“People have to have faith in the leadership, but that faith in the party was lost. It was disastrous. The question became—whom to go to? It became an office bound party, by office I mean with branch offices where people gossip. I shall die somewhat disappointed, somewhat disillusioned.” Veteran Left leader Somnath Chatterjee had said this to Caravan in 2017. It was one of the last interviews given by the “outstanding parliamentarian” .
The 89-year-old former CPI(M) leader passed away in a Kolkata nursing home on Monday.
Somnath Chatterjee was known for his determined and firm stand on the issues he believed in. This was the reason, his political colleagues feel, he did not hesitate to go against the party line in 2008. The CPI(M), with which he had been associated for 40 long years, expelled him on July 23, 2008, after Chatterjee refused to resign as the Lok Sabha Speaker following the party’s withdrawal of support to the first United Progressive Alliance government over the India-US civil nuclear deal.
Born on July 25, 1929, in Assam, to renowned advocate, lawmaker and All India Hindu Mahasabha member Nirmalchandra Chattopadhyay and Veenapani Devi, Chatterjee studied in Kolkata’s Mitra Institution, Presidency College and the University of Calcutta. Later, he went to the University of Cambridge where he completed graduation in law in 1952. After his post-graduation in 1957, Chatterjee returned to Kolkata and started his practice in the Calcutta High Court.
Politics beckoned in 1968. But he did not join the Hindu Mahasabha. He chose CPI(M), instead.
By then, his father Nirmalchandra Chattopadhyay was no longer with the Hindu Mahasabha either. Nirmalchandra had won the first Lok Sabha election from Hooghly as a Hindu Mahasabha candidate in 1952, but fought the 1963 elections as an Independent candidate, with CPI support, and won. In 1967, an Independent Nirmalchandra won again from Burdwan. He died in 1971 as a sitting MP.
Somnath Chatterjee entered electoral politics after his father’s death, contesting the seat vacated by Nirmalchandra. He won as an Independent candidate with CPI(M) support.
From 1977 to 1984, Somnath Chattopadhyay had been a CPM MP from Jadavpur Lok Sabha constituency. In 1984, he lost the seat to Congress candidate Mamata Banerjee, but returned to the Lok Sabha for a very long innings — until 2009 — after winning the 1985 Bolpur by-election.
In 1989, Chatterjee was appointed as the CPM’s leader of the House, and he remained on the post until 2004 when he became the Lok Sabha Speaker.
In 1996, he was honoured with the Outstanding Parliamentarian Award.
His relationship with the CPM ended in 2008, after the Left Front withdrew support to the UPA-1 government over the civil nuclear deal. Speaker Somnath Chatterjee refused to resign, saying his post made it his constitutional obligation to play a neutral role during the no-confidence motion. The Manmohan Singh government survived.
CPM expelled Chatterjee on July 23, 2008.
Somnath Chatterjee was popular with across CPM ranks in West Bengal. And according to insiders in the unit, the decision to expel him had not gone down well with them, though the leaders had to speak against him on that day.
It was an unfortunate incident and had deeply hurt Chatterjee, which he had confided in many who were close to him. However, the veteran leader never made any effort to return to the party, even after 2009 when his term as Speaker ended.
He bid goodbye to active politics.
Over the last few years, old age had caught up, though he had been vocal on the issues he felt close to his heart. Deeply disturbed by the violence in 2018 panchayat elections in Bengal, the ten-time parliamentarian had even called a press conference at his home to express his concern, calling for a stand against violence.
Chatterjee suffered a cerebral attack a month ago, and had been bed-ridden ever since. From an “institution” to “greatest parliamentarians of contemporary times”, the condolence messages of all his former political colleagues speak volumes of the respect he commanded in the circle.
“An outstanding Parliamentarian & Constitutionalist, he remained committed to the cause of people with a firm belief in pragmatic consensus. In his demise I have lost a personal friend & the Nation has lost a great son,” former President Pranab Mukherjee said about the departed leader.