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Chatterjee had no backers in CPM Central Committee

Neerja Chowdhury | July 24, 2008 12:09 IST

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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] survived the trust vote on Tuesday but the Indo-US nuclear deal devoured an unlikely victim the very next day. The axe fell on Speaker Somnath Chatterjee [Images] with the Communist Party of India-Marxist expelling him for his failure to step down as Lok Sabha Speaker and follow its diktat to vote against the government on the nuclear deal.

The decision was on the anvil since the meeting of the party's Central Committee last week. It had been kept in reserve till the trust vote was over. All through the trust vote discussion, there was palpable tension between Chatterjee and members from the Left parties.

The Central Committee, the CPI-M's highest decision-making body, had decided last week itself that disciplinary action should be taken against Chatterjee for going against the party's declared position. No one came to his rescue at the CC, sources said. This included Jyoti Basu, Chatterjee's mentor who could not attend the meet but is believed to have participated via teleconferencing.

Basu is learnt to have advised Chatterjee to step down, when the latter had gone to Kolkata a week ago to consult with the former chief minister. The party also sent CPM's West Bengal secretary Biman Bose to Delhi last week to try and persuade him to quit the Speakership following withdrawal of the Left's support to the government.

The deal has led to churning inside every party, including the Communists.

A member of the CPI-M for four decades and a 10-time MP, it is now end of the parliamentary road for Chattterjee. He had declared some time ago that he is not going to contest elections again. The delimitation exercise has converted Bolpur, which he represented many times, into a reserved constituency.

There are two options before him. One, to continue as Lok Speaker as an "unattached" member till the general elections. Two, to quit as Speaker and also resign from the Lok Sabha. One thing that Chatterjee has made clear in the last days is that he, and not the party,  will decide the course of action he takes and its timing.

There are many who believe that he will opt for the second course since he was elected to the Lok Sabha on a CPM ticket. The Speaker is scheduled to lead a delegation to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Union meeting in Malaysia from Aug 1-10.

Chatterjee chose to give primacy to his constitutional role as Speaker over his role as a member of the party and  presided over the July 21-22special session of the Lok Sabha. He was not unaware of what lay in store for him. He also wrote to CPIM General Secretary Prakash Karat [Images]  expressing unhappiness with the party position and voting alongside the Bharatiya Janata Party against the government.

CPM sources, on the other hand, justified the party action by saying  that every member of the party has to fill  a form stating that he will submit to the discipline of the party. "Somnath Chatterjee became Speaker as part of a special political arrangement when we decided to support a minority government in 2004 and we lent our person for the post of Speaker. Once that arrangement disappeared, he should have quit."

"With Chatterjee openly taking a position against the party line, the party had no option but to take action against him," said a senior leader. "Now that he has become an unattached member, he can do what he thinks best as an individual -- resign or continue."
The issue came to a head when Karat included his name in the list of  CPM MPs who were withdrawing support to the government. He neither consulted Chatterjee nor included  an explanation in the list that Chatterjee had been elected as Speaker. Chatterjee is believed to have felt that this lent credence to the criticism that he was first a party man and then the Speaker. Once an MP becomes Speaker, he is expected to rise above his party affiliations.

Chatterjee was a serious name for Rashtrapati last year and might have had Congress support but his party did not favour his candidature.

Since he has been expelled from the party, he now becomes an "unattached" member in the House. He can continue as Speaker of the Lok Sabha unless someone chooses to bring in a vote of no-confidence against him. This is not something that the CPM is planning to do.

This is not the first time that the party has chosen to take action against a senior leader. It had not spared its own general secretary and icon BT Ranadive for "leading the party towards a sectarian line" over the Telengana agitation in the fifties. Though it did not expel him, it removed him from party's elected positions and he spent two years acting as a typist as punishment after "self-criticism".

The party had  expelled several others at various times like Nripen Chakravarty, who was chief minister of Tripura, and member of the Politburo KR Gouriamma who had been a minister in the Kerala [Images] government, and Saifuddin Chowdhury,  CPM MP who had advocated a pro-Congress line before the party came to adopt it.

Expulsion from the party often entails a social boycott of the person by members of the political family, say insiders, and this is not going to be easy for Somnath Chatterjee who has spent the best part of his life in the CPM.

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