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The Tragedy of Somnath Chatterjee

August 15, 2018 11:27 IST

'He always had a choice to resign and walk toward the sunset in protest.'
'Instead, he chose to be a mute witness to one of the most sordid chapters of India's parliamentary history when MPs were bought up like cattle to steer the nuclear deal through,' says M K Bhadrakumar.

Somnath Chatterjee addresses the media the day he was elected Lok Sabha Speaker. Also seen is then parliamentary affairs minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Photograph: B Mathur/Reuters

IMAGE: Somnath Chatterjee addresses the media the day he was elected Lok Sabha Speaker. Also seen is then parliamentary affairs minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Photograph: B Mathur/Reuters

Somnath Chatterjee's departure throws light on some fault lines in contemporary Indian politics.

Two dissimilar tributes paid to him by two stalwarts of the Communist Party of India-Marxist from Kerala, the only state where the party is in power -- V S Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan -- show that Somnath's legacy is a many-splendoured thing. VS described Somnath as an 'immaculate Communist'.

'After being chosen as Speaker, Chatterjee stayed away from all political activities. Till his death, Chatterjee never compromised on his ethical values,' VS said in a message. His passing away has created a major loss in Indian democracy and left politics, he said.

In Pinarayi's words, Somnath was an eminent parliamentarian and a resonant voice of the Left. This was fulsome praise befitting, no doubt, a Colossus in India’s parliamentary democracy.

Pinarayi's words echoed the CPM politbureau statement paying tribute to Somnath, where too there is no mention of Somnath's place in the Pantheon of India's Communist heroes.

Curiously, from press reports, Somnath's family -- a distinguished family with roots going back to the Hindu Mahasabha -- also seems to resent any display of his Communist credentials as their beloved patriarch's legacy.

Who indeed is a 'Communist'? That is the question.

 

The CPM is in dilemma and in some ways it also draws attention to the massive erosion that the party suffered in West Bengal.

The Somnath saga is a stark reminder of this tragedy. Having said that, Somnath's legacy in some ways also got intertwined with a turning point in contemporary Indian politics.

His expulsion from the CPM was linked to the break-up between the party and Congress in the backdrop of the 2008 nuclear deal. That parting of ways, in turn, eventually caused an overall weakening of secular forces.

More importantly, Congress Unbound plunged into the neo-liberal path with gusto, which ultimately proved its undoing and regrettably, led to the ascendancy of right-wing forces in the country.

The CPM leadership was partly hoodwinked by the Congress leadership and partly chose to suspend its disbelief when the assurance was held out to it by the Congress in early 2008 that the UPA government's presentation of the nuclear file to the International Atomic Energy Agency was a mere 'formality' and no way signified an irrevocable step.

The commitment was that a consensus within the UPA was first needed to go ahead with the nuclear deal.

But the Congress capitalised on the CPM's dilemma by promptly moving the nuclear file at the IAEA in Vienna in February.

And the CPM's dilemma was not to force the issue because of the upcoming crucial panchayat elections in West Bengal (due in May 2008), where it was critically important that the Congress didn't align with the Trinamool to jointly oppose it.

In retrospect, the dalliance with the Congress cost the CPM heavily.

For one thing, it still couldn't salvage its political standing in the panchayat elections, as the results turned out to be the first tremors of what eventually proved to be a catastrophic political earthquake on the political landscape of West Bengal.

The Left suffered its first serious electoral rout in rural Bengal. And, indeed, when the panchayat election results came in, the tables were turned completely within the UPA.

The alchemy of Congress-CPM equations was never to be the same again.

Manmohan Singh proceeded to negotiate the nuclear deal at Vienna, while on the other hand, getting rid of the Congress' dependence on the left parties' parliamentary support.

To cut a long story short, what alternative did the CPM have other than withdraw support from the UPA?

Suffice to say, Somnath's refusal when the CPM demanded him to disassociate from the Congress-led UPA government was incomprehensible. He knew exactly what was happening in the run-up to the CPM's break-up with the UPA.

Therefore, it is difficult to make a conclusive assessment today why Somnath defied the command of his party.

He was a barrister and had a rational mind. Obviously, he thought through his decision to remain in his post after making his own calculations.

It wasn't exactly a Thomas Becket moment. For, to continue to identify with the Congress-led regime -- howsoever remotely at that point in time -- was tantamount to defection for a Communist.

And, besides, he always had a choice to resign and walk toward the sunset in protest.

Instead, he chose to be a mute witness to one of the most sordid chapters of India's parliamentary history when MPs were bought up like cattle to steer the nuclear deal through.

Looking back at the entire drama that leapt out of a Greek tragedy, the mother of all ironies is that there were to be no winners in this -- the Congress, CPM and Somnath Chatterjee (who still had a decade of his life left to contribute to left politics) all lost.

And, paradoxically, the issue on which they fought, the 2008 civil nuclear agreement, also turned out to be not much of a deal -- sound and fury signifying nothing.

Who was the biggest loser?

Undoubtedly, the Congress, which triumphed in that war of nerves and in its sheer elan for political skulduggery, but only to lose its way soon thereafter and get drowned in sleaze and venality that proved its downfall from where it is still struggling to recover.

Nonetheless, from all accounts, the CPM was still gracious enough to reach out to Somnath years later, after the dust settled down. And the party is today profusely condoling the demise of someone who used to be a great leader.

It is a poignant reflection on how far the CPM too has travelled in its ethos and functioning as a democratic party in the recent decade.

M K Bhadrakumar
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