For long, the voice of Opposition, Somnath Chatterjee, was the first Communist Speaker of the Lok Sabha and one who defied his party and refused to quit the post over the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008, leading to his expulsion from the CPI-M. From championing the cause of the downtrodden as one of India’s finest parliamentarians and barristers, and settling effortlessly into the role of wooing investors to industry-dry West Bengal, Chatterjee donned many a hat with ease and aplomb during a four-decade public career.
The tall, heavily built man with a majestic personality evoked awe at first sight. But beneath that stern exterior lay a tender heart that cared for the poor. His aggressiveness, baritone, legal acumen and sharp debating skills were big assets not only for the CPI-M but for the opposition benches as a whole in pinning down the government during his three decades in the Lok Sabha. But beyond that, Chatterjee always came out as an affable person, gentle in his manners and rising above petty politics. Perhaps it was this quality that stood Chatterjee in good stead in stewarding the Lok Sabha as Speaker from 2004 to 2009. Except Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, who once hurled papers and her shawl towards the Speaker’s podium, no other MP ever accused Chatterjee of being partisan in conducting the House proceedings. The rivalry between the two went a long way back. It was by upsetting the CPI-M stalwart in the 1984 general elections from Jadavpur that Banerjee – then a youth Congress leader virtually unknown in state politics — cut her teeth in politics. That was Chatterjee’s only electoral defeat and the beginning of Banerjee’s ascendancy. However, Banerjee too mellowed and in 2012, a year after taking over as West Bengal chief minister, she had proposed his name along with those of Manmohan Singh and APJ Abdul Kalam as her choice for President.
Chatterjee put his heart and soul into the job, met industrialists and toured various countries, inking MoUs worth thousands of crores of rupees, though it was another thing that very few of the pacts matured into industrial projects on the ground. The opposition in Bengal lost no opportunity to make fun of Chatterjee, jokingly calling him “MoU da”.
Another interesting contradiction lay in Chatterjee’s family ties. Though he remained a Marxist all his life, his father Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee was a Hindu revivalist and one of the founders and one-time president of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha. Parliamentarians from the BJP had at times made mocking reference to the “Marxist Chatterjee” by highlighting this aspect. Born on July 25, 1929 in Tezpur in Assam, Chatterjee studied at the Mitra Institution School, Presidency College and the University of Calcutta. He then proceeded to England to earn BA and MA degrees in Law from the Jesus College, Cambridge. He was called to the Bar from London’s Middle Temple and started legal practice as an advocate at the Calcutta High Court.
Chattterjee rose to become a central committee member of the party but was expelled on July 23, 2008 “for seriously compromising the position of the party”. Chatterjee had then contended that the office of the Speaker was above party affiliations and he ceased to be a CPI-M member once he took over the job. In an interview to IANS, Chatterjee had called his expulsion the “saddest day of my life… I was sad then, I am sad now also. It is not like weather that it will change”. West Bengal CPI-M leaders, however, constantly kept in touch with him, and even sent feelers that if he applied again admitting his mistake, he would be readmitted. But the principled man, steadfastly refused, while making it clear, that he would be game if the party on its own took him back. But that was not to be. And to the last day, Chatterjee remained party less, while nursing a void deep in his heart.
The writer is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.