At a time when we look for personalities who rise over partisan views and party affiliations at the constitutional posts, the demise of Somnath Chatterjee, the 14th Speaker of Lok Sabha, is a grave loss.
Chatterjee, affectionately called Somnath Da, was a dedicated comrade and a veteran Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader till June 4, 2004. For those who had seen him as a sincere leader of CPI-M in the Lok Sabha, his quick transformation into a strict but fair Speaker was quite surprising.
In fact, he bent backwards to show that he was impartial and was above party lines. He was often referred to as a “headmaster” by MPs — the worst affected by the stickler to rules were his former party colleagues. He did not even hide his displeasure over the colourful and flamboyant attires of current Union Minister Ramdas Athawale!
Left MPs used to complain about Comrade Chatterjee’s preferences in the list to raise matters of public importance during Zero Hour. “He would call the CPM MPs last,” a former Communist MP said. An MP since 1971, Chatterjee along with former Union Minister and CPI leader Indrajit Gupta from the Left side, both with their deep voices, offered a formidable intellectual challenge to Congress veterans in the House. Those who were close to him say he was “deeply pained” by the CPI-M’s move to expel him from the party in 2008. A Barrister-at-Law from Middle Temple in UK, Chatterjee was a member of the CPM for four decades from 1968 till he was expelled.
The party justified the expulsion of Chatterjee, a close associate of former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, saying he had “seriously compromised the position of the party” as he rejected its demand to step down as the Speaker. Chatterjee had argued that the post could not be linked to a party line but should remain independent. He had said: “The Speaker of Lok Sabha, like the speakers of other elected Assemblies while acting as such does not and cannot represent any political party.”
As Chatterjee became close to the Congress leadership, especially the Gandhi family during his term as the Speaker during the UPA-1 regime, BJP leaders used to remind him that his father N C Chatterjee was once president of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha. While both the Congress and the BJP were at the receiving end of his sharp attack during his political career, Chatterjee was unanimously elected as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha in 2004.
Chatterjee lost an election only once – in 1984, the general election held immediately after the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi and the Congress won 414 seats – to Mamata Banerjee, who contested on a Congress ticket. Both Banerjee and Chatterjee had a love-hate relationship — Mamata used to respect him as a senior leader but the Lok Sabha often witnessed both of them fighting fiercely. During his term as Speaker, Banerjee used to accuse Chatterjee of not giving her enough time to speak in the House. When Banerjee was denied permission to hold a discussion on the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in 2005 (by then she had formed TMC after breaking away from the Congress and joined hands with the BJP) crying she tore papers and threw them at then deputy speaker Charanjeet Singh Atwal but blamed Chatterjee for not allowing the discussion.
Apart from his contribution in making timely changes to the rules – he had initiated live broadcast of Zero Hour on Lok Sabha TV – he had introduced a children’s corner to Parliament Library building. Chatterjee also commanded respect among the officials and staff of Lok Sabha secretariat. “He was a gem of a person,” said K Srinivasan, Director, Lok Sabha.
Srinivasan, who has seen Chatterjee’s career at close quarters for three decades, said, “He was an institution, a no-nonsense personality and humane to the core. He has done so much for Parliament and its official staff. We will never forget him for his stature and down-to-earth nature.” Srinivasan, who is also a former president of the Lok Sabha Employees Association, added, “In a meeting, I referred to him as People’s Speaker and he had quoted it in his book (Keeping the Faith- Memoirs of a Parliamentarian).”