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Clear me of false charge, asks Somnath Chatterjee

Chatterjee is at a loss as to how to deal with this while holding a constitutional office.
None | By Indo-Asian News Service, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JUL 28, 2006 07:06 PM IST

For five months now, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee says, he has been subjected to "agony" by the charge that he is holding an "office of profit", when he is holding none.

The Lok Sabha will on Monday take up a crucial Parliament (prevention of Disqualification) Amendment Bill, 2006, that seeks to address a raging controversy, but a stickler for what is legal and appropriate, Chatterjee will not preside over its proceedings.

His "agony" stems from the fact that while he is not holding an "office of profit" as charged, the Election Commission, another constitutional authority, retains his name on its web site.

His public denials in and outside Parliament have not changed the situation. Since he held a formal press conference two months ago, trying to be correct about not taking on another constitutional body while seeking to clear his name, has also not changed things.

All that has happened in the last five months is that the Election Commission has been writing to various authorities to verify the charge, made by someone who has not done it on affidavit.

An eminent lawyer himself, and one who enjoys the fourth rank in terms of protocol at the national level, Chatterjee is at a loss as to how to deal with this while holding a constitutional office.

"I do not want any special privileges as an individual. But this is tarnishing the office of the Speaker," Chatterjee pleads.

"I cannot refute the charge because nobody has written to me," says Chatterjee.

The "office of profit" issue has become sensitive since President APJ Abdul Kalam returned the legislation after Parliament passed it, recommending that the government come up with a comprehensive law on the issue and not bring a piece-meal legislation that gives the impression that some people are sought to be protected.

However, the government has decided to re-introduce the same legislation, without making any changes, and in the process, ignore the president's advice.

While this is not unprecedented, it is certainly unusual. In the past, the government has either abided by the presidential advise or simply set over a legislation that is returned, allowing it to lapse.

The government's move to go ahead with the legislation has resulted in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, passing it on Thursday.

Chatterjee's complaint is that none has investigated who is the person who has levelled the charge and why it is not backed by an affidavit, making it possible for the person charged to take legal course.

In specific, Chatterjee is accused of being the chairman of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC), a public sector arm of the state government that is run by his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

He has held this position for several years, even signing memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with prospective foreign investors, but he insists that he has not received "even a paise" for this.

The other charge that he heads the Asiatic Society, a major body established during the British era and carrying out historical research. Chatterjee insists, "This is a figment of imagination." Nobody has cross checked it and there is none to challenge it."

He is upset that this anomaly has caused loose talk in political circles, even among the MPs for whom he is supposed to set a good example. "Even editorials are being written, holding me guilty of a charge that remains unsubstantiated," Chatterjee says.

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