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A gentle communist versus a fanatic inquisitor: Somnath Chatterjee was a democratic socialist and a humanist

By Bhaskar Sur*
An age came to a close when Somnath Chatterjee (b1929), the eminent parliamentarian and former speaker of the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of Indian Parliament) breathed his last. Chatterjee had an elite, conservative background. His father NC Chatterjee was the general secretary of the Hindu Mahasabha, the progenitor of the present-day BJP, the fundamentalist party in power. Hindu Mahasabha was conservative, but not really a fundamentalist organization.
He was educated at Kolkata and London. It is really surprising for him to have come close to the Communist ideology and later join the CPI (Marxist) with youthful enthusiasm qualified by a barrister's legal acumen. He was elected to Parliament for no less than ten times, and in 1996 he was awarded Eminent Parliamentarian by the House. Later, in 2004, he was unanimously elected the Speaker of the House.
It seems even the BJP had a soft corner for him as the son of an illustrious father. He proved to be perhaps the best Speaker in the history of the Indian Parliament. He was always impartial, wise and witty, wielding his authority with a gentle firmness.
It also forced him to a principled 'independent and unbiased' stance against the party's diktat to vote for the reckless no-confidence motion in July 2008. He declined and was expelled by Prakash Karat, the quixotic general secretary, and his fanatic coterie inside the party. While Chatterjee rose in stature, the CPI-M was discredited, particularly in Bengal. The Left, unwittingly, paved the ground for the rise of the extreme right. The Stalinist Left has a knack for this.
This brings us to some fundamental questions about the Indian Left – its ambivalence about the parliamentary politics. As Leninists they see parliament as a pigsty, but as a part of democratic politics they reluctantly smear themselves in its filth. Their actual programme is to undermine the phony bourgeois democracy and replace it with a 'Real One’ – the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
So far I know, the CPI-M never formally rejected this dictatorial ambition; all they do is to present it under the garb of such pleasant euphemism as "People's Democracy” – the kind of democracy the Chinese enjoyed under Mao. In this hypocritical position it is really difficult to function as a good parliamentarian, committed, as one must be to democracy, Parliament and the Constitution.
The social democrats never had any such moral uneasiness as they rightly and sincerely reject dictatorship in any form and affirm their faith in democracy. This blind faith in the ability of the dictatorship to deliver and its miraculous power to solve problems make communists either hypocrites or reactionaries. Despite these severe ideological constraints, Chatterjee, like Bhupesh Gupta, Hiren Mukherjee or Jyoti Basu before him, made his mark as an outstanding parliamentarian. It is mainly because their liberal upbringing.
At his heart he knew dictatorship is a hateful and archaic thing and communists for better have to function in a democracy forcing the real issues against all odds. Now their model dictatorships have either collapsed or have got metamorphosed into corrupt plutocracies. When will communists come out of the time capsule and accept the verdict of history by formally accepting social democracy? The time is fast running out for you, comrades!
Another vital issue is related to it. Party 'ideologues", like Prakash Karat, are opposed to it. The dictatorship requires some priests – theorists and inquisitors – who rise to power through a glib tongue, chicanery and their knowledge of Communist scriptures. They need not face the benighted electors who may not elect them.
So the mundane and unrewarding task of fighting elections must be left to activists, who are with the people, or elites, mostly belonging to the upper castes, commanding respect and enjoying acceptability of the masses, who are still under Brahminical hegemony. Chatterjee belonged to the second type. People respected him, but he was never a people's man.
On his part, he never raised questions which he ought to – if we can do without the market, the Brahminical grip over the party or need to formally accept social democracy making a break with the dark, discredited dictatorial tradition. This, however, didn't prevent him to court the multinationals to invest in his home state Bengal .But then such contradictions and the resulting hypocrisies are part of the Leninist tradition .With all his compromises he had to face the party inquisition, ironically for doing the right thing .He was expelled in a most humiliating manner.
It deeply pained him, almost broke him despite the acclaim he got from a grateful nation. Karat never faced the electorate but he had the audacity to expel someone elected for ten times and a speaker at that. This is the abominable Bolshevik tradition based on falsehood, regimentation and terror. Chatterjee, besides being a democratic socialist, was also a humanist and rationalist. He donated his body to a medical collage.
Socialist salute to Comrade Chatterjee! Let his honesty, courage, commitments to democratic values and, above all, humanism inspire others in this Hour of Darkness!
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*Source: Author's Facebook timeline

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