Somnath Chatterjee, who passed away in Kolkata on Monday at age 89, is one of the rare role models who will be remembered for his competence, his erudition, his extraordinary wit and his unflinching honesty. In these times when role models are hard to come by, he was an amalgam of rarest qualities.
While he was elected to the Lok Sabha 10 times and lent immense lustre to his party, the CPI (M), ironically he was expelled from the very same party because he refused to resign on principle on a diktat to quit the post of the Lok Sabha Speaker.
The CPI (M) had decided to vote against the then Congress-led government in 2004 while Somnath was not ready to vote on the same side as the BJP. He refused to step down as Speaker because he believed be was no longer associated with the party after becoming the Speaker. He ultimately continued in that post.
Somnath was the CPI (M)’s most articulate face in his heydays and he will be long remembered for the brilliant conduct of his duties as Speaker where he displayed great character and commitment to ideals. Although he made no bones about his personal antipathy towards the BJP’s ideology, he was impartial and a stickler for rules when it came to dealing with the party as Speaker.
When his party wanted him to follow its line, he set forth the principle that he belonged to the institution of Parliament with no strings attached. This is a principle that needs to be followed for the integrity of the institution itself.
One rues the fact that today’s parliamentarians lack the calibre of some of the stalwarts of Somnath Chatterjee’s time. The painstaking efforts that went into making them well-rounded personalities are woefully lacking today. In yesteryears, the sharp wit of Atal Behari Vajpayee, the meticulousness of a Madu Limaye or the articulation skills of Hiren Mukherjee were examples other than Somnath who exemplified excellent parliamentary skills.
Even during his times, Somnath faced unruly scenes in Parliament and was much disturbed by the lack of decorum among members. But he always raised his voice for discipline and order.
A strong proponent of the independence of the legislature, Somnath had often been critical of judicial activism. In 2005, he was caught in a controversy over his statement on the Supreme Court orders related to the vote of confidence in the Jharkhand Assembly. He said that the Supreme Court was encroaching on the right of the Legislature by issuing orders on the proceedings of the Jharkhand Assembly. He asked for a Presidential reference to the Supreme Court under Article 143 of the Indian Constitution.
Somnath’s deep baritone voice, his argumentative skill of the lawyer that he was and clarity on issues left a mark in the Lok Sabha.
Ironically, the only time Somnath lost a parliamentary election during his chequered career was to Mamata Banerjee whose demagoguery led her to where she is today as West Bengal’s chief minister. The constituency was Jadavpur which later became a reserved constituency.
Somnath was not hamstrung by ideological dogmas and was a liberal to the core. His support to Jyoti Basu for possible prime ministership was shot down by the party that later regretted it.
Somnath was known for his fiscal integrity. When in 2004, as a Speaker, he moved into the official residence at 20 Akbar Road, he discontinued the practice of paying for toiletries and tea from the national exchequer. On trips abroad, he bore the expenses of any accompanying family members. How many members of Parliament would display such integrity in today’s environment is indeed a moot point.
The last decade of Somnath Chatterjee’s life was spent in relative oblivion as he was in expulsion from the party. His skills as a lawyer, however, stood him in good stead. He was held in deep respect and esteem.