Once Marxist voice, now speaker without a party (Profile)

July 23rd, 2008 - 8:40 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Somnath Chatterjee

New Delhi, July 23 (IANS) His was the stentorian voice that effectively projected the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) view in parliament - and outside - for four decades. On Wednesday, just two days before Somnath Chatterjee’s 79th birthday that link snapped when one of India’s most skilful parliamentarians and now speaker of the lower house of parliament was expelled from the party. The often pugnacious and sometimes avuncular Chatterjee found himself ousted from the party he has been representing in the Lok Sabha, almost without a pause since 1971, a day after his commanding performance as its presiding officer.

On Monday, Chatterjee defied his party’s diktat to continue in the speaker’s chair and preside over the two-day crucial trust vote that went against the CPI-M and was finally won by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

The CPI-M’s swift move to sack him from the party the day after the vote was perhaps no surprise for the man, who had taken on the wrath of the leadership when he decided to stay on as speaker even after the Left parties had withdrawn support to the UPA.

Just as his many decades as MP stood out for their forceful articulation of the Left viewpoint, his four years as speaker have been remarkable. He has cajoled, rebuked and ranted - with many a one-liner thrown in - while taking on the job of steering the 545-member house.

Chatterjee may have often been criticised as a schoolmaster, but is acknowledged as one of India’s more colourful and articulate speakers.

“Let them do what they want,” a defiant Chatterjee told reporters shortly before the CPI-M announced his expulsion - marking his metamorphosis to a “rebel”.

This “rebel”, who gave up a promising career as a barrister, was not the homespun, grassroots comrade in the strict mould of a card holding member of the Communist party.

The son of Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, who was president of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, a forerunner of the current day Bharatiya Janata Party, had signed up with the CPI-M relatively late in life — when he was 39.

There was little looking back after that for the graduate from the Kolkata, Cambridge and Glasgow universities. Since 1971, he has lost an election only once - in 1984 by Mamata Banerjee in Jadavpur, West Bengal.

The 10-time MP then moved to Bolpur constituency in the state and never went back to Jadavpur.

Bolpur too was being snatched away. The process of delimitation of assembly and parliamentary constituencies implemented earlier this year made Bolpur into a reserved constituency.

The speaker, his colleagues in the CPI-M said, was not keen on contesting the next general elections scheduled in 2009.

All through the highs and lows of his years with the CPI-M, Chatterjee remained close to Jyoti Basu, former West Bengal chief minister and patriarch of the party.

He turned to Basu even during the last few days when he was under pressure from the CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat to give up the speaker’s post.

During his long stint in parliament, Chatterjee has headed the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (1994-2004) - where he sought to channelise investment once again into West Bengal after big business fled the city following militant trade unionism of the seventies - won the best parliamentarian award (1996) and then had been unanimously elected Lok Sabha speaker in 2004.

In short, Chatterjee has had a good run with the CPI-M. A parting of ways at this juncture, insiders in the CPI-M say, was no longer so “traumatic”.

Insiders recollected that Chatterjee had a close shave with the party’s central committee in 1992 when it served show cause notices to him and his colleague Saifuddin Chowdhury (a former Lok Sabha MP) in 1992, for “hobnobbing” with the Congress.

The CPI-M’s political line then was to treat both Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as “equal enemies.”

In 2004, it was Karat’s insistence that forced Chatterjee to quit the party’s central committee. The CPI-M general secretary believed Chatterjee was not able to regularly attend regularly central committee meetings with his additional responsibilities as Lok Sabha speaker.

Chatterjee told Karat he was confident of combining both responsibilities - of the speaker’s office and the central committee. But the CPI-M general secretary prevailed and Chatterjee stepped down from the central committee.

This time round, he did not oblige.

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