The gentleman politician
Former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee’s demise leaves a gaping hole in Indian politics
It has been a week of loss. Stalwarts, leaders, men and women that stood tall in their respective fields, bid adieu to the mortal world. Within the span of a few days, India lost megastars from the world of Indian politics. Former Prime Minister and poet Atal Bihari Vajpayee left an indelible impression on Indian minds and politics. His greater acceptance among the masses irrespective of political affiliation stands testimony to the statesman's larger-than-party persona. Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and writer M Karunanidhi's demise left a gaping hole in Dravidian politics. Former Lok Sabha Speaker and barrister, Somnath Chatterjee also breathed his last. In spite of their varying ideologies, these gentlemen were immensely respected, their politics softened perhaps by their interest in literature, poetry, and academics.
Of these luminaries of Indian politics, I had the honour of meeting and interacting with Somnath Chatterjee several times (almost always at crucial junctures) over the last decade; the latest being in November last year and the first when he shook CPI(M) by refusing to step down as Lok Sabha Speaker in 2008. The CPI(M)-led Left Front wanted to withdraw its support to UPA-I on the pretext of the Indo-US Nuclear deal. They coerced Chatterjee to also vote against the government. But since the Speaker's position is non-partisan, Chatterjee refused. After the trust vote for won by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chatterjee was expelled by CPI(M). Even during this time of personal and political turmoil, Chatterjee remained resolute. His determination was evident for all to see. As he stood his ground, he inspired in us, who were reporting on the Left parties in those days, admiration and intimidation. This intimidation was not borne from knowing that the politician wields immense power, this intimidation came out of respect for this giant among politicians.
A year and a half later, Chatterjee's bare-all book, 'Keeping the Faith' allowed me to interview him once again. The wound was still raw and while his love for the party still slipped out in his words, the hurt that he felt on being expelled was difficult to disguise. He called it the "saddest day in his life". Almost eight years later, I met Chatterjee in his south Kolkata residence. We spent over an hour and a half as he regaled me with stories of his journey. Sitting beside him, keeping a watchful eye, was his beloved wife, Renu. He joked about how after he got married in 1950, he left Kolkata to pursue further studies in Cambridge. The newly married couple had to live apart in those two years; never again after that. Their bond of over 70 years still fresh, still jovial.
While talking politics, Chatterjee was worried that BJP was indeed making inroads into Bengal and the ruling dispensation in the state, Trinamool Congress, had much to worry about. He called Prime Minister Narendra Modi "popular" but "too partisan" and seemed genuinely concerned about the future of the Indian democracy in the hands of the current clutch of politicians. But even after all those years that had passed him by, Chatterjee was still disappointed and hurt at being ill-treated and insulted by his own party. "I have not compromised [in my political journey]," he proudly stated. "But I must confess that I have a lot of weakness for the party [CPI(M)]." Not surprising, therefore, that in spite of his weakness for CPI(M), his family refused to shroud his mortal remains in the CPI(M) flag, opting instead for his favourite football team, Mohun Bagan's green and red hues.
A gentleman politician, the last few of our generation, ended our chat on that winter evening by switching on the television set to watch a Bengali soap opera with his wife. As I packed up my belongings, much to my amusement and his own, Chatterjee told his wife that I resembled one of the television actresses. While I Googled to check out this actress' pictures, I promised to meet him again. Alas, that is not to be. The nation has lost icons in the past few days, and Chatterjee was undeniably one of them.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal)