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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 32

On CPM Leadership and Somnath Chatterjee

Wednesday 30 July 2008, by Chandra Sen


By taking summary action against Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, a 10-term party MP who was elected the presiding officer of the Lower House of Parliament in June 2004, the CPM has once again exposed its undemocratic functioning. On the face of it what party General Secretary Prakash Karat has said is unexceptionable. A Speaker cannot be from the Opposition, and the CPM and its three Left partners became part of the Opposition once they communicated to the President, on July 9, their decision to withdraw support to the UPA Government. Somnath was asked by the party through different means to step down from the Speaker’s post after that development but he chose to ignore the directives. However, a face-to-face meeting with the party General Secretary would have helped to sort out the matter. But that did not happen; for that both were responsible no doubt, but given Somnath’s age, stature and experience, it was incumbent on the part of Prakash Karat to take the initiative. (After all, what is Prakash’s record in the party apart from having won the JNU Students’ Union elections and assumed the post of Union President from the SFI—a feat equalled by the AISA leaders in recent years?)

As far as the Speaker was concerned, the Left’s withdrawal of support to the UPA dispensation led to an unprecedented situation which is why a Somnath-Karat meeting was imperative. But then Somnath, a senior Communist MP, assuming the Lok Sabha Speakership was in itself an unprecedented development. Following his elevation to the Speaker’s chair, it was editorially written in this journal:

(this) is yet another evidence of the imprint the Communists have left on the success of our parliamentary democracy they had once, barely 55 years ago, derided and tried to subvert before utilising the parliamentary forum for people’s benefit. There have been excellent parliamentarians among Communists and Socialists—S.A. Dange, Bhupesh Gupta, Hiren Mukherjee, Nath Pai, A.K. Gopalan, Madhu Limaye, Madhu Dandavate, Indrajit Gupta, Renu Chakravartty, Parvathi Krishnan, Pramila Dandavate, Rabi Ray, Jyotirmoy Bosu, Somnath Chatterjee, not to speak of the unmatched Rammanohar Lohia, and their contribution to parliamentary democracy has been exceptional, to say the least. Now Somnath becoming the Speaker of the Lok Sabha adds a new dimension to that contribution somewhat similar to Rabi Ray’s assumption to the post in the seventies.

And on assuming his new post, Somnath said: “The perception that Members of Parliament use the forum for personal aggrandisement must be changed.” Unfortunately and tragically, that perception, instead of getting changed, has been steadily reinforced, especially as a consequence of the events of the last few days in the Lok Sabha, events (like the attempts to purchase MPs) that would lead any average citizen of this country to hang one’s head in shame. He also said the aspirations of the people at large for a better, fuller life must be effectively articulated in Parliament. Regardless of how much that has been done (though Rahul Gandhi’s earnest speech bringing out the plight of women in Vidarbha must rank in that category), Somnath’s words at that time sounded refreshingly new from the Speaker’s seat and, as former Kerala CM and CPI leader P.K. Vasudevan Nair, while felicitating Somnath on his elevation to the Speaker’s office, pointed out, the Speaker’s post going to a Communist was the harbinger of things to come.

However, the CPM leadership’s decision to expel Somnath has put paid to all such expectations. Whatever the merits, the sword of disciplinary action smacks of a bureaucratic blow to suppress dissent. At least before taking such a step of expelling him, a show-cause notice should have been served on him to explain his position. By resorting to the summary procedure spelt out in Article 19 (13) of the party Constitution, the leadership (that is, the party Polit-Bureau) has short-circuited that democratic course. In other words, what Somnath did was not to toe the party line; why and how should that be tantamount to anti-party activity? Moreover, when he was elected Speaker, he was the seniormost member in the House; so even if technically he belonged to the Opposition after the CPM withdrew support to the UPA Government, he commanded the support of all sections of the House—hence the technical point of his belonging to the Opposition did not come as an obstacle to his continuing in the post whose dignity he had sought to preserve and enhance during his tenure. In the light of this fact, wasn’t the step taken against him too harsh and mechanical? These and similar questions need to be raised in the party fora if the party is to be rescued from the iron-grip of diehard Stalinists for whom democracy is only a means to strengthen their hold on the party apparatus. Unless the party is able to rid itself of such party apparatchiks, it cannot possibly hope to grow in the complex, diverse, multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious land of India that is Bharat.

While defending Somnath one should not, however, become a victim of subjectivism. He has been a forthright and impartial Speaker, a stickler for norms, sometimes behaving like a headmaster but never vindictive; however, neither was he exceptional in the discharge of his duties nor was he an outstanding presiding officer of the House, since there have been many others like or more brilliant than him since the days of Anantha-sayanam Iyyengar. But in the ultimate analysis what mattered was his enjoying the confidence of all sides of the Lok Sabha. That in itself was striking, noteworthy and laudable. By taking disciplinary action against such a personality the CPM leadership has tried to club him with those expelled from other parties on grounds of violating the party whip in the trust vote. And to say that he “seriously compromised” the position of the party is a total misreading of the situation; on the contrary by taking the step to expel him the party leadership itself has compromised the party’s standing in the national arena. What it has done is most regrettable as it only seeks to vindicate the party opponents’ charge against the CPM that its leaders suffer from both myopia and jaundiced vision.

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