls, however, refused.
The reason was the upswing in the junior Chatterjee’s career. He was the “most upcoming and busiest lawyer” in Calcutta High Court, said Anindya Mitra (Hindu 2018), a lawyer and Chatterjee’s chamber junior from 1959. However, after “another visit by the top leaders,” NC agreed to let the son contest (Chatterjee 2014: 21). Som­nath Chatterjee entered Parliament as a member of the fifth Lok Sabha in 1971. 
Joining the CPI(M) in Bengal
Chatterjee was not a member of the CPI(M) party at the time of entering Parliament. He got the membership in 1973. Formal entry to CPI(M) from Parliament rather than through a mass movement returned as a question mark in Chatterjee’s career at various points, particularly when it was discussed whether he should be brought back to the state.1 In this tenure, between 1971 and 1984, till the point he was defeated, Chatterjee had an enviable record in the house. Simu­ltaneously, he was one of the key members of the artillery battery of the communists in Parliament, alongside Hirendranath Mukhopadhyay, Indrajit Gupta, and Jyotirmoy Basu, till the ­mid-1980s.
In three months’ time, since the fifth Lok Sabha was convened, Chatterjee pulled one of the most acerbic attacks on Indira Gandhi’s government for introducing the Maintenance of Internal Security Bill (MISA, later an act), a draconian forerunner to India’s harsh security laws. What Chatterjee said in Parliament on 17 June 1971, is still significant. 
With the slogan of “Garibi Hatao” the ruling party “did banish from the country … personal freedom and individual liberty, instead of ‘garibi.’” Within 100 days of entering Parliament, Chatterjee argued that “ruling parties showing a tendency of becoming totalitarian (and MISA) does not provide even the semblance of security to an individual in this country. In the name of refugee ­influx ... power has been given in the hand of petty mandarins” (2014: 33).
As Parliament was convened on 21 July 1975 to ratify the proclamation of Emergency, Chatterjee was the first to interject. Throughout the 21-month phase of Emergency, Chatterjee made significant speeches in Parliament, at times fiercely attacking the government. 
If my line is little different does it mean that I do not have patriotism? If I do not want the zamindars, the landed gentry and the black marketers to control our country, does it mean that I am not patriotic ... If a judge delivers a judgment which you do not like, you say that the judge is wrong and therefore you want to take away the court’s powers. Why are you so arrogant? (Chatterjee 2014: 263) 
It was in this phase that Chatterjee’s difference with the CPI(M) surfaced. The party decided to vote in favour of the no-confidence brought by Congress aga­inst the Morarji Desai government, on the grounds that the Desai government had “reactionary and communal components” like Jana Sangh in the alliance which would be resisting the government “from fighting the reactionary policies” (Namboodripad 2010: 206). But, Chatterjee perceived the Congress to be a bigger threat and argued that the Desai-led anti-Congress coalition should survive to 
dispel it. Though the impasse was resolved amicably as Desai resig­ned, it was the first sign of a drift bet­ween Chatterjee and the party, which would aggravate over time. 
Chatterjee had very few regrets as it seems from his interviews and auto­bio­graphy. One, of course, was his defeat to Mamata Banerjee in 1984 in Jadav­pur constituency, which kept him out of Parliament for about a year. He had not analysed in great depth the ­defeat in public, but kept under­scoring it. 
Second Innings 
In the second phase as a parliamentarian, Chatterjee entered the house in 1985, winning a by-election from Bolpur constituency. In this phase, Chatterjee’s speeches in support of the Mandal Commission are significant. He clearly said that he “support[s] reservation in jobs for the backward classes as recommended by the Mandal Commission” (Chatterjee 2014: 71) and rather criticised the student community and the media for resis­ting the commission. He felt that the country had done little for the backward classes decades ­after ­independence and war­ned the students of the “agent provo­­cateurs” who were fuelling confusion to block the recommendations of the ­commission.
Following the anti-Mandal movement, India’s politics changed dramatically, with L K Advani’s rath yatra (1990) and the demolition of Babri Masjid (1992). Chatterjee interjected in Parliament and confronted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leaders many times. He asked Advani: “Do we want that the people of this country should fight among themselves on the basis of religion?” (Chatterjee 2014: 73). He repeatedly targeted the BJP, describing it as a party driving “wedge among the people on the basis of religion” (Chatterjee 2014: 74). Later again, he was aghast when then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ­refused “to save the people of Gujarat” during 2002 Gujarat riots and described him as “more a leader of the Sangh than of India” (Chatterjee 2014: 130–31).
Around the time, Chatterjee’s speeches, inside and outside Parliament, highlighted another major challenge for Indian democracy. He indicated how “faithful implementation of the fiats of the IMF and the World Bank ... compromised India’s sovereignty” (Chatterjee 2014: 99). He went on to indicate, prophetically, that such sacrifice of econo­mic sovereignty may have an impact on the social fabric of the country in the long run, ­enhancing the gap between the rich and the poor. 
Conflicts with CPI(M) Leadership
Meanwhile, Chatterjee’s fresh conflict with the party surfaced once more as it declined the offer of the United Front to elect Jyoti Basu as the Prime Minister in 1996. “Jyoti Basu and I were not averse to the idea. The decision of the party was later rightly described as the historic blunder” (Chatterjee 2014: 77). Chatterjee went hammer and tongs against the party’s decision to deny the top job to Basu. He opined that the left parties should participate in the government particularly to introduce its economic policies. Despite the thought being inten­sely challenged within the party, the left could indeed put pressure on United Progressive Alliance–I (UPA–I), a decade later, while providing outside support to implement many pro-people legislations. Thus, proving Chatterjee right. 
Chatterjee however pulled no punches in challenging the party line, in context of denying the position to Basu, and directly blamed Prakash Karat, who was a member of the politburo at the time, arguing that the “main protagonist of the party’s policy of non-participation ... has been Prakash Karat.” Chatterjee described the decision as “anathema.” “A political party taking part in elections in a parliamentary democracy only with a view to criticising the government’s policies, programmes and performances in the legislatures, while permanently remaining as a party in the opposition, is anathema to democratic polity,” Chatterjee noted in his autobiography. 
The frictions with the party created problems for Chatterjee, as claimed by his family members. “When it was discussed (as A P J Abdul Kalam’s term as president came to an end in 2007) that my father can be considered for the post of the President, a party leader met him. The leader said, he can’t be considered as he would have to say ‘My Government’ as the President which he can’t as the party member,” said Anushila Basu.2 So, Chatterjee’s differences with the ­party were building up even though he led the party in Lok Sabha from 1989 to 2004. 
However, the Bengal CPI(M) had informally debated intermittently whether Chatterjee should be groomed for state politics. Attempts were made in the mid-1990s, as the party ratified Jyoti Basu’s new industrial policy, to bring Chatterjee back as the industry minister. But, the initiative slowed down owing to a confusion related to his background: Willsomeone attached to Delhi politics be able to deal with the party in Bengal and vice versa? The answer was not easy, and time passed. He was made the chief of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (1999–2004) to facilitate investment, but it failed to make headway. Thus, the inevitable question: If Chatterjee was brought back to the land-scarce state to resuscitate its economy would it have been possible for him?
Chatterjee did have a problem in ret­ur­ning to Bengal politics. In the initial years of Bengal CPI(M) (also Chatterjee’s initial years in Parliament), buoyed by electoral victories while adhering to anti-industry and pro-peasant policies, Chatterjee was considered a representative of the upper class, which he was. Chatterjee perhaps also realised that he does not fit into the politics of 1980s Bengal and waited for an opportune moment. 
From the Speaker’s Chair
A new chapter of Chatterjee’s career started on 4 June 2004 when he ass­umed the office of the speaker. But much before that he had started the process of bringing together the political opponents against the BJP. Chatterjee hosted a dinner at his 21 Ashoka Road residence on 21 November 2001. It was attended by Jyoti Basu, Sonia Gandhi, Shivraj Patil, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sharad Pawar, Deve Gowda and Chandra Shekhar, who for the first time sat together to discuss “some unanimity of views on the importance of secular parties working toge­ther,” Chatterjee noted. Thereafter, Chatterjee played a significant role in stitching an alliance of anti-BJP forces, which, however, was much less publicised.
But his role perhaps paved way for Congress’s recommendation to make Cha­tterjee the speaker of the 14th Lok ­Sabha, a request that CPI(M) accepted. ­(Earlier Chatterjee’s name was proposed as a speaker in the ninth Lok Sabha which was turned down by his party.) Chatterjee took oath of office on 4 June 2004, being elected uncontested and unanimous. 
He became the first pro tem speaker to be elected as a speaker. He was the first member of Left Front to occupy the office of the speaker. There are many other “firsts” as well, during his five-year tenure. Ten members were expelled for cash-for-queries scam and many other were either suspended or expelled for a plethora of reasons. Besides, a television channel of Lok Sabha and Parliament museum was set up; five parliamentary forums and a lecture series by subject specialists was introduced and access to Parliament library was widened. Interestingly, he was the first speaker to use the media to manage the 39 parties in the house. He appealed to the MPs to take full part in the parliamentary proceedings. But, perhaps, the most significant achievement was the enactment of key legislations, bac­ked by the left parties, which were instrumental in ensuring UPA–I’s victory in 2009 election. Out of the 258 enacted legislations were the Right to Information Act, 2005, the National Rural Emp­loyment Guarantee Act, 2005, Commi­ssion for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005, etc.
Towards the end of his tenure, however, came the “unkindest cut of all” which Chatterjee could not forget. He was expelled from the party. The reasoning, however, was clear. The CPI(M)wanted Chatterjee to resign and vote against the government in the trust vote, based on UPA–I’s decision to sign the ­nuclear deal. Left parties withdrew support and the Prime Minister decided to go for a floor test. Chatterjee refused to accept “party’s diktat” primarily on the ground that as Speaker [he] could not be dictated to by the party (2014: 212) and was expelled on 23 July 2008. “[It] was undoubtedly the saddest day in my life since the passing away of my parents,” noted Chatterjee. 
The event was deeply debated within the CPI(M) and many of the members ack­nowledged privately that they did not support the party’s decision; though the central committee exhibited a general unanimity at the time of the expulsion. An attempt to bring Chatterjee back to the party by Sitaram Yechury, on the party’s behest, proved infructuous as he refused to write a formal plea ­expressing his interest to return.
The Family Man 
Of Chatterjee’s three key regrets—defeat in 1984 election, denial of top job to mentor Jyoti Basu and expulsion—the last one hurt him the most, at least in the public life. In personal life, death of his elder daughter, Anuradha, in 2017 was a major shock. He shared a deep bonding with his family; even known to have spent hours for designing invitation cards for various family occasions. He would be seized by emotion while talking about his wife of 68 years, Renu. She had been “a great source of strength” and “always encouraged” in all his ende­avours, Chatterjee noted. He was a writer, too; and a diehard supporter of the ­Mohun Bagan club.3 
In the final assessment, Chatterjee remai­ned a gentleman in politics, a clean and successful parliamentarian. As a spe­­­­­a­ker he was respected for his impartiality, as a CPI(M) member he strongly advocated the CPI(M)’s participation in the government. There, however, is no guarantee that CPI(M)’s condition would have been better today if it joined the government in 2004. The CPI(M)’s class character changed slowly but steadily over the decades—which is interpreted as the key reason for its collapse in Bengal and outside Bengal. It is not clear how he could have reversed this collapse had he not been expelled; just as it has not been tested whether Chatterjee was as deft in realpolitik as he was in managing Parliament. 
1 Somnath Chatterjee’s younger daughter Anu­shila Basu in conversation with the author said that the “family discouraged” Chatterjee to ­return to West Bengal. He was asked by Jyoti Basu if he was willing to return to the state, possibly as the chief minister after Basu.
2 Author’s conversation with Anushila Basu.
3 Author’s conversation with Anushila Basu and eldest grandson, Shashwata Chatterjee.
Chatterjee, Somnath (2012): The Collected Speeches of Somnath Chatterjee, Speaker of the Lok Sabha (2004–08), Tranquebar Press. 
(2014): Keeping the Faith: Memoirs of a Parliamentarian, HarperCollins, Paperback. 
Namboodripad, E M S (2010): The Frontline Years: Selected Articles, LeftWord Books. 
Hindu (2018): “Rare Unity at Somnath Remembrance,” Last accessed on 3 September 2018.
Updated On : 18th Sep, 2018


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