In 2008, when Somnath Chatterjee refused to resign as Speaker of the Lok Sabha at his party’s command, he exposed a faultline that has run through the CPM, and India’s communists who participate in parliamentary democracy, since Independence. Chatterjee, who took a principled stand, arguing that his constitutional office required him to be non-partisan, ran up against a basic feature of the “Leninist party of the new type” — the party, and loyalty to its ultimately socialist ends, must supersede other codes, including of Parliament. Chatterjee, 10-time parliamentarian, was expelled after the UPA won the no-confidence vote. But, as with other significant moments in his career, the questions his actions articulated for Indian communism continue to haunt the party he gave much of his life to.
Chatterjee, who passed away on Monday, was among the first leaders of the CPM to recognise that the rise of the BJP and Hindutva as a strong ideological force required the forging of new strategies, that the principal contradiction after the demolition of the Babri Masjid was between secularism and communalism, and that the CPM would have to make a choice. Even a cursory look at the state of the CPM’s politics today makes it clear that the question of its attitude to the Congress is far from resolved.
Chatterjee was a rare breed — a democrat, a constitutionalist and communist. He managed to sustain a strong individual sense of morality in a party where ideological certainties can be both comforting and constraining. It is perhaps because Chatterjee was not a traditional party man — he was a lawyer who entered parliamentary politics directly, not a cadre from either trade unions or the peasant movement — that he was able to take the contrary stands that he did. His decision to remain Speaker may have got him expelled from his organisation but it also earned him respect across the political and ideological divides of Indian public life. In politics and in life, he remained the quintessential bhadralok.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines