CPI-M expels Speaker Somnath Chatterjee


New Delhi : In a decision that was expected but left political circles stunned, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) Wednesday expelled Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee after he defied the party’s appeals to give up the post ahead of a trust vote the government won.

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He had been with the party for four decades.

In a unanimous move that was widely expected after the veteran parliamentarian took on many Communist MPs during the two-day debate, the CPI-M announced after a politburo meeting here that Chatterjee had “seriously” compromised the position of the party.

A terse one-para statement said: “The politburo has unanimously decided to expel Somnath Chatterjee from the membership of the party with immediate effect. This action has been taken under article XIX, Clause 13 of the party constitution for seriously compromising the position of the party.”

In Kolkata, the urban hub of the Indian Communists, CPI-M leader Biman Bose explained: “Violation of our party constitution is not allowed, is not allowed.”

Chatterjee, who will turn 79 Friday and continue as the speaker despite the expulsion, is one of India’s most respected parliamentarians, having been elected to the Lok Sabha for the 10th time in 2004. He was also counted amongst the best speakers the lower house ever produced.

But his affability and long association with the CPI-M did not come to his rescue as seven members of the politburo met Wednesday amid strong indications that serious disciplinary action was contemplated against him for daring to go against the party on the trust vote.

The CPI-M, the driving force behind the Left decision to withdraw support to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government this month, wanted Chatterjee to renounce the speaker’s post and vote against the India-US nuclear deal and also against the ruling Congress-led coalition.

But in a daring display of defiance, Chatterjee refused and went on to say that the speaker’s post was a constitutional one and had to be respected. He also tried to buy support from former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu, one of only two surviving founder leaders of the CPI-M.

A furious CPI-M, a Stalinist party that brooks no indiscipline, then stopped pressing the issue but made it clear that action would be taken against him “at the appropriate time”. Realising what was in store for him, Chatterjee retorted: “Let them do what they want.”

But a cautious Chatterjee resigned Tuesday from the Sriniketan Santiniketan Development Authority (SSDA), a West Bengal body that looks after the development of Sriniketan-Santiniketan area excluding the Viswa Bharati University.

Wednesday’s decision marks an unhappy end to Chatterjee’s long association with the CPI-M that started in 1968 and where he rapidly gained stature, thanks mainly to his debating abilities that he used to mesmerize packed Lok Sabhas.

That trait came from his training as a barrister in Cambridge, Glasgow and Kolkata.

Born in Assam July 25, 1929, he was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1971 and then got repeatedly elected from West Bengal. In 1984 the then unknown Mamata Banerjee trounced him in Jadavpur. After that, Chatterjee quit Jadavpur for good, and fought elections from Bolpur in Birbhum district.

Seen as the suave ‘bhadralok’ face of the CPI-M in parliament, Chatterjee became the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha, which post gave him unending opportunities to take on the governments of the day. But even as he debated on serious issues, from economy to international affairs, his trademark wit never deserted him.

He always occupied the front benches, his immediate companions often being the late Indrajit Gupta of the Communist Party of India, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the late and former prime minister Chandra Shekhar and party colleague Basudeb Acharya.

Chatterjee preferred to speak in English, while switching over to Hindi if it he thought it necessary to make a point. In the process, he won many friends across the political spectrum although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was one outfit he was never comfortable with. BJP MPs too had little respect for him, and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee frequently took him on.

In 1996, Chatterjee was presented the “Outstanding Parliamentarian Award” for his immense contribution to strengthening India’s parliamentary system. Once he became the speaker, Chatterjee stepped up interactions with the media, started the live telecast of Lok Sabha proceedings, brought about administrative reforms in the Lok Sabha Secretariat, and extended access to the rich parliament library to many non-MPs.