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For Somnath Chatterjee, the House was supreme

The CPI(M)’s refusal to own him up in death proves his worst fears; a comrade with a legacy but without a party!

analysis Updated: Aug 13, 2018 20:22 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times
From the Communist stock to which Chatterjee belonged, he rated Joyti Basu as his idol, held HS Surjeet in high esteem, was affectionate towards Sitaram Yechury and called Biman Bose his younger brother(Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

As a 10-term member of the Lok Sabha, he embellished the majesty of parliament. As its Speaker and a jurist of considerable weight, he safeguarded its space in the constitutional scheme of separation of powers.

Somnath Chatterjee was from a generation of parliamentarians whose pursuit of ideology and partisan politics wasn’t at the expense of healthy precedents and democratic regard for rivals. He was very much in the league of his venerated peers: Pranab Mukherjee, PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Chandra Shekhar, Madhu Limaye, Indrajit Gupta and Madhu Dandavate.

The value and wisdom they brought to parliamentary debates is a study in how dissent can contribute to governance. Their objectives were similar, only their paths differed. It was in that creative ambience of yore that Chatterjee attained acceptability and stature.

If he fought the judiciary’s incursions on the legislative turf, he also endorsed expulsion of ten MPs in the cash for query scam that rocked the Lok Sabha when he was Speaker. It was for him an unpardonable case of elected representatives selling their basic privilege of asking questions to make the executive accountable.

The brickbats he faced came in the twilight of his parliamentary innings. Elected Speaker in 2004, the Marxist veteran was as much in the firing range of the BJP as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Opposition targeted them in the belief that their self-image of high integrity-- made them vulnerable to the mud-slinging that’s synonymous to realpolitik.

The duo was expected to desert posts rather than take stains on their personae. Singh came close to resigning rather early in his first inning as PM. It took his close aides some effort to dissuade him in the face of fierce attacks in the Rajya Sabha over his cabinet colleague Shibu Soren being on the run in a criminal case. What upset Singh was a senior BJP MP calling him a ‘fugitive’ from the House when his minister was a ‘fugitive’ from the Law.

Chatterjee’s disquietude was over Vajpayee’s response to his appeal to end a protracted parliamentary logjam. The former Premier wrote in a letter that the chair had to command respect.

But on learning of the Speaker planning to demit office in protest, the BJP veteran visited him at his residence to clarify: “Maine jo bhi likha, man se nahin likha (my heart wasn’t with what I wrote).” His gesture put the kibosh on a likely face-off in classic parliamentary tradition and now sounds like a folktale.

Much of the BJP’s attacks on Chatterjee had their genesis in the latter’s ideology that arguably was a formidable bulwark against the saffron thought. From the perspective of the Treasury-Opposition divide, the Marxist -- who did not severe ties with the party before becoming Speaker -- was as much in the news as the PM.

So when the Indo-US nuclear deal saw the Left parties withdraw support from the UPA regime, the CPI(M) asked him to walk out with them. That didn’t happen primarily on account of the temperamental hiatus between him and then CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat.

The dogmatic Karat cited Chatterjee’s primary membership of the party he hadn’t renounced, to demand his resignation. What followed was his expulsion from the CPI(M) which did not in a condolence statement, after his death, recall his association with the party.

From the Communist stock to which Chatterjee belonged, he rated Jyoti Basu as his idol, held HS Surjeet in high esteem, was affectionate towards Sitaram Yechury and called Biman Bose his younger brother.

His oft-repeated lament on being booted out of the party was that his remains wouldn’t be draped in the red flag on his last journey. For his comrades, he was a renegade.

The CPI(M)’s refusal to own him up in death proves right his worst fears: a comrade with a legacy, but without a party!

vinodsharma@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Aug 13, 2018 20:22 IST