Somnath Chatterjee, the Communist who stood his ground

Young Somnath Chatterjee studied law at Jesus College in Cambridge when many aspiring communists would be busy shouting slogans at factories or reading Karl Marx.

Yet, he assumed a constitutional post that no other comrade has ever risen to: Lok Sabha Speaker, in 2004.

Chatterjee died in a hospital in Kolkata on Monday. He was 89.

Chatterjee followed his father’s footsteps to become a leading lawyer in the Calcutta High Court. His father was a staunch Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha member, but Chatterjee, inspired by late Jyoti Basu, joined its arch rival, Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI-M.

As a lawyer, Chatterjee helped many party comrades to fight and win legal cases–without a fee. His oratory, benevolence and sensibilities topped with popularity among the Bengal leadership quickly earned him a Lok Sabha ticket and a membership in the party’s coveted club—the Central Committee.

Chatterjee was a voice to reckon with in the Lok Sabha. His legal education had taught him the art of sharp speeches. His political practice helped him bulldoze the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) propaganda.

The ten-term parliamentarian spent decades in the power corridors of Delhi, but somehow he didn’t manage to speak fluently in Hindi. Once, a TV crew came to his party office on the top floor of the Parliament building after failing to attend his press conference. “Abhi abhi jab neechu me bola tha, toh kothay tha?” Somnath chided them before repeating his speech.

It was the summer of 2003. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP looked invincible and no Opposition party seemed to be in a position to stop the gallant saffron march. Chatterjee decided to meet then Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. He neither bothered to consult many senior comrades, nor he took an appointment with Gandhi.

Those days many Opposition leaders were possibly unsure of approaching Gandhi for political talks. “I told her that people are afraid to meet you. She laughed and said that she doesn’t remember anyone ever seeking an appointment in her office,” Chatterjee once told this correspondent.

What followed the freewheeling conversation was a historic Opposition meeting on August 14, 2003. Gandhi, Left stalwarts like Jyoti Basu and Harkishen Singh Surjeet, Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, and socialist leaders like HD Devegowda all came together at Chatterjee’s modest bungalow at Ashoka Road.

The seeds of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was born on that day over Hilsa curry, rice and other sumptuous dishes.

Five years later, he faced the biggest political crisis. CPI-M bosses said Chatterjee must resign from the Lok Sabha Speaker’s post and vote against the UPA government in the 2008 trust vote. His favourite CPI-M leaders, such as Sitaram Yechury and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, tried to convince him to follow the party diktat. Some others like Mohammed Salim and Nilotpal Basu tried to pursue party brass to spare Somnath from punishment.

An emotional Chatterjee refused to step down from the Speaker’s post. The next day–on July 24, 2008—the Prakash Karat-led CPI-M politburo summarily expelled him for life. Overnight, he had to address “brothers” and “comrades” as “Mister” and “Members of Parliament” in every programme and even in closed-door meetings.

But as they say, you can take away Somnath Chatterjee from communism but you can’t take communism away from him.

He joined no other political party, stuck to long-nourished ideals and never criticised the CPI-M in any forum. Some party leaders reciprocated. Invitations of Left government programmes started arriving. When Sitaram Yechury became the CPI-M general secretary, he first visited Chatterjee’s home.

But in the last 10 years, Chatterjee did one thing. He never told the party to take him back.

“So many times, I told him to come back. He maintained he did no wrong (in retaining Speaker’s chair) and so, he won’t appeal for a return,” said Salim, a politburo member whom Chatterjee treated as his son.

Yechury too, wanted him back. “But Somnath da told me that let it remain this way. He would never write an appeal,” said Yechury.

It’s a dream to live and die as a communist. Somnath Chatterjee was no exception. He lived like a communist. He died like one too. So what, if the CPI-M didn’t take him back!

First Published: Aug 13, 2018 10:08 IST

Updated: August 13, 2018 — 10:05 am