Somnath Chatterjee: The man who defied party diktat

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Kolkata: Somnath Chatterjee, former speaker of Lok Sabha died on Monday morning at a Kolkata hospital. Chatterjee had recently celebrated his 89th birthday on July 29. On Sunday, he had been admitted at a hospital, where he breathed his last.

Chatterjee, a former political leader belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had served as the Lok Sabha Speaker during the UPA-I government (2004-2009). It was during this period that he lost his membership with CPI (M) for doing what even Jyoti Basu hadn’t dared – stand up against the party’s diktat.

In 2008, when CPI (M) withdrew its support from UPA alliance and voted alongside BJP during the No-confidence motion, then Chatterjee refused to resign from his speaker’s post to vote against the government. He contended that being the speaker of the house, if he resigned following the polit bureau’s diktat, then he would be compromising with the independent status granted to the speaker of the house. His decision was not taken too kindly by the party and was expelled from the party, after having been with the party, since 1971, when he first became a Member of Parliament as an independent candidate, with CPI (M)’s support.

Post expulsion, Chatterjee continued being the speaker of the Lok Sabha however, on completion of his term, he quit politics. Following which, while speaking to media, he described his expulsion as the ‘saddest day’ of his life.

Chatterjee, a lawyer by profession, was one of the longest serving Parliamentarian. He had been a 10 time Lok Sabha MP (1971-2009). He had been defeated only once in his active political career, by none other than Mamata Banerjee in the 1984 election. Remembering Chatterjee, Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of Bengal tweeted, “Saddened at the passing away of former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath (da) Chatterjee. My condolences to his family and admirers. This is a great loss to us all.”

In a separate official statement issued by Banerjee, she recalled, Chatterjee being honoured with “Outstanding Parliamentarian Award’ in 1996, following which he had been elected as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha in 2004. Setting an example, Chatterjee during his tenure as the speaker of the house abstained from having his toiletries and tea expenses being paid from national exchequer. He even made it a point to personally bear the expenses of his family member accompanying him during the foreign trips.

Having a Masters degree in Law from the Cambridge University, Chatterjee possessed great oratorical skills.

The official Twitter handle of CPI (M) West Bengal, chose to remember the stalwart as ‘former Lok Sabha speaker’. It tweeted, “We express our profound grief at the death of former Loksova speaker #SomnathChatterjee #Kolkata (sic).” CPI (M) leader, Md Salim, tweeted, “I lost a father figure. My tribute to #SomnathChateerjee whom I owe a lot. Salute to a great parliamentarian (sic).”

However, later in the day, the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India issued a statement stating, “The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) expresses its grief and sorrow at the death of former Speaker and ten-time Member of the Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee.” The statement further stated that Chatterjee was a veteran parliamentarian who played an important role in defending the foundations of the Indian Constitution particularly its secular democratic foundations and federalism.

“As an eminent lawyer by profession, he also took up the cause of the working class and the deprived to ensure justice is delivered to them. The Polit Bureau conveys its heartfelt condolences to his wife and children.”

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