Goodbye Somnath Chatterjee, The Politician Who Always Surprised Me

You could anticipate the anti-politician in Somnath Chatterjee, but it would still surprise you every single time.

4 min read
Goodbye Somnath Chatterjee, The Politician Who Always Surprised Me

My interactions with Somnath Chatterjee were limited to two meetings, a few emails and one text message. And none of them were in my time as a journalist. So why do I feel moved enough by the news of his death today, to pen a first-person blog remembering one of India’s most distinguished parliamentarians?



‘The Anti-Politician’

I vividly remember the day I met the former Speaker at his residence. It was the summer of 2010. I was a 17-year-old student. He was an 80-year-old politician.

I had completed my Class 10 boards the previous year. He had completed 10 terms in Parliament the previous year.

I was ushered into a room full of books. One heavy tome after another, lined wall to wall. I wondered how many he must have read. Was it even possible to have read them all?

A few minutes later, Chatterjee entered wearing a trademark white kurta. He was affable and endearingly polite, which surprised me considerably at the time, given the stereotyped images of politicians we grow up seeing.

We spoke for a few minutes about the invitation I had brought along (more on that later). At the end of that short but memorable interaction, Somnath Chatterjee had left me wondering, “What sort of a politician is this man? Certainly not the kind we see in pop culture and Parliament disruptions!”


Eight years later, I understand that politicians aren’t always as villainous as movies would have you believe, nor are they the raucous caricatures that montages of Parliament ruckus seem to suggest.

But in these eight years, I have also understood that I wasn’t all that off the mark when I thought that Somnath Chatterjee was almost an anti-politician.

One day, while officiating as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, he chided the unruly MPs who were disrupting the House by saying,

I think the Parliament should be adjourned sine die (with no appointed date for resumption). People’s money will be saved. Useless allowances should not be given to all of you.
Somnath Chatterjee, then Speaker of the Lok Sabha

A politician mooting that politicians’ allowances be taken away for doing the most politician-ish of things, disrupting Parliament? Yup, whether in his friendly avatar at his South Kolkata residence or in his admonishing self as Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee was quite a surprise. And a welcome one at that.


The Invitation

A few days before our meeting, I had drafted an email inviting him to be the chief guest at our school’s annual Model United Nations event. The email mentioned my mobile number, just in case. It was more of a signoff formality than anything else. Little did I know that when my phone pinged a couple of days later, it would be him. A former Speaker of the Lok Sabha *texting* me. Whaaat?

I remember almost jumping in joy as soon as I opened the unread message. But it wasn’t because he had accepted the invite.

It was because he had started the message with the words, “Dear Meghnadbabu”. What politician gives a 17-year-old that much respect?

Somnath Chatterjee.

He did graciously accept the invitation to preside over the inauguration of La Martiniere Calcutta Model United Nations 2010, and spoke to the students assembled from across the country on peace and conflict. But no memory of that day is as indelible as the memory of that message, “Dear Meghnadbabu”.


The Rejection

Somnath Chatterjee had represented the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Parliament for close to 40 years. But in 2008, when the CPI(M) decided to pull out of the Congress-led UPA over their disagreement on the Indo-US 123 Nuclear Agreement, Chatterjee would find himself out of favour, and indeed out, of the party.

The CPI(M) wanted Chatterjee to step down before a two-day special Session of the Lok Sabha, and vote against the government during the trust vote.

In usual circumstances, defying the Left diktat was unthinkable. Jyoti Basu, arguably the Left’s tallest leader ever, couldn’t defy his party when it barred him from attaining the office of the prime minister in the coalition era of the mid-1990s. But Chatterjee would give the Left a surprise that would eventually end his relationship with the party he had served for four decades.

Chatterjee defiantly maintained that as Speaker, he could neither be partisan nor be involved in party politics. A month later, the party expelled him for "seriously compromising the position of the party". Chatterjee later called it "one of the saddest days" in his life. But till the 14th Lok Sabha was dissolved in 2009, Somnath Chatterjee continued to be the Speaker of the House.


Live-Streaming the Lawmakers: Another #SomnathSurprise

Which politician would want the hooliganism that passes off as parliamentary behaviour by fellow netas to be telecast live on TV? How would a neta manage such a feat? Isn’t it foolhardy to even try?

Surprise, surprise. Somnath Chatterjee once again. Chatterjee wanted the proceedings in the House to be live-streamed across the country. Even Dr Manmohan Singh thought that parliamentarians were likely to be extremely disgruntled with such a move. But as a result of Chatterjee’s persistence, the 24x7 Lok Sabha TV was established.

I used to see citizens lining up to see what happens inside Parliament. It is the people’s right to know what their lawmaker is doing. It should not be that netas take votes and go away and the people are left clueless as to what they are doing. There were many doubts. Even Manmohan Singh said that the MPs would not be too happy about it. There was a lot of opposition, but I didn’t listen to anyone. And in the end, we prevailed.
Somnath Chatterjee

You could anticipate the anti-politician in Chatterjee, but it would still surprise you every single time. From asking why disruptive MPs should be allowed to draw their salaries to bringing in greater transparency and accountability in the functioning of the House, Chatterjee was, as the award given to him in 1996 said, an ‘Outstanding Parliamentarian’. And for me, he was the leader who always had a surprise up his sleeve.


The Last Surprise

So when my colleague Jaskirat called out to me across the newsroom to break the news of Chatterjee’s demise, it was but one last surprise. It was some time coming, but when it did, I felt that sudden pang. Of losing someone you hardly ever interacted with, but the few times you did left you with memories to cherish.

Dear Somnathbabu, goodbye. May you rest in peace.

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