Somnath turns 79 as he moves towards a new future

July 25th, 2008 - 4:05 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Somnath Chatterjee

New Delhi, July 25 (IANS) Somnath Chatterjee, Lok Sabha speaker and a member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) till two days ago, turned 79 Friday amid a surge of acclaim from friends in the ruling coalition hailing him for not giving up the speaker’s post despite staunch opposition from his party leadership. Catapulted overnight as the cynosure of all eyes, Chatterjee received a stream of visitors - including top leaders of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at his 20 Akbar Road residence since morning.

Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi drove up to Chatterjee’s sprawling bungalow and greeted him with a bouquet. She spent 10 minutes with the speaker, who following his expulsion from the CPI-M Wednesday is soaking in an abundance of sympathy coming his way from his close and not-so-close friends.

The CPI-M politburo expelled Chatterjee from the party’s primary membership for not giving up the speaker’s post after the Left parties withdrew support to the Congress-led UPA government and deciding to preside over the two-day special session of the trust vote won by the ruling UPA.

Chatterjee does not stand alone at this hour of political crisis that has severed his 40-year association with the CPI-M - the party that helped him to get elected to the Lok Sabha a total of 10 times beginning 1971.

Friday morning Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil sent their officers to the speaker’s residence to greet him. His friends said this was perhaps Chatterjee’s “busiest” birthday in all of his 79 years.

Born in Tezpur in Assam in 1929, Chatterjee was educated first in Kolkata and later in Cambridge and Glasgow universities in England. Chatterjee has lost election only once, to Mamata Bannerjee, in 1984.

There is still a question mark over whether Chatterjee will resign the speaker’s post before the monsoon session of parliament begins in the second week of August. His friends believe the cascading accolades the speaker has received from political parties, across the line, in the aftermath of his expulsion, will keep him in that presiding chair of the Lok Sabha.

But these friends are also quick to point out that Chatterjee from now on will be on “his own” without the prop of a party, which he joined way back in 1968.

Saifuddin Choudhury, a former colleague of Chatterjee in the Lok Sabha, however believes the CPI-M’s absence will work to Chatterjee’s advantage. “The speaker can now do better work without his party restricting him,” Choudhury told IANS.

Choudhury, a former four-time MP from West Bengal, quit the CPI-M in 2000 following differences of opinion about the party’s functioning and its anti-Congress stand.

“I greeted him on his birthday this morning and told him to move towards greater victories,” Choudhury told IANS.

In a sense Chatterjee’s career, even his most optimistic friends and sympathizers concede, will move along a different trajectory from now on.

The veteran MP, they stress, was in any case not keen on contesting the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, especially in view of the fact that Bolpur, his electoral turf, has been declared a reserved constituency following the restructuring of parliamentary constituencies.

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