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Updated: September 14, 2010 12:39 IST

A self-serving account

Venkatesh Athreya
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Somnath Chatterjee served as a member of the Indian Parliament for most of the period from 1971 to 2009, having been elected on the Communist Party of India (Marxist) symbol every time. It was on the basis of an understanding between the CPI (M) and the United Progressive Alliance in 2004 that he was elected Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Five years later, he has, in his autobiography titled Keeping the Faith, vented his ire on the party that nurtured him and was instrumental in his holding the constitutional post that he so obviously relished. But that is not the real problem with his self-serving account. It is his tirade against Prakash Karat, the General Secretary of the CPI(M), that is in poor taste, subjective, and over the top.

Detailed

In a long parliamentary career, Chatterjee made several speeches in Parliament, some of which have been reproduced in this book. He spoke forcefully against communalism and the tragic happenings in Ayodhya in 1992 and Gujarat in 2002. He was sharply critical — and rightly so — of the infamous Emergency regime of 1975-77 and of the authoritarian tendencies of the Congress party. As Speaker, he introduced measures intended to enhance the visibility of Parliament and improve the efficiency of its functioning. Chatterjee's parliamentary contributions do merit appreciation. Chatterjee is very conscious of his contributions, especially as the Speaker, and treats the reader to detailed accounts of practically each and every one of them. In a book of about 400 pages, appendices take away nearly 140 , with his speeches in Parliament occupying most of this space. One can take a generous view of all this as being appropriate in an autobiography. It is in his treatment of the events (inside and outside Parliament) related to the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and the vote of confidence the UPA government sought in 2008 that Chatterjee becomes enormously subjective and departs from even elementary norms of courtesy and civil language.

Chatterjee's rendering of the events leading to his expulsion from the CPI(M) is far from tenable. By his own account, Biman Bose of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau, met him on the afternoon of July 20, 2008, before the vote on the motion of confidence and conveyed the decision of the Polit Bureau and the Central Committee that Chatterjee should not continue as Speaker and should resign. What was Chatterjee's response? He says: “I told him that I could not accept the party's directive since I did not wish to make the office of the Speaker a victim of political manoeuvrings.” This is, to say the least, disingenuous. What is at issue is not the office of Speaker, but Chatterjee's acceptance or otherwise, as a member of the CPI (M), of the party's decision. In fact, as the statement of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau of July 26, 2010 noted:

Somnath Chatterjee had earlier in a letter to the Party dated July 9, 2008 agreed to abide by the decision of the Party and resign from the post of Speakership. He later backed out from this commitment to abide by the Party decision.

Chatterjee has not denied the point made in the statement quoted above.

A personal matter

In his book, however, while Chatterjee refers to a note he sent to the party on June 27, 2008, conveying his views on what it should do in the then prevailing political situation — thus implicitly affirming his contact with and membership of the party — he makes no reference to his letter of July 9, 2008 promising to abide by the party decision. If Chatterjee felt that the party's directive to him to resign from the Speakership was unacceptable, the honest course of action for him would have been to tender his resignation from the party. It is unfortunate that he invokes a towering leader like Jyoti Basu in his support. Throughout his long and distinguished political life, Basu was not only a disciplinarian in party matters, he also never subscribed to the view that when someone becomes a Speaker, he ceases to be a member of the political party on whose ticket he had been elected. Basu would never have encouraged Chatterjee to defy the party's decision. There have been reports that he called Chatterjee and told him not to defy the party, but to abide by its decision.

Leaving aside the merits of Chatterjee's decision to continue as Speaker in a clear defiance of what he chooses to call the party's “diktat”, it is especially unfortunate that he sees all these and subsequent developments in a very personalised fashion. He attributes almost everything he does not like to one individual, Prakash Karat, who, as the General Secretary of the CPI (M), was only conveying the decisions made by the party bodies.

Outburst

Chatterjee, having been a member of the party for over 35 years — he joined the party, he says, in 1973, at the instance of Promode Dasgupta, a founding leader of the party — should have known this fact. Thus, he asserts that Karat “…gave vent to his ire by summarily expelling me from the Party.”

Chatterjee writes of Karat: “That his arrogance and intolerance had reached a peak was clearly demonstrated by the fact that he decided to expel me summarily, without even a show cause notice. That anyone in the party could defy his diktat was inconceivable to him!” Such unbalanced outbursts do Chatterjee no credit. He should know that in the party he was part of for over 35 years, no person, no matter his or her position in the party hierarchy, can take disciplinary action against any other party member on his (or her) own. Perhaps unintentionally, through such intemperate and tendentious writing, Chatterjee gives us a clue to his peremptory handling of the affairs of the Lok Sabha as well.

As indicated by the subtitle of the book, the faith Chatterjee keeps is essentially faith in parliamentary procedures. It is unfortunate that he, in a career marked by some positive contributions to parliamentary debate on issues of national importance, should lose all sense of objectivity and proportion on account of ill-founded personal bitterness.

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