New Delhi, Aug 13: With the passing away of former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee on Monday ended a long and illustrious political career spanning 40-odd years. The 89-year-old had suffered a mild heart attack on Sunday but had been on ventilator support for some time now. The former CPI(M) leader and ten-time Lok Sabha MP was the Speaker of the Lok Sabha in the first Congress-led UPA government. He is survived by his widow Renu Chatterjee, son Pratap and two daughters, Anuradha and Anushila.
Born on July 25, 1929, Chatterjee held a BA and an MA, both in law, and received his education from the University of Calcutta and the University of Cambridge. Before joining active politics, Chatterjee took up practice as an advocate. He was a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) for 30 years, from 1968 to 2008. But his political career took off when he was nominated to contest an election following his father’s death in 1971. He became a Member of the Lok Sabha in 1971 and was elected the first time as an Independent supported by the CPI(M). He managed to repeat the feat nine times after that. Only once, in 1984, he lost to Mamata Banerjee in the Jadavpur Lok Sabha constituency. From 1989 until 2004, Chatterjee led his party in the Lok Sabha. He was elected for the tenth time in 2004 as a member of the 14th Lok Sabha. He went on to be unanimously elected as the Speaker of the 14th Lok Sabha. In fact, Chatterjee was just the second pro-tem Speaker, after Ganesh Vasudev Mavalankar, to achieve this feat.
It is not a surprise that he was awarded the ‘Outstanding Parliamentarian’s’ Award in 1996 for his impeccable record because even his political rivals respected him for his oratory and sense of fair play. Chatterjee was known for sticking to his principles. He even defied the party line during Manmohan Singh government’s trust vote on the nuclear deal. The CPI(M) withdrew its support from the Congress-led UPA government and obviously expected Somnath to quit as the Speaker ahead of the trust vote on July 22, 2008. Chatterjee ignored the party’s instructions and stayed on, acting in his capacity as the Speaker during the trust vote.
Reports also suggest that he was not willing to take part in the vote as that would’ve meant siding with the BJP. While the government survived the trust vote, Chatterjee was sacked from the party for violating party discipline. He, however, continued on the Speaker’s post for the rest of the tenure. He called his expulsion “one of the saddest days” of his life but is known to have suggested to future speakers to resign from their parties while serving in that office to help ensure its non-partisan standing.
Chatterjee tackled the issue of his unceremonious sacking from the party that he served for so long in his book, that came out in 2010, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a Parliamentarian. The book is an in-depth study of some of the darkest phases of the history of modern India, including Emergency.