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The gentleman Parliamentarian

The gentleman Parliamentarian

Former Lok Sabha Speaker and veteran Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Somnath Chatterjee passed away on Tuesday at a private hospital in Kolkata. He was 89. Chatterjee was one of those communist leaders who was educated and came from decent families; they lived an extremely humble life and remained connected with the day-to-day affairs of the people. Since he was elected for the first time in 1971 till 2004, Chatterjee won all Lok Sabha elections except one in 1984. That year, he was contesting from the Jadavpur seat in Kolkata and Mamata Banerjee was challenging him on a Congress ticket. Banerjee won that election. Chatterjee who had a degree in law was also a practising member of the Calcutta High Court. True to the image of a Bengali gentleman, Chatterjee was affable and peace-loving but when he became the Speaker of Lok Sabha in 2004, he transformed into a strict Speaker who rose above the party line and did not hesitate to chide members of the House. The most peeved ones were MPs from West Bengal, both from CPI-M and Congress, who often blamed him for not giving them enough time to speak.

Chatterjee whose father Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee was one of the founding members of Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha took to the popular political ideology of his time and joined CPI-M. His father was a sitting MP when he died and Chatterjee began his political career by contesting from the same seat his father represented. He contested that election as an Independent candidate but had the support of the CPI-M. In the ten times he won Lok Sabha elections, Chatterjee acted as the national face of the party that ruled West Bengal, with a complete control over the political scene and the opposition Congress in a total disarray. The CPI-M rule in West Bengal also coincided with the gradual collapse of the Congress leadership and their control over the state. This was a time when different communist parties in many parts of the country tried to present an alternative political narrative and system. As per this system, the party functionaries were directly responsible for the welfare of the people and the government administration was to be run in consultation with the party units at different levels. This complicated process often resulted in political slugfests, requiring the party to explain its stand at the national level. Chatterjee with his extraordinary educational background and friendly attitude came across as a communist leader who was capable of explaining the complexities and contradictions of the communist rule in West Bengal with ease.

His commitment to his party did not stop him from overriding one of its diktats in which the party asked Chatterjee to resign from the post of Speaker of Lok Sabha when the CPI-M withdrew its support from the UPA government in 2004. Chatterjee's stand was that the post of Speaker was Independent and above party affiliations. The CPI-M expelled him from the party and after his term, as the Lok Sabha Speaker came to an end in 2009, he decided to retire from active politics. His party too practically bowed out of the state politics after the emergence of Trinamool Congress. Chatterjee was loved by the people in his constituencies and was regarded as one of the tallest intellectual leaders of his time. He was contemporary to other great politicians from the state such as Pranab Mukherjee.

The rich contribution made by Somnath Chatterjee in the parliamentary discussions during his tenure as the member of the Parliament would be especially remembered. He often raised issues of national and international importance and was against the wastage of time of Parliament. As the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Chatterjee ensured that parliamentary business is conducted as per the rule and the members take part in it. Much different from his image of a friendly person, he would often display his displeasure when members did not listen to his pleas to keep silence and allow the normal proceedings of the House.

Chatterjee represented an era in politics which was marked by tumultuous political and social changes. From general emergency in 1975 to economic reforms in the last decades, Chatterjee was witness to crucial political developments. His presence and contribution were always appreciated by his peers. A Parliamentarian with the long and illustrious background, Chatterjee enriched the Indian democracy through his contribution. A noble soul, an active politician, a dedicated party man, Chatterjee donned many hats.

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