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In July 2006, Mr Somnath Chatterjee, as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, was on an official tour of several countries. He came to Paris and the Indian Ambassador invited him for the usual courtesy dinner.
What the Ambassador didn't know was that the Honourable Speaker was an ardent football fan. Mr Chatterjee made it a condition that he should be able to watch the World Cup match of the day.
The Embassy then spent several man-hours arranging for a TV set and cabling in the formal dining room of the Ambassador's residence.
I was the most dispensable guest that night, so was Mrs Ambassador seated next to Mr Chatterjee. As might be expected, there was not much talk. Not being a football fan, I focussed on the wine on the principle that you don't stare a gift horse in the mouth; Mr Chatterjee focussed on the match. He ate very little.
I was reminded of this little incident while reading this book: true to style, Mr Chatterjee is content to be dismissive, a feature that was so distressingly noticeable during his years as Speaker. The irony is that but for his insistence on Parliament proceedings being televised — for which all of India thanks you, Sir — we would never have known just how dismissive he can be.
So whether he is writing about his nemesis, Prakash Karat, or his ideological foes Messrs L. K. Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee, or just about anyone at all, including India's new royal family, the first after the wretched Bahadurshah Zafar's, the reader comes away with the most dismissive of portraits.
No one is bad, of course, except Comrade Karat, who expelled him from the CPM. In his now-familiar admonitory tone Mr Chatterjee makes it clear that he regards Mr Karat as an upstart.
There are also lots of “I told them but they wouldn't listen” sort of anecdotes. For example, in 2004 he told the CPM not to be unreasonable about joining the Government but it didn't listen. In 2008 he advised Karat not to be obstinate about the Indo-US nuclear agreement but he didn't listen. He told the Government what to do on numerous occasions over a quarter of century, but it would not listen. And so on.
True to requirement, he is unable to resist calling the BJP names like religious obscurantists, communalists, and so on. But was not his party full of economic obscurantists and did not Jawaharlal Nehru say once that the biggest threat to India came from Communists and communalists?
Communist by conviction?
Mr Chatterjee also does not explain whether he was a Communist by conviction (as Mr Karat doubtless is) or merely a member of the party because it had nominated him to the Burdwan seat when his father decided to quit politics in 1970. His account on page 20 leaves the reader wondering.
“I was not a member of the party and my only contact with the party and some front organisation was in my capacity as a lawyer”. In deciding to contest on a CPM ticket, he says, he was only obeying his father. It seems to have been a marriage of convenience and like all such arrangements, it came to a disastrous end.
We also don't get a sense of which job he enjoyed more, or which one he found more challenging — that of Member of Parliament or its Speaker. It is hard not to suspect that being the sort of person he is — independent, outspoken, self-regarding — he may well have found being a loyal soldier of the party irksome.
Speakership probably released him from those restraints. He could say what he chose and wag his finger at anyone he wanted.
Riding the Communist wave
The fact is that although he became an MP in 1971 for almost a quarter of a century after that he was just another MP, that too of a party that does not encourage individuals to flaunt their flair. It was only the post-1996 political confusion that brought the Communists into prominence outside Bengal and Kerala, and it was only the emergence of the BJP as a major political power that gave them the platform for daily denunciations on 24x7 channels that had arrived by then.
Somnath Chatterjee rode that wave well and became Speaker when it crested in 2004. In 2009 it ebbed and is flowing out under the gentle care of Comrade Karat. It has left Somnath Babu behind, beached as it were, a little lost perhaps, but almost certainly not wondering about a life not too badly spent. He is a good man who would have done far more with his life in better company. Fortunately, however, thanks to Mr Karat, he will not now be judged by the company he kept during his political career.http://twitter.com/umeshshanmugam