A Speaker Whom The Nation Will Remember
Somnath Chatterjee has lived a life at many levels. He has been a brilliant advocate, a practicing Marxist, a seasoned and proficient parliamentarian. The supprise victory of the Congress-led UPA alliance in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections catapulted him into the Speaker`s chair, as per the arrangement with the supporting Left parties. He proved himself to be a “copy-book” Speaker. A graduate from Canbridge and also a qualified barrister from Middle Temple, Chatterjee shined in the field of law and soon had an established practice of considerable repute.
His father NC Chatterjee had been President of the Hindu Mahasabha and had been a parliamentarian for a good number of years. Somnath followed in his footsteps during the 1971 mid-term election as a CPI(M) candidate and thus his journey inside the portals of Parliament began.
He entered Parliament in turbulent times. The europhia of the 1971 victory of the Congress under Indira Gandhi soon gave rise to disillusionment resulting in the JP movement and declaration of internal Emergency in June 1975, which is covered in the volume. Chatterjee notes in this context, “India during the Emergency had become a prison house, with all democratic actions coming to a halt. A fear psychosis prevailed everywhere, which impacted the working of all constitutional bodies including Parliament, which functioned in suffocating atmosphere, as well as executive functionaries.” Chatterjee minced no words against the dictatorial regime in his speeches in Parliament during this dark era especially on January 7 and February 4, 1976. His passport was revoked throughout the Emergency period and not returned to him despite best efforts of friends like Sidartha Shankar Ray. He goes on to bemoan the “Wasted Mandate” of the Janata government of 1977-79, which fell like a pack of cards in a short duration. The book gives an account of the turbulent decade of the eighties which saw dominance of the Congress under first Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi, the VP Singh revolt and the subsequent formation of National Front government, which saw the author again in a pivotal role. He is rather defensive about the Mandal Commission implementation by VP Singh, which leads one to wonder if he has given a thought to an all inclusive approach in this regard.
We find Chatterjee critical of the Vajpayee regime, finding fault with it on the riots of Gujarat, the most interesting part of these reminiscences are his “roller-coaster” ride as the presiding officer of the Lok Sabha from 2004. He points out that he reached his “climax” in Parliament on June 4, 2004, the day he was elected Speaker of the Lok Sabha. His efforts at floor co-ordination through meetings with party leaders every morning during parliamentary session, and his “dinner diplomacy” proved fairly fruitful; he laments his blow hot, blow cold relations with the Opposition, principally the BJP. This is something which is not unique to Chatterjee, as every Speaker must have his hour of trial. His real hour of trial came in the summer of 2008, when following the Indo-US nuclear deal the CPI(M) withdrew support to the Manmohan Singh government and expected Chatterjee to resign the Speakership. This murky episode which led to his explusion from the party is well documented, so is the controversial relationship he shared with Prakash Karat.
On the whole this book will interest many an observer of present day Indian politics, although one feels one could have given the reader a little more detail on what one views as the solution to the various ills of our body politic.
By Arvindar Singh