Chatterjee makes history

Indian Parliament made history a few days ago when Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee staged a walkout from the house. The speaker could have sent out of the house the members casting aspersions on his rulings. But he wanted to see if a Yogi-like behaviour could move the Commissars to reason. Exasperated and helpless, Chatterjee used the Gandhian method of expressing protest in the hope that his withdrawal from the house would appeal to the conscience of the erring members. It made no difference to them. That such a situation was in the making was clear when Chatterjee said a day earlier that his current stint in Parliament was "the worst period of his life." He was agonised by frequent interruptions and disruptions in the house. But the last straw was the accusation by the CPI-M, the party to which he belonged from the day he joined politics that his ruling smacked of discrimination. The party was referring to his action in suspending its member, Abdullakutty, for a day for flaunting papers that amounted to showing disrespect to the chair. The Left was in fact unhappy over the speaker's rejection of a motion that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had lied to the house in respect of Indo-US nuclear deal. I have watched Parliament proceedings practically from the day when it began its sittings in 1952. There have been some great speakers like G V Mavalnkar, the first one, M A Ayyangar and P A Sangma, who have left their mark. Although they belonged to the Congress party, their rulings were never challenged, nor looked down upon. Historians and political analysts quote them even today. The annals of parliamentary democracy have become richer because of their rulings. After a long time came Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, who was nurtured in the ideology of communism, but gave rulings that evoked respect even in the right-wing BJP. He gave a popular touch to the office and came to represent a viewpoint which was neither black nor white. It was only grey, the consensus. He spoke from his heart when he challenged the members to show him any proof if he had ever prevented an issue from being raised. He did not mind being targeted but he did not want the malice which some members of his own party, CPI-M, showed in their attitude. This hurt him the most because he saw that in their effort to bring him down they brought down the esteem of the chair. Strange, the CPI-M first forced him to take up the speakership and then turned against him when all he did was to carry out the onerous responsibility cast on his shoulders. He preferred the call of duty to the party's directive to resign. I do not think that the session relating to the vote of confidence in the prime minister could have been conducted as objectively and sensitively as Chatterjee did. He annoyed the party, not used to disobedience of its directive. But he saved the parliamentary system because he alone could have staved off the dangers facing the nation if the vote of confidence had not been taken to its logical conclusion. Somnath Chatterjee does not forget even for a day that he rose to prominence in politics because of the CPI-M. He still considers himself a member of the party and does not stop saying so. But then the party wants a bonded slave, not a person who upholds independence of the office when challenged. Fortunately, the Lok Sabha has only a few months to go before its tenure ends in April. I wish Chatterjee would come back to Parliament. But he is determined to retire. He has already built a small house at Kolkata where he wants to spend the rest of his life. The loss is that of the nation which will be bereft of Chatterjee's services. He still has many years of active life left in him. The speaker has many a time said that the judiciary should be sensitive to the power of Parliament and the legislatures because they represent the aspirations of people. Some Supreme Court judges like Justice Katju have pointed out that the judges have taken up the work that belongs to the executive. But this has not stopped the judiciary from poking its nose where it should not. The media, an important wing, is dominated by the corporate sector, which is on a spree to sell not realising that consumerism and commercialism which it has brought in the process is harming the country. Chatterjee's remark that P3 has become P1 has the ring of truth because the best of speeches in Parliament are ignored while some wishy-washy account appears. People are bound to infer that nothing worthwhile takes place in Parliament. The demand that meetings of parliamentary committees should be opened to the media is worth considering. But the problem will be what is newsworthy. When it comes to Parliament, the media has to bear in mind that the dignity and importance of the two houses should not be trifled with. Without the awareness of what is right, and a desire to act according to what is right, there may be no realisation of what is wrong. When he steps down, an era of independent and sensitive people would have come to an end. There are not many left. But Chatterjee can go with the satisfaction that what he did to raise the standard of Parliament debates and its decisions changed the house from being the talking shop to a reflective and thinking institution. In the rumble and tumble of politics and in the atmosphere where the violation of rule of law is paraded as victory, Chatterjee's effort to raise the stature of parliamentary democracy has not been given its due. But the day will come when Parliament attains the respect and pre-eminence it should have in a system where people elect the representatives without fear or favour. Services of Speaker Somnath Chatterjee will then be recalled endlessly. At that time, even the CPI-M may come around to take the credit that after all Chatterjee was its member. The writer is a former member of the Indian Parliament and senior journalist E-mail:

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