RIGHT Foot Forward
Why Somnath Chatterjee was a 'bhadralok' among Communists
But what would have definitely saddened him is the continuing decline of his erstwhile party.
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Somnath babu was a "bhadralok" among Communists. The "Babu" tag is used very sparingly among Bengali comrades. So, other than Jyoti Basu, who was referred to as Jyoti Babu, others were mostly referred to as "Da" — short for Dada in Bengali. So it is always Anil-da, Biman-da. But, in the case of Somnath Chatterjee, babu and da were used interchangeably indicating how easily he transcended levels among associates. As one of the leading lawyers of Calcutta High Court and senior advocate of the Supreme Court, he exuded gravitas. But among party colleagues and co-workers he was "my dear" (another Bengali expression connoting warm and friendly) Dada.
Interestingly, Somnath Chatterjee's father, Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, a renowned advocate himself, perhaps a more accomplished lawyer than his son, was a Hindu revivalist and one of the founding members of Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha. However, that did not come in the way of Nirmal Chatterjee agitating for the Communist Party of India (CPI), when it was banned by Jawaharlal Nehru's government in 1948.
Later, after the dissolution of Hindu Mahasabha, Nirmal Chatterjee became a member of the Lok Sabha twice as an independent member supported by the CPI. The background is important as it provides the context to understanding Somnath Chatterjee's liberal disposition despite being a card carrying member of the CPI(M).
It was his father's association with leaders like Jyoti Basu that brought Somnath babu close to the Communists. Chatterjee maintained his friendship with Jyoti babu right till his last days much after he was expelled from the party.
In his later years, Somnath Chatterjee spent most of his time at Santiniketan (Photo: Subir Halder)
After Nirmal babu's demise Somnath da contested from his Lok Sabha seat as an independent candidate supported by the CPI(M) in 1971.
He was subsequently re-elected nine times from the same constituency of Jadavpur, except on one occasion in 1984 when he was defeated by Mamata Banerjee because of a pro-Congress sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi's death.
As a parliamentarian, he belonged to the old genre of stalwarts like Hiren Mukherjee and Bhupesh Gupta, who commanded respect across party affiliations. They do not make MPs like them anymore.
In 2004, Somnath babu shifted his base to Bolpur (Santiniketan) and was elected from there to the 14th Lok Sabha, his 10th stint in Parliament. It was during this term that he became the Speaker as a unanimous choice. The rest, as they say, is history.
What stands out in the episode that followed, when he ignored the party's whip and voted in favour of the Nuclear Deal, is that it was not done as a revolt against the party but with a conviction to do what he felt was right for the country, rising above partisan politics. It is this quality, to be able to keep political loyalty and constitutional propriety separate, which defines people of Somnath Chatterjee's generation.
The subsequent humiliation that he had to face from the party, at the insistence of a cussed politburo chief, did not make him bitter. Someone else in his place would have easily crossed over the aisle or contested the next election as an independent. The Trinamool Congress would have been only too happy to support. But that would have been out of character for a quintessential bhadralok like him. So, he preferred to fade into retirement while being available to old comrades who came for his advice.
More recently, with a change of guard at the helm of the CPI(M), there were murmurs in the politburo to get him back into the fold. However, one reckons, it would have been beneath his dignity to even entertain such a suggestion.
In his later years, Somnath babu spent most of his time at Santiniketan and was very unhappy about having to move back to Kolkata for reasons of health, since Bolpur did not offer the best of medical facilities.
He was keen on restoring Santiniketan to its pristine glory and developing it as a tourist destination. The latter idea, especially a plan to set up a golf course and amusement park, did not find favour with the old residents - who acerbically taunted that he should change Bolpur to Somnathpur.
However, the grand plan had to be shelved as it met with stiff resistance from activists like Mahasweta Devi. A decision that, in hindsight, Somnath babu may not have regretted.
But what would have definitely saddened him is the continuing decline of his erstwhile party and disappearance of the liberal democratic spirit and bipartisanship in a highly polarised world of present-day politics.