Sommath Chatterjee’s farewell to politics, tinged with sadness


New Delhi : As he began his long walk out of an eventful political life spanning about four decades, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee Thursday thanked MPs for putting up with him through several highs and lows.

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“I thank you all for tolerating me so long,” Chatterjee, 80, said as the house assembled. The trace of sadness was evident. Chatterjee, an MP from Bolpur in West Bengal had earlier announced that he would not contest elections and would retire to a quiet life in Santiniketan.

“I hope you will keep retired politicians in mind,” the burly speaker remarked in his stentorian voice when Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel was speaking about his ministry’s initiatives.

Chatterjee, who has been MP since 1971, also told Minister of State for Railways R. Velu while he was announcing railway concessions: “Please do keep retired people in your mind.”

His style of functioning might not have been very popular among all MPs, the avuncular Chatterjee did definitely try to change the style in which the Lok Sabha works.

As presiding officer of the 14th Lok Sabha, which saw its low points including the expulsion of 10 MPs and the unsightly sight of parliamentarians flashing wads of currency notes during the trust vote in July last year, Chatterjee acquitted himself creditably.

In his valedictory address at the last sitting Chatterjee also hoped his contributions to parliament would stay on – including the Lok Sabha channel, the museum and the Hiren Mukherjee memorial lecture.

“We feel proud that this is the only TV channel in the world which is owned and operated by parliament, without any executive control or even intervention,” he said.

Throughout his tenure as presiding officer of the Lok Sabha, Chatterjee has had several run-ins with MPs, sometimes cajoling them to be reasonable while at other times playing the strict disciplinarian.

A Lok Sabha official recalls the time when Chatterjee entered the speaker’s residence at 20 Akbar Road in 2004 and found that even the phenyl and soap bills of the house were paid from parliament’s accounts. The same applied for tea and snacks.

Chatterjee called his officers and said: “I think I can afford my bathroom expenses. And I can also afford a cup of tea for my guests.”

Though he was expelled from his Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) after he refused to resign when the party decided to oppose the Congress-led government over the India-US nuclear deal in July last year, there was no bitterness in him.

He has been reportedly unhappy that he was expelled from the party with which he was associated for 40 years from 1968 to 2008.

In a recent interview he said: “I have never questioned the authority of the party to expel me. At the highest level, they have decided that I am not fit to be in that party and I have accepted it. Why should I try to impose myself on them through other processes? That’s that. That’s the greatest scar in my heart, I shall carry it till my last breath.”

He further said: “I have donated my body to a hospital…Therefore, I am not going to the grave but to the hospital with the scar.”

But this hurt was nowhere to be seen when he went about his job in the Lok Sabha with the impartiality that he is known for.

Chatterjee joined the CPI-M in 1968. Three years later the party fielded him from West Bengal’s Bolpur constituency in the Lok Sabha. Since then he remained on a winning spree, returning to the Lok Sabha every five years, 1984 being the sole exception, when he lost the Jadavpur constituency to Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Bannerjee