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Somnath Chatterjee, the man in the middle, has a tough choice

Somnath Chatterjee, the man in the middle, has a tough choice
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First Published: Mon, Jul 21 2008. 10 44 AM IST

Lok Sabha umpire : Speaker Somnath Chatterjee
Lok Sabha umpire : Speaker Somnath Chatterjee
Updated: Mon, Jul 21 2008. 10 44 AM IST
New Delhi: Today and tomorrow will likely be among the most important days of Somnath Chatterjee’s life.
Lok Sabha umpire : Speaker Somnath Chatterjee
The 79-year old Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, member, a 10-time parliamentarian from West Bengal, and independent India’s 14th Speaker will likely oversee the trust vote the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government will seek in Parliament at the end of a special two-day session that starts today—that is, if he doesn’t resign even before the beginning of the session, one of the three choices that seem open to him.
The second is to initiate the debate and resign before the vote and the third, see the vote through.
At stake are issues related to free will, parliamentary convention, and party loyalty.
The CPM is the largest constituent of the Left Front, the ally that supported the UPA government for four years without being part of it and finally withdrew the support earlier this month over the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. The UPA wants the deal; the Left Front doesn’t; and that line should be clear for most members of Parliament belonging to either group.
The Speaker’s position, however, is different. And Chatterjee, even his critics in the House admit, has been a good Speaker. In June 2004, when he was unanimously selected Speaker, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hailed his election on the floor of the House and admitted to a connection with his family: In 1947, after a young Singh fled Pakistan and moved to Amritsar, he’d studied economics at Hindu College, whose chairman was N.C. Chatterjee, Somnath Chatterjee’s father.
“Now I shall have peaceful nights…I am sure you will be a good Speaker,” Manmohan Singh had told Chatterjee then.
It is unlikely that either Chatterjee or Singh have had any peaceful nights over the past week.
For Singh, a loss in 22 July’s vote could mean the end of the road as Prime Minister.
For Chatterjee, the continued performance of his role as Speaker till that time could mean disciplinary action by his party.
Two people in the CPM who did not wish to be identified said that if Chatterjee sees the trust vote through, he will likely be issued a notice by the party asking him to explain his actions.
“The party is really a family. If your family needs you in a time of crisis and you don’t show up, then at least we have the right to ask you to explain,” added one of these members.
Only, Speakers are usually expected to be neutral and “as long as Chatterjee occupies the Speaker’s chair,” he has to be “non-partisan” said Mohammed Salim, a CPM representative in the Lok Sabha.
Managing that conflict should come easily to Chatterjee.
‘Outstanding Parliamentarian’
Chatterjee’s father N.C. Chatterjee, was a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, a party that promoted Hindu causes and was a precursor to the Jan Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, but he joined the CPM. He studied at the Presidency College in Calcutta and at Cambridge university and was called to the bar in England. He was a practising barrister at the Calcutta high court before joining politics.
The Delhi-based editor of a newspaper, who meets him regularly and who did not wish to be identified, said Chatterjee, like Jyoti Basu, is “cut in the mould of a Bengal Renaissance man,” who enjoys the good life. There’s always fish fry and Bengali mishti, or sweets, at his tea parties and lunch is often catered by Oh Calcutta, the well-known Bengali restaurant, the editor added.
In fact, Chatterjee is believed to have hand-picked his 20, Akbar Road residence in Delhi because of its spectacular gardens, which the previous occupants, Congress representative from Aurangabad, Nikhil Kumar and his wife, Shyama, had cultivated.
In 2003, Chatterjee, along with veteran Congress leaders Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil, was part of the parliamentary committee which cleared a proposal by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, or NDA, government to install Hindutva (the Hindu way) proponent Veer Savarkar’s portrait in the Central Hall of Parliament. After the Congress and the Left Front objected to having a picture of Savarkar hanging beside one of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Chatterjee admitted in a presss conference that he had made a mistake.
In 1996, Chatterjee was awarded the Outstanding Parliamentarian award, instituted in 1995 to recognize representatives. After he was elected speaker Chatterjee tried to get more representatives to focus on the business at hand by ordering that some part of the proceedings of Parliemant be telecast live on TV. He said people had a right to see how their representatives were behaving in the House. And he didn’t hesitate to refer representatives to the privileges committee, as in the 2005 infamous cash-for-questions scam (some representatives, it was alleged, had been paid money by companies to ask certain questions), when he felt they had lowered the “dignity” of the House.
According to senior Congress leader Devendra Dwivedi, Chatterjee has upheld the Speaker’s position, in the manner of previous occupants of the post such as Mavlankar, K.S. Hegde, by proving to be a “fair umpire.” Dwivedi cites Chatterjee’s fierce protection of the legislature in the face of an encroaching judiciary in the Jharkhand case in 2005, when Chatterjee sought a presidential reference to the Supreme Court on the matter rather than give in.
“The way Chatterjee protected the dignity of Parliament when he openly spoke about the limits of judicial intervention showed his courage of conviction in upholding the sovereign character of Parliament,” Dwivedi said.
In 2005, a parliemantary and judicial crisis loomed in Jharkand when the UPA claimed it had the right to form the government although it had fewer seats than the NDA, and the governor of the state gave it more than the usual amount of time to prove that it had enough support to form the government.
Chatterjee’s current quandary, however, has less to do with his performance as Speaker and more to do with the internal dynamics of his own party.
‘A sign of weakness’
The CPM’s problem is simply this: For the first time, a public figure has challenged it in the name of individual freedom, although Chatterjee has done so smartly, leveraging the role of the Speaker and its attendant conventions to his advantage. By telling CPM general secretary Prakash Karat that he would rather resign than vote with the party at this juncture, because as Speaker he has both practised and preached the non-partisan spirit for four years, Chatterjee has made it clear that Parliament stands above the party.
“In parliamentary procedure, the whip can have no effect on the Speaker,” said Salim.
Already, the CPM whip (an official notice asking representatives to attend the voting and vote along indicated lines) on the nuclear deal excludes Chatterjee. If he doesn’t quit on Monday morning, Chatterjee would have gone where no CPM member has gone before. Even former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu fell in line when the CPM refused to let him become prime minister in 1996.
The CPM members cited in the first instance said that the party’s desire to have Chatterjee resign and vote along with it and against the government is a manifestation of what is happening within the party. The fact that Karat allowed the government, after assurances by both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi in November that negotiations on the nuclear deal would not proceed beyond the IAEA stage, is now being seen by many within the party as a “sign of weakness” on Karat’s part, they added.
“The fact that Sonia and Manmohan went back on their assurances to Karat has made Karat look naïve in front of the party rank and file,” said one of the CPM members quoted in the first instance.
That was why Karat had paid little heed to CPM senior leader Jyoti Basu’s plea that the party should restrict itself to withdrawing support to the UPA and not actively court the government’s dismissal by seeking anti-UPA alliances, the CPM members said.
“The CPM will do everything in its power to prevent the nuclear deal from going through, that is why every vote, including Somnath Chatterjee’s, counts,” they added.
Last year, after Pratibha Patil was picked to be President, the Congress offered the CPM the vice-president’s post and felt Somnath Chatterjee would make a good job of it. The party refused. “Somnath never forgot that his own party had denied him the chance to serve a heart-beat away from the presidency,” said a Congressman who did not wish to be identified.
When he sits on the Speaker’s chair on Monday, Somnath Chatterjee will face a novel challenge in his long parliamentary career. The chair itself, designed by British architect Herbert Baker, alongside the circular Parliament House, is physically elevated above the rest of the benches, signifying the Speaker’s special place in Parliament.
In Chatterjee’s case it is special in more ways than one.
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First Published: Mon, Jul 21 2008. 10 44 AM IST