Comrade Somnath Chatterjee was the quintessential Bengali bhadralok (genteel folk). Somnath Da, as he was fondly addressed, was also a stalwart politician, barrister-at-law, orator, and wore many other hats in his five-decade public life. But it was as the Lok Sabha Speaker that his eventful political career ended, a year after he was expelled from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which he had joined in 1968.
Chatterjee made his Lok Sabha debut in 1971, when he won the Jadavpur seat. It had fallen vacant after his father Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee’s death. Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee was once the president of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha and a three-time MP himself. Despite his Hindutva leanings, NC Chatterjee later veered towards the centrist Swatantra Party, and finally to the Left in the autumn of his life.
Unlike the majority of the garden-variety Marxists of his generation, the junior Chatterjee was a London-educated and suave lawyer—more in the mould of his “friend, guide and philosopher” Jyoti Basu—whose utility to the party initially lay in his legal expertise. Even as a busy Parliamentarian and leader of the CPI(M) in the Lok Sabha (1989 to 2004) he would regularly appear pro bono for cases involving his party’s trade union.
Barring a brief hiccup in 1984 in a wave election—when a hitherto unknown Mamata Banerjee pulled off an upset—Chatterjee got elected to the house 10 times till he called it a day after his stint as Speaker. His spell in the wilderness was brief, as he got another shot at Parliament when the Bolpur seat fell vacant in 1985. In a battle of titans, he got the better of former Congress Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray to be back in the Lok Sabha.
A little-documented, yet significant, episode of his political career involved an appointment with Sonia Gandhi in the summer of 2003. Those were the days of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who looked set to return for another term as Prime Minister. That meeting broke the ice between Gandhi and the Left and led to a historic opposition meeting at his Ashoka Road residence on August 14, 2003, where the seeds of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) were sown. In other words, he was a catalyst for the formation of the alliance that went to rule the country for a decade.
Somnath Da was the pro-tem Speaker of the 14th Lok Sabha and went on to get elected as the Speaker as a consensus candidate. It was a testament to the fact that he had as many admirers across the aisle as his own party and among the constituents of the UPA. Despite his oratory and brilliance as a Parliamentarian—he won the best Parliamentarian award in 1996—he found it tough to reconcile with his new job in the early days. Soon, he earned the reputation of a hard task-master—if not a strident headmaster—as he went strictly by the rules and past precedence. He was particularly tough on his own party members, lest he come across as remotely biased to the neutral observer.
In the summer of 2008, the UPA was facing its biggest crisis on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Shortly after the no-trust vote failed to dislodge the government after the Left parties withdrew support to the UPA, the embittered apparatchiks of the CPI(M) under Prakash Karat quickly met and summarily expelled him. The party’s then West Bengal state secretary Biman Bose stated, “Chatterjee may have acted according to the Indian Constitution but the party Constitution is supreme in case of party members”—almost suggesting that the party Constitution was supreme.
The dreaded Clause 13 of Article 19 of the CPI(M) Constitution was invoked, and Chatterjee was “summarily” expelled. This clause is a shortcut that allows the party to bypass the six stages of disciplinary action that begins with a warning, followed by censure, public censure, removal from party positions, suspension for less than a year and finally, expulsion. This non-democratic clause denies the “accused” party member a chance to defend himself and almost echoes the manner in which Joseph Stalin used to carry out purges in the 1930s.
Chatterjee’s daughter Anushila revealed how her father reacted then: “When I told him that he had been expelled, he wanted to know whether he was expelled or suspended. I told him he was summarily expelled. He was sitting in his study. I saw tears rolling down his cheeks. I could never forget that day in my life.” Anushila and lawyer son Pratap refused their father’s body to be draped with the CPI(M) flag. Nor did they allow his body to be taken to the CPI(M) office in Alimuddin Street.
A lifelong Comrade, Chatterjee wanted to die as one. In fact, when Sitaram Yechury took over as general secretary of the CPI(M) in 2015, it looked as if Chatterjee might soon get rehabilitated. They participated together in an event to commemorate the birth anniversary of Jyoti Basu, and Yechury later called on him and expressed his willingness to let bygones be bygones. But there was a catch. Chatterjee would have to initiate the process himself and write to the party officially. Either of his own volition, or on the wishes of his children, Somnath Da never chose to do that.
A close aide revealed, “Their rationale was that the party had expelled him and it was up to the party to make amends. And for the record, Chatterjee never rued the decision to stand his ground and take a non-partisan stand in 2008. But he was deeply saddened by the way he was treated by his own party. He wanted to die as a Marxist.”
Chatterjee was in a Kolkata hospital following a stroke for the last 15 days. Unlike Nripen Chakraborty—another CPI(M) stalwart and two-time Tripura Chief Minister—who was reinstated to the party on Christmas Eve, 2004, a day before he breathed his last, there was no such luck for Chatterjee. In fact, the statement released by the Politburo of the CPI(M), almost five hours after his death, didn’t address Chatterjee as a Comrade and robbed him of that dignity even in his death. It didn’t make him any smaller in the eyes of the public but only demonstrated the pettiness of the leaders occupying leadership positions in the party.
Chatterjee was briefly in contention to succeed his mentor Jyoti Basu as the Chief Minister of Bengal in 1993, when Buddhabeb Bhattacharya was removed from the Cabinet after he led a public revolt against Basu on the issue of corruption. But Bhattacharya was forgiven and he swiftly made his way back, and Chatterjee was later accommodated as the chairman of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation in 1994. His 10-year stint in that position gave an impetus to the state’s industrialisation, and he made a name as an upright chairman who never demanded a favour from industrialists.
Despite very much being a Comrade until his death, Chatterjee was not the typical fanatic and dogmatic Marxist. He strode the middle-path and had a mass following in his predominantly rural constituency of Bolpur, which incidentally is also is home to Tagore’s Shantiniketan and the Visva Bharathi University. He never got elected to the CPI(M)’s Politburo—the highest decision-making body of the party—and never participated in the central committee meetings once he assumed the chair of the Lok Sabha Speaker. He retired from politics after announcing it a year left in his term as speaker in 2008, and refused the Congress offer of a Rajya Sabha seat later.
Chatterjee was widely respected among his peers. A stickler for rules and norms, he never wavered in his principles until his last breath. As speaker, he was more in the mould of the Speaker of the British House of Commons, who are known for their independent and strictly non-partisan role. Comrade Somnath Chatterjee was a Marxist—and a democrat.