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‘Headmaster’ Somnath Chatterjee dead

Our Bureau Kolkata | Updated on August 13, 2018 Published on August 13, 2018

Veteran parliamentarian and only Left Speaker was known for his impartiality

Somnath Chatterjee, former Lok Sabha Speaker and 10-time MP of the CPI(M), passed away at a south Kolkata hospital on Monday morning. He was admitted to a city nursing home last week for a kidney-related ailment. He was 89.

A barrister by profession, Chatterjee was the first and only communist leader to have been elected Speaker of the Lok Sabha. He held the position from 2004 till 2009. Chatterjee was expelled from the CPI(M) in July 2008, days after a no-confidence motion against the Manmohan Singh government, over the Indo-US nuclear deal, was defeated in the Lower House.

He is survived by his wife Renu, a son, and two daughters.

A Jyoti Basu loyalist, he was a member of the CPI(M) Central Committee between 1998 and 2008. He was also the leader of the party in Parliament between 1989 and 2004.

In July 2008, the CPI(M) — with Prakash Karat at the helm of affairs — decided to withdraw its support to the UPA government over the nuclear deal. Chatterjee was asked to step down and vote against the UPA, which he refused to, citing constitutional responsibilities. He believed the position of the Speaker should be independent and unbiased, and above party politics.

He was expelled from the CPI(M) on July 23, 2008. Chatterjee described it as “one of the saddest days” of his life but was never apologetic about the decision.

‘I was right’

Chatterjee earned the reputation of a strict “head master” from the MPs for his impartial conduct. Before he was expelled from the CPI(M), the Left MPs would often grumble that Chatterjee called them last, only to prove his impartiality.

He was instrumental in telecasting Zero Hour proceedings in Parliament. It was during his tenure, in July 2006, that a full-fledged 24-hour Lok Sabha television channel came into being.

In 2005, Chatterjee raised a storm by criticising the country’s Supreme Court for stepping into the shoes of the legislature.

The apex court had then decided to advance the date of the floor test for the Shibu Soren government to prove its majority. Both the UPA and the NDA formations were in favour, but Chatterjee suggested a Presidential reference.

“Someday, once the dust settles, you will realise that I was right (about encroachment on the legislature’s authority),” he reportedly told VK Malhotra, the BJP’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha.

Long stint

Chatterjee was born at Tezpur, Assam, on July 25, 1929, to a Parliamentarian father NC Chatterjee, who was once president of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, and Binapani Debi. He was then educated in Kolkata and the UK.

He was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1971, as a CPI(M)-backed Independent candidate from Burdwan. The seat had been left vacant after his father’s death.

Since then, Chatterjee won nine Lok Sabha terms from Jadavpur and Bolpur constituencies in Bengal. He lost only one election in 1984, to then Youth Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, at Jadavpur constituency.

Bengal’s industrialisation

Chatterjee will be remembered for his pioneering efforts to industrialise Bengal. The CPI(M)-led Left front came to power in 1977, riding on militant trade unionism, which sent capital packing from the State.

The trend continued till the 1980s, when then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu wanted to make amends. Chatterjee then took charge of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) and used his personal influence in promoting the State to industry.

Though the initial flow of investments was low, West Bengal got at least two large deals during the period: the Chatterjee Group’s Haldia Petrochemicals, and MCPI of Mitsubishi Chemicals. MCPI was then the largest Japanese foreign direct investment in India.

Chatterjee quit the WBIDC, soon after Basu stepped down as chief minister in 2000. But investments in the State gained momentum till the unfortunate Singur episode in 2008.

Published on August 13, 2018
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