NEW DELHI: In Keeping the Faith, his memoirs published in 2010, Somnath Chatterjee comes out more as a parliamentarian than a politician bearing affiliation to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). No surprise there — that’s what Chatterjee was — a parliamentarian with an 11-term record. A social democrat, steeped in parliamentary procedures, a diehard upholder of the rights of the legislature.
His passing away, at age 89, offers a way to read a whole era in politics. It was a cusp moment, as we can see now. As Lok Sabha Speaker, he took on the judiciary in the Jharkhand assembly case, asserting that the legislature and its presiding officer was neither subservient nor secondary to any other constitutional wing. On foreign trips, he would create a fuss if the Speaker wasn’t accorded the same status at airports.
This devotion to parliamentary norms, its prestige and its independence, would cost his political life dearly — an expulsion from his party, the CPI-M, for refusing to quit the Speaker’s post in 2008 when it brought the no-confidence motion against then UPA government. He cited parliamentary propriety, prestige and the independence of the chair, putting it above party politics.
The UPA won the vote, Chatterjee lost. It was almost full circle — he began his career as an independent supported by the CPI-M and ended his career an independent, cut off from the party.His speakership was not eventless. Office of profit controversy, the cash-for-vote scandal all happened under his watch. Had it not been for him in the chair, it would’ve ended up being a darker day for democracy.