Posted online: Sunday, July 27, 2008 at 1300 hrs
The CPI(M) expelled Somnath Chatterjee last week but he has always been on the fringes of the party he joined in 1968. Subrata Nagchoudhury profiles the Speaker who was never afraid to speak his mind
ONE of the many portals that hosts the profile of Somanth Chatterjee is the Lok Sabha website. The profile on the Speaker has a column on his special interests and among them is listed ‘law and civil liberties.’
Law and the spirit of liberty were probably the two things that defined those tense moments for Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee when Parliament held the trust vote on Tuesday. If the UPA Government stood firm on its resolve to go ahead with the vote, so did the Speaker. This, despite an intimidating but unwritten diktat from his own party hanging over his head.
It was the call of liberty that had brought Somnath Chatterjee’s father N C Chatterjee and CPI(M) patriarch Jyoti Basu on the same platform. Old timers recall that when the communist party was banned in 1948 and there were illegal detention of communist cadres, N C Chatterjee formed the All India Civil Liberties Union to fight those cases of violations. When the ban was lifted in 1951, it was Basu who moved the petition for the release of the detainees and N C Chatterjee was one of the prime legal movers, even though the two had different political beliefs—Chatterjee was the founding member of the Hindu Mahasabha.
It was hardly a surprise that Basu became Somnath Chatterjee’s mentor when he entered politics in 1968, soon after the first United Front Government came to power in West Bengal in 1967. Chatterjee’s legal expertise and resources proved to be an asset for the party and Basu designed a profile for him in the party to be based in Delhi.
SOMNATH Chatterjee may have joined the Communists but it was from clear from the beginning that he wasn’t quite one of them. He did not belong to the cult of those hardcore, dogmatic apparatchiks. In fact, he was from the breed of aristocratic, foreign-bred, legal luminaries, much like Basu himself. Chatterjee’s wife Renu comes from the old Rajbari (royal family) of Lalgola in Murshidabad district. Though she has hardly been seen in public life, she was at her husband’s side throughout the current crisis.
A man of many interests, Chatterjee has followed them even as he chartered his political career. He has even brought out a music album with his youngest daughter Anushilla—he did not sing, of course, only lent his imperious baritone to the narration. The CD, Je Ache Antare (The One Within), was released by Jyoti Basu. Music aside, Chatterjee is also a sports enthusiast. He has for long been a member of the executive committee of Mohun Bagan Athletic Club and the Cricket Association of Bengal.
Chatterjee’s elder daughter Anuradha Bhattacharya is a creative designer in jute products and stays with her father in Delhi while Chatterjee’s son, Pratap, is a practising lawyer in the Kolkata High Court.
Educated in Kolkata, Chatterjee later went to the UK to earn an MA degree from Cambridge University and a Barrister-at-Law from Middle Temple. It was more of the “utility factor,” as put by a party insider, that ensured Chatterjee a solid berth in the party. Chatterjee was to look after the party’s legal needs, particularly in Delhi in addition to his parliamentary responsibility.
In a way Chatterjee’s aristocratic upbringing was his undoing too within the party hierarchy. He probably never aspired nor rose to be a mass leader. His natural flamboyance and confidence, emanating largely out of his patronage by Jyoti Basu, made him a personality distinct from others in the party. A perfect Bengali bhadralok (genteel folk), his way of functioning as an MP was also different from his flock’s. For example, during his visits to Bolpur, his constituency, he would often hold “durbars”, listening to the grievances of his voters in the manner of Congress MPs of yore. He would try to mitigate their woes, prescribe solutions or follow up cases on his own instead of going through the customary party channels. The local CPI(M) unit often complained he ignored them and as a result, lowered their importance in public perception.
But Chatterjee could not care less. The lack of his mass base kept him “an outsider” within the communist hierarchy despite his long association of nearly four decades with the CPI(M). The coveted Politburo berth eluded him. It was only by virtue of his position as the leader of the Lok Sabha that he could make it to the Central Committee of the party. Even here, he himself opted out after being elected the Speaker in 2004.
He entered the national political arena with his election to the Lok Sabha in 1971. Since then he has entered the Lower House 10 times. From 1989 to 2004, he was the leader of the CPI(M) in the Lok Sabha. His margin of victory in successive elections is a measure of his popularity in Bolpur constituency. In the 2004 polls he won by a margin of 2,08,000 votes, while his victory margin of 2,54,000 in 1996 was a record of some sort in Bengal.
Mohsin is not the only admirer. One of the many messages that Chatterjee received after his defiant conduct of the Lok Sabha trust vote proceedings was from Supriyo Tagore, one of the very few surviving descendants of Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan. Supriyo Tagore wrote to the Speaker: “I am shocked at the treatment meted out to you. I never thought that such injustice could be done to you.”
In was in 1985, that Somnath Chatterjee shifted to Bolpur constituency after having lost for the first and last time in 1984 in Jadavpur to Mamata Banerjee making her debut as a Congress candidate. Like many others, Chatterjee too was swept aside by the post-Indira Gandhi assassination sympathy wave in 1984. A year later, the Bolpur seat fell vacant and Chatterjee faced a formidable challenge from Siddhartha Shankar Ray, senior Supreme Court lawyer and the last Congress chief minister of West Bengal. But Chatterjee defeated Ray comfortably.
The political rivalry over, Ray now tells the Sunday Express, “Nobody can throw Somnath out of the Lok Sabha unless he himself decides to quit. He can continue in the chair as long as he wants. I am not aware of the provisions of the Communist Party constitution, but the manner of his expulsion was certainly objectionable.”
Ray also remembers Chatterjee as a lawyer colleague. “We have fought cases together. He’s been quite a brilliant legal personality with a large practice. But he has sacrificed a lot by way of not continuing in legal practice. He could have earned a lot,” says Ray.
At the Kolkata High Court, Chatterjee’s legal peers appreciate the stance he adopted in the recent standoff. For them, the battle essentially was between a legal hawk and a political boss. The Bar Library members relish the defiance that one of their former peers showed the political establishment.
During the early ’80s, when the Left ruled Bengal and the Congress ruled at the Centre, the two parties were at frequent loggerheads on various issues. Chatterjee was often the extension of Jyoti Basu’s belligerence and combative face in Delhi. The transformation of the one-man CEC to a three-member CEC is cited as a case in point by Bengal bureaucrats. One would recall the aggression with which T.N.Seshan was pursuing his witchhunt in Bengal’s electoral process with allegations of scientific rigging, booth capturing and bogus electoral rolls. Seshan had his way mostly, but then the Left too managed to replaced a one-man CEC into a three-member commission.
Yet another important phase of Chatterjee’s career came with his appointment as the Chairman of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation in 1995. The introduction of a new industrial policy began a significant phase in Jyoti Basu’s regime. At such a time when private investment was being given importance, Chatterjee was Basu’s trusted man to deal with industrialists. As WBIDC chairman, Chatterjee went into overdrive signing Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with industries. No wonder he soon earned the name “MoUda”. Some of the projects he signed took off but many didn’t.
Industrialists remember him fondly. For Bengal’s business barons, Chatterjee is not the typical politician demanding favours and obeisance. As Harsh Neotia, the soft-spoken industrialist and pioneers of the private-public partnership in industry in Bengal, says, “Chatterjee is a very warm person. He’s always very enthusiastic about new ideas.” He adds, “We have worked together. We have travelled together and it’s amazing to see his energy level. He starts early in the morning and carries on till late at night without a flap.”
There was a time when Chatterjee seemed set for a bigger role in West Bengal. Basu was looking for a successor. Chatterjee’s name surfaced in the backdrop of an unseemly exit of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee from Basu’s cabinet in August 1993. The exit was read by many as Bhattacharjee’s revolt against Basu, a fact that the current Bengal CM subsequently denied. Bhattacharjee was back in the cabinet a year later, nipping Chatterjee’s chief ministerial prospects in the bud. Many in the party today would probably sigh in relief.