Sunday, July 27, 2008

The issue of Speaker Somnath Chatterjee

Mr. Somnath Chatterjee has surely established himself as a brilliant Speaker. The son of Sri Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, a Hindu-Mahasabha leader of Kolkata, Somnath was brought into the party fold in the year 1968 by Pramod Dasgupta, the stalwart leader of The Communist Party of India (Marxist). In 1971 he was elected in Lok Sabha for the first time as an independent candidate supported by the CPI(M). From 1989 onwards, he uninterruptedly won from Bolpur constituency in West Bengal as a CPI(M) candidate and was the party’s leader of parliament. On 4 June 2004, the 14th Lok Sabha unanimously elected him the Speaker of the house which was his 10th term in the Indian Parliament. After being expelled from the party on 23rd of July, Mr. Somnath Chatterjee is receiving a lot of sympathetic support from odd quarters and might have turned into a sort of a hero to the Indian middle-class by defying the party line. All the sympathies are but for the time being only.

But how did he become the Speaker when CPI(M) was not a part of the UPA coalition? The Speaker’s post to Mr. Chatterjee was a reciprocal offering by the UPA and its leading constituent the Congress party to the CPI(M) in return of their support to the UPA coalition government. It was not a show of courtesy but a smart political decision taken by the Congress party think-tank to cement CPI(M) with the UPA coalition. Mr. Somnath Chatterjee was the obvious choice in this political gamble, as he holds a temperate persona among the CPI(M) parliamentarians. That he was never a fierce grass-root leader but a representative of the party in the higher stratum of the society also gave him an added advantage for the unanimous choice.

It is difficult to digest the unfeasible logic propagated by many opinion builders that soon after his party approved him for the Speaker’s job, Mr. Chatterjee suddenly turned an exceptional ‘apolitical’ individual by rubbing out the past forty years of his political life and beliefs in one stroke. How could one forget that before becoming the Speaker, Mr. Somnath Chatterjee was a highly respected member in the CPI(M) and unquestionably was going to continue as the leader of the party in parliament, the post he possessed from 1991? While withdrawing support along with the other Left Front partners the CPI(M) hence included his name in the list of party MP’s which was kept before the President of India. It is to be noted that while Mr. Chatterjee had earlier resigned from the CPI(M) Central Committee after being elected Speaker, he was still holding the primary membership of the party. The party had explained its stand on the Speaker issue by saying that because after withdrawal of support the party will no longer remain a supporter of the government but take the role of the opposition, being a member of the CPI(M) Somnath Chatterjee therefore cannot continue as the Speaker but resign. The Lok Sabha Speaker is never elected from the opposition side.

Surprisingly, Mr. Chatterjee felt miffed by his own party’s act. He refused to vacate his Speaker’s chair because according to his conviction, he is holding an apolitical constitutional position and to preserve the sanctity of his post no longer thinks himself as a party man. Through his conduct, Mr. Chatterjee gave a clear signal to his party that he is deliberately trying to distance himself. The Speaker’s office went to the extent to raise objection even on Mr. Prakash Karat addressing Mr. Chatterjee as “comrade”! Still the party did not take any hasty decision and patiently waited. Mr. Prakash Karat restrained Central Committee members who wanted to expel Mr. Chatterjee before the trust vote and advised them to wait till the vote of confidence on 22nd July was over. Hopes were there that Mr. Chatterjee might change his stand and resign on 23rd of July. When nothing likely happened CPI(M) Polit Bureau announced the expulsion of Mr. Somnath Chatterjee by releasing the following brief statement:

The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has unanimously decided to expel Somnath Chatterjee from the membership of the Party with immediate effect. This action has been taken under Article XIX, clause 13 of the Party Constitution for seriously compromising the position of the Party.

It is clear from the above stated Polit Bureau announcement that in an important political situation, when the party required him the most, Mr. Chatterjee’s decision to defy his party call was a shocking blow and too much humiliating for the party. The Polit Bureau mentioned it as ‘seriously compromising the position of the Party’. The decision to expel him was an internal disciplinary action which is a significant quality of any good organization, certainly for a Communist party. If for arguments sake we consider CPI(M)’s decision as an injustice to Mr. Chatterjee, then why Mr. Chatterjee’s decision cannot be considered unjust for his party? A Central Committee member of CPI(M) has commented that it would have been appropriate if he had resigned from the party membership when the party asked him to step down as the Speaker. But Mr. Chatterjee did not do so and the party was compelled to take this step. Is it not bizarre a situation where CPI(M) is in opposition to the government and at the same time one of its member continues as the Speaker of Lok Sabha with the ruling coalition’s support?

It is too early to comment on why Mr. Somnath Chatterjee defied his party in such a manner. It could be the result of the brewing generation gap in the party or could be some other paltry reasons, which are now unfolding by some media reports. There are reports those are suggesting that he was expressing his disapproval of the hardliner stand of the party under Mr. Prakash Karat to the CPI(M) leaders close to him. He was also against the withdrawal of support, which he had expressed through a note to the Polit Bureau members questioning the insight of the party voting with the BJP. Media reports has also suggested that Mr. Chatterjee was irked when the party twice refused to nominate him as candidate for the post of President and Vice President for which he had lobbied hard within the party. None of these reports supports his present heroic stature. On the contrary, the reports suggest that Mr. Somnath Chatterjee, at the twilight of his long and impressive leftist political life has deviated from the Left ideology and directing himself on a deplorable path of opportunism.

A lot of his fake well wishers are shedding crocodile tears and making his expulsion a pretext to slam the Communist Party and its policies. For many CPI(M) leaders and party workers, Somnath Chatterjee’s expulsion was genuinely heartbreaking but at the same time inevitable too.

Image courtesy : The Hindu