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The Rediff Special/ Neerja Chowdhury

Speaker episode: Tip of CPI-M iceberg

July 20, 2008

The Somnath Chatterji controversy represents the tip of the iceberg of what is going on inside the Communist Party of India-Marxist. The truth is that the India-US nuclear deal has created a churning inside every major party, and not left the Left untouched

The Lok Sabha Speaker must be complimented for taking a tough stand -- that the Speaker must be above party politics -- when many others might have wilted.

His party would like him to resign as Speaker and vote against the government along with the rest of the CPI-M MPs in the July 22 trust vote. Till the time of writing indications are that he will continue as Speaker during the July 21-22 special session but may put in his papers from the Lok Sabha, and indeed from the CPM, after that -- depending on how his party treats him.

Though CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat has reiterated that it is upto the Speaker to decide what he should do, pressure has been stepped up on Chatterji. A CPI-M MP from Kerala [Images] openly asked him to step down and the Revolutionary Socialist Party and Forward Bloc have echoed the same sentiment. Karat himself has made it clear that it is 'hypocritical' to think that the Speaker is 'without a party or politics.'

It is not an easy decision for Somnath Chatterji to take. On the one hand is a Constitutional principle, on the other, loyalty to a party line and he has been loyal soldier of the party, besides being an able parliamentarian.

The controversy came to the fore when Karat sent the list of CPI-M members to the President of India. There was no explanation against Chatterji's name that while elected on the CPI-M ticket, he had subsequently been elected as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

The underlying message was that he was first and foremost a party man, and that Constitutional niceties were only a fig leaf. This was less than fair to Chatterji. For all the criticism that the BJP has leveled against him in the last four years, Chatterji has tried to be fair in the discharge of his duties as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

There are many who believe that a Constitutional role should be above furthering a party line, but that is a decision that Chatterji should be allowed to take. If he felt it was more important to vote for the party line, he should have had the freedom to step down as Speaker before his name was included in the list to the President. And surely he should have been consulted. While he owes his Speakership and his membership of the Lok Sabha to being a member of the CPI-M, he has after all contributed in no small measure to his party' s profile as a parliamentarian of 40 years standing.

The party obviously took it for granted that he would just toe the line. The Communist parties give importance to the party structure and party line -- not to individuals -- just as mainstream parties, on the other extreme, are feudal in structure and mindset.

The tension between Chatterji and Karat is not new and that has only compounded the problem. Chatterji was viewed as a front runner for the Presidency and vice presidentship at one stage last year when names were being considered and the Congress leadership was not averse to the idea. But it was reportedly Karat's coolness to the idea which put a spanner in the works.

The Speaker controversy has underscored another debate. If newspaper reports are to be believed, Chatterji has written to Karat that he did not want to help the Bharatiya Janata Party and be seen to be voting alongside the saffron party.

There are two parts to this argument. The first is the fact of voting alongside the BJP. Of course, the Congress is making much of the Left's discomfiture over this, though the Congress had voted along with the BJP in trust votes in the past, as in November 1990 when V P Singh had to quit.

It is not as if the Left is voting the BJP into power or it is voting in favour of something that is communal in character. It is voting against the government on an issue which it has held to be critical for India's sovereign decision-making.

For example, hypothetically speaking, if the government were to declare an emergency and suspend fundamental freedoms. Would the Left take the plea, that it was not going to vote against the move, simply because the BJP was also opposing it?

There are two views on the second aspect of the argument -- whether the Left's present stance will ultimately give a fillup to the BJP. There are differences in the CPI-M on delinking from the United Progressive Alliance. It is open knowledge that Jyoti Basu -- and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Sitaram Yechury and Somnath Chatterji belong to the same school of thought -- favoured withdrawal of support without pulling down the government. They feel that bringing the government down may pave the way for the return of the National Democratic Alliance. And, after all, the BJP is going to go ahead and strengthen the strategic relationship with the US.

Karat has voiced a counter view. He has held that it is because of the wrong policies being pursued by the Congress -- and the nuke deal is among them -- that the BJP is gaining ground. In election after election, the Congress has lost out to the BJP in states where the two are pitted against each other.

While the 'moderates' in the Left argue that they will have to align with the Congress again after the elections in order to keep the BJP at bay -- and therefore why embitter relations to the point of no return -- the 'hardliner' Karat has made a move which is making people look at him with new eyes. Transiting from an ideologue to a practitioner of realpolitik, his overtures to Mayawati have the potential of dramatically changing existing political equations, and weakening both the UPA and the NDA -- that is if the alliance takes off.

It is early days yet but a Mayawati-Left alliance could charge Dalits and Muslims across the country, turning the pyramid -- made up of the Congress' traditional social base of upper castes, Dalits and Muslim -- on its head, under a Dalit leadership, with regional variations.

For Somnath Chatterji personally, it may be the end of the road, as far as parliamentary politics goes. Delimitation has gobbled up his constituency and he has already announced that he would not be contesting again -- though Indian politics needs leaders like him to play a wider role and leaders are not created overnight.

The nuke deal may or may not devour the government. That it will impact the future course -- and inner dynamics -- of political parties including the CPI-M, goes without saying.

The Rediff Specials

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