Book: Keeping the Faith: Memoirs of a Parliamentarian
Author: Somnath Chatterjee
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India/India Today Group
Somnath Chatterjee needs no introduction. His political trajectory reveals what is wrong with the Indian Left. Here was a man who made a mark as a lawyer early in life but allowed himself to be wooed by the then fledgling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M).
He got elected to parliament, first as an independent with the party's backing, and went on to become the party's most erudite face in the Indian parliament. That was until the party czars (read Prakash Karat) decided to boot him out for not resigning as Lok Sabha Speaker after the Left broke with the Congress over the Indis-US nuclear deal.
July 23, 2008, the day he was expelled, was "one of the saddest days of my life", Chatterjee says and goes hammer and tongs against Karat's leadership.
Because they backed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with the 60 Lok Sabha MPs following the 2004 elections and because the government seemed to bend when they wanted, "they forgot their true strength in the house or even in the country".
Chatterjee accuses Karat of "arrogance and intolerance" and says his "disastrous and misguided policies" have weakened the Left. He says he still does not know why the CPI-M earlier sacked his fellow MP Saifuddin Chaudhry, who was proving to be an effective Lok Sabha member.
Chatterjee reveals he was among the minority in the party who wanted Jyoti Basu, his favoured leader in the CPI-M, to become prime minister in 1996 when the Centre-Left United Front coalition offered the post on a platter. But Karat would have none of it. That was a monumental mistake that gave the impression that the CPI-M would always be in the opposition, unwilling to take power even if a chance came by, Chatterjee says, echoing Basu's now famous description of the failure to make him prime minister a "historic blunder".
While he is justifiably angry over what was done to him, Chatterjee does not betray any of the larger rot within the CPI-M. That is where his book disappoints.
Here was a man who was intimately linked to one of the most successful Left parties (from the parliamentary point of view), a party with thousands of whole-time activists, a party that has weathered many a storm, and a party that has ruled West Bengal since 1977 and two other states off and on. Just what makes it tick? What are its strengths - and weaknesses? Why do those who join it join it at all - since there would never be a proletarian revolution in India? How are decisions taken in the party? If Karat is as bad as is made out to be, why does the party put up with him?
None of these questions are answered. The book is, in essence, Chatterjee's life story, from his birth in July 1929 at Tezpur to his world of politics - where he amply justified the party's understanding of his abilities. It is a chronology of much of what took place in India, particularly from the time when Indira Gandhi was prime minister, the rise of the Janata Party, the rise and fall of Rajiv Gandhi, the V.P. Singh era and coalition politics, P.V.Narasimha Rao's tumultuous years, the CPI-M's missed chances, the BJP's rise - and its 2004 crash.
While denouncing Karat for the ills of the CPI-M, Chatterjee comes out as an undisguised admirer of Jyoti Basu, the long-time chief minister of West Bengal and for decades the country's best known Marxist. However, other equally committed and honest men in the same party saw Basu differently. Many years before Chatterjee was axed, a similar fate fell on Nripen Chakraborty, the two-time chief minister of Tripura and a man of integrity and Gandhian values. Chatterjee makes no mention of the tragic story; is it because the Tripura chief minister had become hugely critical of Basu?
The former speaker should have told us more about the party he served for so long - and with distinction.