Somnath Chatterjee always an “outsider” in CPI-M

July 21st, 2008 - 7:48 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh

By Monobina Gupta
New Delhi, July 21 (IANS) Though a high-profile face in the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee has always been somewhat of an “outsider” within his party, at least on occasions when decisions of the party high command needed execution without a demur. The India-US nuclear row has now made the “outsider” a “rebel”. Chatterjee has turned a deaf ear to his party’s repeated counsels not to preside over the two-day special session of parliament beginning Monday to decide the fate of the Manmohan Singh government in a trust vote sought by the prime minister.

He is even ready to face “disciplinary” action that his party may slap on him for his defiance.

CPI-M politburo member Sitaram Yechury has indicated the CPI-M central committee will take action at “an appropriate time.”

“We do not want the speaker’s office to be involved in a controversy now. But a decision will be taken at an appropriate time,” he has said.

Chatterjee’s defiance flew in the face of the CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat - the man who has brought the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to its knees.

His ideological position that he will not vote with the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against the Manmohan Singh government has added to the CPI-M’s discomfiture.

Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary A.B. Bardhan concedes Chatterjee’s argument that the speaker’s office is above partisan considerations. “He does have a point. It is wrong to force him to take a decision,” said Bardhan.

Chatterjee is being “individualistic”, say insiders in the CPI-M. They say the Cambridge University trained barrister belonged to the lot of “successful middle-class professionals” who signed up with the CPI-M but never made that transition to become a full-fledged “unquestioning and disciplined soldier” of the party.

The CPI-M high command in 1992 served show-cause notices to Chatterjee and his Lok Sabha colleague Saifuddin Choudhury, who was later expelled by the party. Both were charged with “hobnobbing” with the Congress. The CPI-M’s political line then was to treat both Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as “equal enemies”.

Chatterjee joined the CPI-M in 1968. Three years later the party fielded him from West Bengal’s Bolpur constituency in the Lok Sabha. Since then he remained on a winning spree, returning to the Lok Sabha every five years, 1984 being the sole exception, when he lost the Jadavpur constituency to Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Bannerjee.

For Karat, Chatterjee’s stand is a reaffirmation of what he always sensed. The successful barrister-turned speaker has been ill at ease with the strict code of obedience demanded by a communist party.

He did yield to Karat three years ago at the CPI-M’s 18th congress when he was asked to step down from the central committee following his election as Lok Sabha speaker a year earlier.

The CPI-M leadership argued Chatterjee, overburdened with responsibilities of the speaker’s office, could not attend party meetings. It was therefore fit for him to quit the central committee - second after the politburo - in the hierarchy of the party’s decision-making bodies.

Insiders in the party recall Chatterjee’s reluctance to quit the central committee. In fact he told Karat he was confident of combining both responsibilities - of the speaker’s office and the central committee. But Karat ultimately prevailed and Chatterjee quit the central committee.

He seemed in the best of spirits as he conducted the trust debate Monday regardless of the possibility that the CPI-M leadership may repeat its 1992 action and serve a second show cause notice to him after the dust on the political turmoil settles down.

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