The Conscientious Marxist

on Monday, July 28, 2008

Braving expulsion and derision, Somnath Chatterjee has set a stirring example of constitutional conduct by rising above party and personal lines, writes SHANTANU GUHA RAY

IN THAT struggle between identity and conscience, More’s position is that a man is defined by his conscience. So, as Lord Chancellor of England, he refuses to put his sanction to his sovereign, Henry VIII’s divorce of his first wife in order to marry another woman. In defence of this principle of personal choice, he resigns, is arrested — and goes to the executioner. It’s a parallel that can be drawn on the point of principle that present day Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee has chosen to make. Chatterjee has defied the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) diktat that he resign and vote with his party in the July 22 vote of confidence against the Manmohan Singh Government.

Clearly willing to put himself to the party sword in order to maintain the integrity and bipartisan nature of the speaker’s post, Chatterjee has stood steadfast. And in sacrificing his personal political future, he has risen to the position in a manner seen in few incumbents.

What makes this man, steeped in the culture of the most disciplined party in Indian polity, so openly rebellious of its rulings? For those who know 79-year old Somnathda well, his uncompromising stand is no surprise. That he is an individual thinker is obvious even from the walls of his spartan home — only two frames share space there, portraits of Rabindranath Tagore and Jyoti Basu, both clearly people he idolises. No Vladimir Lenin, no Karl Marx and no Friedrich Engels — the standard icons of Marxist ideology.

But then defiance is a character trait that showed up early in Chatterjee’s nature. His father, Nirmal Chandra, was a president of the Hindu Mahasabha and a confidant of Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Despite this pedigree, Chatterjee chose to join the CPM in 1968, an exercise in personal will that has been manifested time and again.

In 1971, he won an interim election — caused by the death of his father, the representative from Bolepur — as an independent supported by the CPM. Subsequently, he’s been re-elected nine times to the Lok Sabha as a CPM candidate, losing just once to Mamata Banerjee in Jadavpur in 1984.

But despite a near four decade association with the CPM, Chatterjee has never been an insider. He is still not a member of the party Politburo — an unlikely possibility now — and was made a member of the Central Committee in the late 90s only on Basu’s insistence.

He is not hated, but the party faithful say that his having a mind of his own — and a brutally frank tongue — creates a big stumbling block. In 1996, when Basu lost his chance to be prime minister, he himself just called the CPM’s refusal to allow him to assume the post a “historic blunder”. It was the much more outspoken Chatterjee who said to anybody who would listen, within the party and in interviews to the media, what a big mistake it had been. He said it was time the Marxists stopped what he called ‘backseat driving’. “Bengal cannot afford to be backroom boys anymore,” he told his friends.

But if he’d been critical of the party hardliners and their propensity to control, he hasn’t spared even those he’s close to—if he’s disagreed with their views. Despite knowing that Basu was a staunch CITU (Confederation of Indian Trade Unions) leader, Chatterjee openly voiced his dislike of the manner in which CITU allowed the closure of jute mills as and when talks failed with the managements. “Closure is the last resort. Take that only when you are left with no option,” he once said.

Sensing his tension with trade union bodies, Basu pushed him as chairman of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC). The energetic Chatterjee immediately began canvassing for private investment in his state: he signed a record 100 plus MoUs with companies for projects. It’s a different matter that nearly 95 percent of them failed — because Chatterjee found little support for his plans within his party. One idea was to get Coal India to establish a big hospital near the Kolkata’s eastern bypass, the peripheral road that connects the airport to the city centre. The idea never got beyond the stone-laying ceremony.

Reverses such as this did not rattle his composure, nor his efforts. In fact, he told his colleagues in WBIDC not to lose heart and to remain in touch with India’s top industrialists. “You need to erase the negative impression the world has about West Bengal,” he’d say. That ability to maintain ideology and understand the need for private investment has not been his only strength. His legal acumen is noted: in 1984, appearing on behalf of the West Bengal government, he won a landmark case in which the Supreme Court declared that the judiciary should not interfere with the country’s election process. The case revolved around whether an election could be stopped because all the voters’ names were not on the list. Chatterjee contended that once started, the election could not be stopped and that in India, it wasn’t mandatory that all voters names be on the list.

His detractors (primarily current West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and state industry minister Nirupam Sen) haven’t wanted to challenge Chatterjee’s prowess in open debate. So they have chosen to marginalise him: they reduced his importance in the party and left him to handle small-time projects in Bolepur.

Chatterjee responded by setting up the Sreeniketan and Santiniketan Development Authority and pushed development projects with the same zeal with which he’d once pursued private capital. And when he drew flak from the party (Leftist author-activist Mahasweta Devi had taken him to court for what she claimed was destruction of Santiniketan’s Khowai, or red sand dunes, by a prominent housing project), he fought the case. It was dismissed by the Supreme Court.

Infrastructure is important, Chatterjee told his men in Bolepur, where he set up Geetanjali, arguably West Bengal’s best auditorium, and a state of the art, multi-purpose stadium. “Do not blame me now if you cannot produce classy footballers,” he famously joked.

It’s a simple comment, but it encapsulates his up-front attitude — with him, what you see is what you get. As speaker too — a job for which he was a consensus candidate rather than a direct CPM nominee — his simple reaction to the party whip has been that holding the post meant that he had to be above party politics.

If he’s an unconventional Marxist, there’s little doubt that he is scrupulously honest: his friends recount that when he took up residence at 20, Akbar Road, he discovered that that the norm was that tea, biscuits, phenyl and soap bills were paid from Lok Sabha accounts. “I think I can afford my bathroom expenses. And I can afford a cup of tea for my guests,” said Chatterjee and stopped the practice.

HIS SPEAKERSHIP has not been free of controversy, however: in 2005, Chatterjee was logjammed over his statement that the Supreme Court was encroaching on the right of the legislature by issuing orders on the proceedings of the Jharkhand Assembly. The Opposition also demanded his resignation because he held an office of profit as chairman of the Santiniketan Sriniketan Development Authority. In trademark style, he dismissed the demand, saying since he did not profit from the office, it was baseless.

Today, the pragmatic Marxist is ranged against the hardliners of his own party, even as he’s earned universal praise for his firm stand. There are indications that he will soon put in his papers from the Lok Sabha and, indeed, from the CPM. He’s refused to comment on the future, though people close to him such as his son, Pratap, suggest he will stay away from politics, in Santiniketan.

Visitors to Bolepur will find its red soil blends with the CPM flags fluttering along the road to Santiniketan. But that’s where the party line stops — for Bolepur is Somnath country.

If post July 22, Chatterjee’s future is uncertain, the man himself seems to have no doubt about his own rectitude. And as he held centre stage during the parliamentary debate and trust vote — and is the man to whom the whole country looks for a resolution to the cash for votes drama — it seemed clear that not only is this man a Marxist but a Renaissance man, a man who would question dogma, who would choose principle over party, indeed a man for all seasons. •