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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 37 New Delhi September 1, 2018

Parliamentarianism in India: Remembering A.B. Vajpayee and Somnath Chatterjee

Sunday 2 September 2018

by Pratip Chatterjee

Former Speaker of the Lok Sabha Somnath Chatterjee passed away on August 13, 2018 and former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee passed away on August 16, 2018. This article attempts to highlight the parliamentary ethics they demonstrated in their political and public careers, something exemplary in contemporary India.


Indian parliamentary democracy has come a long way since independence with the effect that a post-colonial indigenous form of parliamentary democracy has emerged where both Parliament and democracy function vibrantly without demonstrating parliamentary ethics—tolerance, accommodativeness, respect-fulness and open-mindedness—to the ‘other’. Twentyfirst century Indian political vocabularies have been enmeshed with hate speeches, undignified communications and increasing social and political violence.

Describing such deviations as ‘indigenous’, scholars like Partha Chatterjee opine that Indian democracy and politics have carved out a niche as against the ‘model’ of the West in the form of ‘our modernity/model’(post-colonial) vis-à-vis ‘their modernity/model’ (West). In the 21st century two veteran parliamentarians of independent India personifying parliamentary ethics—Atal Behari Vajpayee of the BJP and Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI-M—occupied highest parliamentary offices of the Prime Minister and Speaker respectively. In an age of rapid politicisation both of them reflected accommodativeness and open-mindedness in pursuing their tasks of the respective high offices far above the party-line. This article tries to understand the ‘parliamentary ethics’ put into practice separately by both these deceased politicians vis-à-vis their respective party positions.

Parliamentary Accommodativeness and Atal Behari Vajpayee

As a ten-time elected MP of the Lok Sabha from 1957 to 2009 [except from 1962-1967 (3rd Lok Sabha) and from 1984-1991 (8th and 9th Lok Sabhas)], Atal Behari Vajpayee received the Best Parliamentarian Award in 1994. Vajpayee served as the External Affairs Minister during the Janata Government (1977-1979) and re-oriented the nonalignment principle of Indian foreign policy from the Soviet-tilted to genuine nonalignment by establishing liaison with the United States of America which was subse-quently followed by succeeding governments in India. The most important role of Vajpayee was as the Prime Minister thrice. First, in 1996 Vajpayee was the Prime Minister for 13 days. Secondly, in 1998, for a year Vajpayee was the Prime Minister up to the time that the NDA Government lost the vote of confidence by one vote. Finally, the NDA was re-elected in the 1999 general elections and Vajpayee served as the Prime Minister for full five years till 2004. Vajpayee successfully managed to run a coalition government for a full term for the first time in the history of independent India. The NDA was a coalition led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) consisting of Shiv Sena, Samata Party, Haryana Vikas Party (HVP), Shiromoni Akali Dal, All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Trinamul Congress, Lok Shakti, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Maharashtrabadi Gomantak Party. As the Prime Minister, Vajpayee had to adjust to and accommodate the various demands and aspirations of coalition partners which resulted in strained relationship with some partners like the Trinamul Congress. Although the Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, managed most of the inner-feuds between coalition partners, it was Prime Minister Vajpayee who managed the public face of the coalition and the face of the Hindutva ideology of the BJP. Vajpayee remained true to parliamentary ethics through his management skills between ‘coalition-ethics’ and ‘party-ethics’, speaking about all-round good governance of the country at one end and about proclaiming to be an eternal ‘swayam-sevak’ of the base of the BJP—the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) organisation.

Vajpayee faced a stiff challenge to maintain communal harmony in the aftermath of the Godhra incident in Gujarat in 2002. He had to tackle Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, who was a blue-eyed boy of the BJP-RSS as well. In a press conference, Vajpayee, the skilful orator, used a term satisfactory to both the constituents—party and parliamentary high office of the Prime Minister. The dignified yet meaningful way of Vajpayee’s communication to Modi was “rajdharma palan kijiye” (neutrally follow the constitutional norms). This in a way was the highest form of rebuke as it was a lesson to a Chief Minister to follow the constitutional norms. At the same time this could be re-read as a mere suggestion by a senior party-member to his junior to tackle a difficult situation. Whichever may be the case, the limit of the sentence followed parliamentary ethics. The NDA coalition under Vajpayee tried to win over the 2004 national election by the ‘India Shining’ slogan. Sadly the effect of the Godhra incident on the people’s perception was much more than the ‘India Shining’ slogan and the NDA under Vajpayee lost the election. Vajpayee was a normal human being who could win as well as lose, make perfect communication as well as failed communication but never ever was his communication beyond the constitutional limits of decency and decorum. Within the four walls of Parliament, Vajpayee was an exponent of respectful, dignified, accommodative yet witty conversation while delivering speeches and participating in debates. Above all, Vajpayee never allowed his ‘party-ethics’ to circumscribe his commitment towards ‘parliamentary ethics’. Vajpayee’s calm, witty and thoughtful statements in Parliament as a Prime Minister were in sharp contrast to the ‘un-parliamentary’ statement of Narendra Modi as a Prime Minister in Parliament that had to be expunged from the proceedings of Parliament! Some of the present leadership of the BJP at the national and State levels may do well to remember the ethical legacy of Vajpayee while targeting their speeches and statements against the ‘other’ voices in politics and society.

Parliamentary Open-Mindedness and Somnath Chatterjee

Somnath Chatterjee, as a member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist [CPI-M], functioned as a Member of Parliament (MP) from 1971 to 2009 in the Lok Sabha. He was the leader of the CPI-M in the Lok Sabha from 1989 to 2004. Somnath Chatterjee received the Best Parliamentarian Award in 1996. The CPI-M nominated him as the Speaker of the 13th Lok Sabha in 2004 during the UPA Government. The CPI-M led a no-confidence motion in 2008 against the UPA Government on the contentious issue of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal and directed Somnath Chatterjee to vote in favour of no-confidence motion against the UPA Government like other MPs of the CPI-M. Somnath Chatterjee defied the whip, remained true to the decorum and dignity of the high office of the Speaker and continuted to be neutral by not casting his vote in the no-confidence motion. The CPI-M expelled Somnath Chatterjee on July 23, 2008 on the basis of this ‘treacherous act’ against the party constitution although Somnath Chatterjee remained true to the Constitution of India and to the office of the Speaker of Parliament! Even after his expulsion, Somnath Chatterjee abided by the principles of communism and Marxism while commenting on the developments in politics and society in contemporary India.

It is to be noted that there are two models of ‘Speakership’ in democracies across the world. One is the ‘American model’ where even after being a Speaker, the person does not disown his/her party-membership. The other one is the ‘British model’ where after assuming office of the Speaker, he/she disowns his/her party-identification forever. It is to be remembered that the Indian democratic set-up is modelled practically on the British Westminster model and therefore naturally the Speaker of the Indian Parliament should naturally follow that model. The CPI-M promoted the no-confidence motion against India’s bonhomie with ‘American imperialism’ but expected unnaturally that the Speaker of the Indian Parliament to follow the American model of Speakership! Somnath Chatterjee sacrificed his party-membership for the cause of the parliamentary ethical code of conduct. In a personal interview with Somnath Chatterjee on the twin ideas that led Somnath Chatterjee to bypass the CPI-M party whip against the UPA Government in 2008, he stated that—(i) as a communist one must not take a position blindly opposing the Congress so that the BJP reaps the dividend and (ii) he should remain steadfastly committed to the tolerant, secular fabric of Indian parliamentary democracy. As the Opposition political forces are trying to put up a united front against the BJP Government at the Centre in the 2019 general elections, these two ideas remain true and beneficial as practical logic for the Opposition and also for the Left Front led by the CPI-M to take a correct political position.

Marxist political parties in India are of two types—parliamentary [CPI, CPI-M, RSP, Forward Bloc, SUCI, CPI-ML] and extra-parliamentary like the CPI(M-Maoist). Even those Marxist political parties, which participate in parliamentary elections, are not at ease with the principles, rules, regulations and guidelines of the democratic system as set by the bourgeois ruling class. Thus Marxist political parties never wholeheartedly abided by Indian parliamentary democracy. It was on the basis of this antipathy towards the norms of parliamentary democracy that the CPI-M instructed Somnath Chatterjee as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to vote on party-line. Doing the contrary, Somnath Chatterjee became a ‘treacherous comrade’ for the CPI-M. Nevertheless for politicians, academicians and political analysts across the country, Somnath Chatterjee became a model for ‘parliamentary Marxism’. For the future generation of Marxists and non-Marxists in India, Somnath Chatterjee set an example of how one should perform within Parliament, particularly after getting a high office like that of the Speaker, reflecting parliamentary ethics and open-mindedness as against the rigid framework of the thought process of the Marxist political parties.


The BJP and CPI-M are two political formations representing opposite poles in the Indian polity. The BJP is said to be highly nationalist propagating the Hindutva ideology whereas the CPI-M functions on the basis of the ideology of proletarian internationalism at the global level and secular polity at the domestic level. Atal Behari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister halted the spread of strong Hindutva ideology damaging the secular fabric of the country. The CPI-M becoming blind in opposing the UPA Government moved a no-confidence motion in 2008 that ensured their rallying to a similar position as the BJP. By not succumbing to the party-whip, Somnath Chatterjee unmasked the opportunism of the Indian parliamentary Left parties led by the CPI-M. Thus both Atal Behari Vajpayee and Somnath Chatterjee, in their capacity to serve in high parliamentry offices at different points of time, resurrected the debate on the correct parliamentary political path of their respective political parties, the BJP and CPI-M. It would thus be correct to say that both these deceased politicians exemplified parliamentarianism in India—to give credence to parliamentary institutional discipline over party political discipline. This being a lesson for future generations of leadership of the BJP and CPI-M, we must all openly declare ‘Long Live Atal Brhari Vajpayee’, ‘Long Live Somnath Chatterjee’. But as the post-structuralism philosophy entails — ‘the author is dead, long live the author’, academicians and political analysts must be ever vigilant to make the public aware about any kind of misinterpretation by the BJP and CPI-M of the parliamentarianism/respect for parliamentary ethics within and outside Parliament of these two personalities.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Kalyani, Nadia (West Bengal).

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