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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > October 11, 2008 > On Somnath Chatterji

Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 43

On Somnath Chatterji

Friday 17 October 2008, by G.S. Bhargava


Permit me the following comment on the Lok Sabha Speaker, Shri Somnath Chatterji’s contention that since he had conducted himself in a non-partisan manner as the Speaker, he was not bound by the whip of his ‘erstwhile’ party, the CPI-M, to resign. . First, it has neither been the convention nor the practice for Lok Sabha Speakers formally to announce their dissociation from their party on assumption of Speakership. Under the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy in Britain, for instance, the Speaker is above the party. That is taken for granted. He or she loses the position in case of non-conformation. Often, the Speaker’s re-election to the House of Commons is uncontested. The principle applies to all parties over there.

Although the Lok Sabha rules of procedure were largely based on those in the Mother of Parliaments, this aspect of the functioning of Parliament has been overlooked. More Speakers have been party members, especially after laying down office or prior to it. Luckily, the tendency of Assembly Speakers in the States taking active part in power struggles and group politics has not yet spread to the Centre.

Reverting to Shri Somnath Chatterji, there is apparently nothing on record that he had resigned from the party after his election to the high office. Otherwise, it would have been publicised especially when the controversy about his refusal to abide by the reported CPI-M whip had broken out. True, he was elected without contest, following an entente between the Congress party and the Communists, sailing under the banner of ‘Leftists’. It was a fall-out from the Communists’ support—from outside—to the Congress party-led combine, which after the 2004 general election assumed office with the nomenclature of United Progressive Alliance. As Nehru said of the National War Front formed by the British in 1939, the UPA was far from united considering the recriminations, which accompanied the Communists’ pull-out from the alliance in August. The constituents of the UPA had fought against each other in the general election, especially in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. Still, the necessity of numbers made them bedfellows. Worse still, the DMK, which was with the BJP-led alliance during the general election, had crossed over to the UPA for a share in power. So did Ramvilas Paswan, who pocketed a Ministership with a more lucrative portfolio than before. As for Laloo Yadav, he could not be elsewhere with fodder scam cases staring him in the face. Dr Manmohan Singh’s ‘professionally’ adroit leadership, aided by the pull of power, kept the UPA going on for so long. Against this background, it is fatuous for yuvaraj Rahul ‘Gandhi’, as heir apparent to the decaying dynasty, to want to replace him.

True, Shri Chatterji’s election as the Speaker was unopposed for reasons already mentioned. So was Neelam Sanjiva Reddy’s in 1977. The newly for-med combine of Janata Party had won only one seat—his—from Andhra Pradesh. He contested on the Congress (O) ticket as the Organisation Congress—distinct from the Indira Congress—was called. The Congress (I) bagged the rest of 41 seats. (There were whispers of hera pheri in his election to the Lok Sabha, but let the matter pass.)

Within the year, he was elevated to the country’s Presidetnship, in the teeth of the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s strong reservation. Desai wanted the veteran theosophist and Bharat Natyam exponent, Dr Rukmini Arundale, for the post. Madhu Limaye, leader of a Socialist Party faction, which later spearheaded a fatal ‘split’ in the Janata experiment, opposed Dr Arundale’s candidature. His argument was that an activist politician should be the head of state. It was a misfortune for the country because Dr Arundale would have been a great President. Limaye’s argument is also baseless. If we look back, non-politicians, Dr S.Radhakrishnan, Dr Zakir Hussain and Dr A.P.J.Abdul Kalam have been great Presidents.

REVERTING to Speakership, the first Speaker, Ganesh Vasudev Mavalankar, upheld the Westminster tradition in the footsteps of Vithalbhai Patel, who presided over the sessions of the pre-independence Central Legislative Assembly. Also, there were no political pulls to make him stray from the straight path. Still, his successor, M. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar, a gifted lawyer from Andhra Pradesh, did not hesitate to accept the Governorship of Bihar after his term as the Speaker. He was extremely loyal to Nehru and unquestioningly abided by his ‘wishes’. Sardar Hukam Singh (1962-67), belonging to the Akali Party, was a painstaking Speaker, not given to much speaking like Ananthasayanam Ayyangar. He merged his political identity with the Congress. He was rewarded with Governorship after his term.

After him, Gurdayal Singh Dhillon, was a Minister in Punjab (1967-69) before he became the Speaker at the Centre. After laying down the office of Speaker he again had a stint of Ministership. Bali Ram Bhagat, who held the post for only about fifteen months, was identified with the Congress party before, after and during his Speakership. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy’s tenure, already referred to, was a kind of stopgap affair before he was kicked up to be the Rashtrapati. K.S.Hegde, his replacement was also a Janata Party candidate. Balram Jhakar never tried to conceal his political identity as a Congress leader.

Rabi Ray, of the Lok Dal, lived up to his political sentiments. His most abiding accomplishment was installation of a portrait of Dr Rammanohar Lohia in the Central Hall. Full marks to him for it. (In contrast, the BJP leaders in power would take a lot of persuasion to install a statue of Jayaprakash Narayan in a remote nook of Parliament House complex.) Surprisingly, P.A.Sagma’s political affiliation was given in the Parliament website as the Congress party because apparently he had not then been thrown out of the party for refusing to accept the party’s hereditary President as an Indian. Skipping Manohar Joshi’s (Shiv Sena) two-year innings, and that for four years of maverick G.M.C. Balayogi (Telugu Desam) we come to the celebrated Shivraj Patil, who after a full tenure as the Speaker, lost re-election to the Lok Sabha from his home constituency of Latur in Maharashtra. But overnight he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha and anointed as the country’s Home Minister. He owed his good luck to the ‘Gandhi’ family, according to newspaper reports.

Against this background, it is difficult to go along with Shri Chatterji’s claim that the office of the Speaker had been non-partisan before him. Further, he has been paying the levy which office holders among CPI-M cadres pay. Incidentally, the Parliament website also mentions his affiliation as being from the CPI-M.

Finally, I had the privilege of meeting his father, Shri N.C. Chatterji, who was a High Court judge in Bengal. After retiring from the Bench, he was the President of the Hindu Mahasabha for some time. Later, he was practising at the Supreme Court. In that capacity, he was helping my friend Shri Surendranath Dwivedi in a vexatious election petition in the Apex Court. I had occasion to call on him at his Pusa Road bungalow with messages from and to Shri Dwivedi. An impressive figure with thick glasses, Justice Chatterji would always treat me kindly. I could never understand how he could think of ‘Somnath’, not a common Christian name in Bengal, for his illustrious son.

G.S. Bhargava
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