Retired Somnath Chatterjee omnipresent in old constituencyApril 3rd, 2009 - 1:38 pm ICT by IANS
By Sirshendu Panth
Bolpur (West Bengal), April 3 (IANS) In 1985 Somnath Chatterjee arrived here to revive his parliamentary career in a bypoll, months after his shock defeat to then relatively unknown Mamata Banerjee in Jadavpore. Almost a quarter century later, as another election approaches, Bolpur is missing its seven-time MP who rose to become the country’s first communist Lok Sabha speaker.
An eighth term from Bolpur was beyond Chatterjee’s reach after the constituency was reserved for the Scheduled Castes by the Delimitation Commission. Last year, Chatterjee was also expelled from the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) for defying its directive to quit the speaker’s post after the leftists withdrew support to the United Progressive Alliance government over the India-US civilian nuclear deal.
Last August, Chatterjee announced his retirement from public life once the present Lok Sabha’s tenure ended.
But despite his absence from the electoral scene in this mainly rural constituency, which also includes the Rabindranath Tagore-founded Santiniketan and Visva Bharati University, Somnathbabu - as Chatterjee is respectfully called - continues to be a major talking point for his colossal stature, humility and sincere development efforts.
“He is a great personality, with very few parallels now in politics and parliament. He earned the respect of one and all in the constituency for his foresight, dedication and non-partisan approach to development,” former Visva Bharati University professor Somendranath Bandopadhyay told IANS.
He referred to Chatterjee’s contribution to improving the lot of women in villages, construction of new roads including the Bolpur-Burdwan bypass, as also to permanently solving the water crisis in large parts of the constituency which is spread over Burdwan and Birbhum districts.
Bandyopadhyay, a Tagore expert, recalled how Chatterjee worked for years to improve the medical facilities in the villages around Santiniketan that led to a significant decrease in the number of tuberculosis cases.
Ramchandra Dom, who has replaced Chatterjee as the CPI-M candidate, said he was proud to contest for a seat that was represented by such a stalwart.
“I want to carry forward his vision of development,” Dom told IANS, fully aware of the love and respect that Chatterjee commands in the area.
Chatterjee’s work in the constituency is acknowledged by his friends and foes alike.
Dom’s rival and Congress nominee Asit Mal referred to the construction of the Geetanjali cultural complex in Bolpur town and the development projects implemented in the urban areas that ensured huge and increasing victory margins for the veteran at the hustings over the years.
The Congress has made Chatterjee’s expulsion from the CPI-M an electoral issue.
“People have been voting for him over the years as they held him in high esteem. They are hurt at the way he was driven out of the CPI-M. This will be reflected in the results,” said Mal.
However, Dom countered: “None of the local leaders has misbehaved with Somnathbabu. And have you read his recent statements? He is a leftist from the core of his heart. He is our well-wisher, and people know it.”
Bolpur legislator Tapan Hore conceded that a section of people, especially the middle class intelligentsia, did not like the way Chatterjee was expelled.
“But people knew for long that Chatterjee will not contest from here this time as the constituency is now a reserved one. So, in that way there will not be much of an effect,” said Hore, leader of a ruling Left Front partner, the Revolutionary Socialist Party.
Bhabatosh Dutta, former professor of Kolkata’s presidency college and Visva Bharati University, said Chatterjee has lot of empathy for the poor. “He is a great planner, with a fine eye for details which raised the quality of his projects. Every time he came here, he would set out on tours to the remotest corners. Despite his stature, he is equally at ease with the rich and the poor.”
Local businessman Sushil Chowdhury said Chatterjee played a key role in every development project in Bolpur ever since he became the MP by winning the 1985 by-poll.
“Somnath Chatterjee is Somnath Chatterjee. No one can even come close to him in stature,” said Chowdhury, secretary of the All India Rice Mill Association.
But the famed barrister-cum-orator does have his share of critics.
Writers like Mahasweta Devi had vehemently opposed Chatterjee’s housing plans in Bolpur, arguing that Santiniketan’s landmark khowai - the undulating zones of red earth, dips and pits - was being vastly eroded.
But Bandopadhyay supported Chatterjee. “At one time the whole of Santiniketan was khowai. Even during Tagore’s time construction took place on the khowai. So, it won’t be right to blame Chatterjee for this.”
And is the love-affair between Bolpur and Somnath mutual? Yes. “He has said so many times that he is proud to represent the constituency which includes Tagore’s Santiniketan. He also loved to travel to the far-flung villages of the constituency that is spread over two districts,” said Rasik Roy, a hotelier.
But the greatest acknowledgement comes from the man himself, who has declared his wish to spend the remaining days of his life in Bolpur near Santiniketan.
“Everything now is targeted towards spending the last few days of my life there,” Chatterjee, who will be 80 on July 25, said in a recent interview.
(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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