How closely should a party associate with the government it supports? This has been a long-debated question within the Left parties. Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee’s expulsion from the CPI(M), following his refusal to step down, could end the debate in favour of leaders who are isolationists.
Isolationists, most prominent among them being CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat, have argued that close association with the government will only make the party susceptible to the trappings of power without being able to influence policy. The CPI(M) rejected the offer of the post of Prime Minister in 1996 and refused to join the United Front government, while the CPI joined it.
In 2004, the CPI(M) accepted the post of Speaker after a lot of internal debate. The party explained that this post was not part of the executive wing of the government, and did not link the party to any government action. It took much persuasion by the Congress and the intervention of Left patriarchs before the CPI(M) could accept the idea of occupying the Speaker’s chair.
Soon after Chatterjee became Speaker, Karat became the general secretary the CPI(M). Both were rarely on the same page on any issue, and the distance widened with time. The clash between the two reached a flashpoint during the selection of candidates for President and Vice-President in 2007. Chatterjee’s ambition was kindled by encouragement from Congress leaders and UPA allies like Lalu Prasad. Chatterjee’s name was discussed as a possible candidate for President and then Vice-President in numerous stormy UPA-Left meetings. The CPI(M) rejected the proposals, and Karat made his displeasure known to allies. Chatterjee never forgave Karat, while the latter believed the episode only proved his point that closer is not better when it comes to the government.
When the CPI(M) was scripting the final act of withdrawal of support to the UPA, Chatterjee made it known that he will resign as the Speaker. However, he backtracked and took a rigid stand after the CPI(M) included his name, without prior approval, in the list of MPs submitted to the President. Karat is believed to have met him twice in an attempt to persuade him to fall in line. Chatterjee did not budge, and offered — as a compromise — to vote with the CPI(M) in the event of a tie in the trust vote. It was too little, too late as far as the CPI(M) was concerned.
The CPI(M) has egg on its face after it failed to stop the nuclear deal — as it boasted in the party congress early this year — or topple the UPA. This it can live with, but it cannot live with a situation in which a card-holding member occupies a constitutional position in defiance of the party diktat. The party had to salvage its image of being a disciplined cadre party. From a CPI(M) perspective, there indeed was no option.