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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  Former LS Speaker and ten-time MP Somnath Chatterjee passes away at 89

Kolkata: It took the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, almost seven hours to react to the death of former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee.

In a short statement, the CPM Politburo said Chatterjee had “played an important role in defending the foundations of the Indian Constitution"—a rare recognition which came only after his death.

Chatterjee, 89, died of a heart attack on Monday after being admitted in a hospital due to renal complications.

Back in 2008 when Chatterjee was expelled for not toeing the party line, the CPM’s Politburo held diktat from the leadership over everything.

The CPM and its Left allies decided to withdraw support from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in New Delhi, and asked Chatterjee to step down as speaker of the Lok Sabha. But he declined to do so, saying that the speaker was a constitutional position, which made him above partisan politics.

Four years earlier, the CPM had exactly the same view: that Chatterjee would hold a constitutional post at an arm’s length from the government, which the party had agreed to support only from outside. He was elected to the post unanimously.

However, when things came to a head, the CPM Politburo didn’t take kindly to Chatterjee’s principled stand.

He was deeply saddened by his removal from the party, recalled a Kolkata-based lawyer and close associate. By the time he distanced himself from active politics in 2009, he was already looking to hang up his boots.

“But things could have ended differently," said the lawyer cited above, who asked not to be named.

On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter that Chatterjee had made “our parliamentary democracy richer".

Born into a family of renowned lawyers and parliamentarians, Chatterjee, himself a barrister, joined the CPM in 1968. Starting in 1971, he was elected to the Lok Sabha 10 times. He lost only once—to Mamata Banerjee (of the Congress at the time) in 1984.

Back in 2008, CPM leaders even from West Bengal defended the party’s decision to oust Chatterjee. On Monday, the party wanted his body to be draped in its flag but his family spurned the proposal.

Widely regarded among lawyers and lawmakers as an expert on the Indian Constitution, Chatterjee was in the mid-1990s given the challenging task of reviving industrialization in West Bengal. Under the then chief minister Jyoti Basu, the state was battling an image crisis and flight of entrepreneurial capital. Chatterjee was always close to Basu and helped him draft the 1994 industrial policy—the first serious attempt to bring industries back to the state after decades of labour unrest.

Basu went behind the back of his own party to table the policy in the assembly out of fear that outfits from within the CPM could obstruct it.

Alongside, Chatterjee was made chairman of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corp., and given the “onerous task" of regaining investor confidence, recalled a bureaucrat, who has worked closely with him.

He was chosen because he enjoyed the confidence of the business community despite his known political affiliation. He was asked to “leverage his personal goodwill" to make investors grant an audience to the state’s sales pitch, the bureaucrat said, asking not to be identified.

On Monday, the CPM suspended its scheduled state committee meeting in Kolkata after an obituary reference as leaders rushed to Chatterjee’s home in a bid, as it were, to seek redemption from their past mistakes.

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Updated: 13 Aug 2018, 10:08 PM IST
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