Committed parliamentarian
Reviewed by V. Eshwar Anand

Keeping The Faith: Memoirs of a Parliamentarian
By Somnath Chatterjee.
Pages 397. Rs 499.

IT is not always easy for a celebrity to do memoirs, recapitulating his career in public life over a span of four decades. The writer, an outstanding parliamentarian, has done a splendid job.

A Barrister, Somnath Chatterjee’s entry into politics was as sudden as his decision not to contest the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and thus giving a break to his 38-year innings in Parliament. As he was doing well in the Bar, his father, N.C. Chatterjee, himself a Barrister and parliamentarian, told him not to venture into the uncertain future of politics.

However, his mother, Binapani, who taught him how to lead a life of simple living and high thinking, made a pertinent point: he could join whichever profession he liked, but no one should ever be able to question his integrity, probity and rectitude and charge that he was corrupt. Undoubtedly, Mr Chatterjee lived up to the expectations of his parents — and of the nation.

Of all his achievements, his firm refusal to resign as the Lok Sabha Speaker in 2008 following a fiat by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat over the party’s differences with the UPA government on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal, stands out. It is a unique example of his strong commitment to constitutional values and upholding the majesty of Parliament and the high office he held with distinction.

He made it clear to the CPM bosses that following his unanimous election as Speaker, he ceased to represent the party in Parliament anymore. Consequently, he not only kept the Speaker’s post above party politics but also set an exemplary example by giving precedence to Parliament and the Constitution over the cause of the party. As a CPM MP, he was always proud of being called a Marxist. Naturally, when he was unceremoniously expelled from the party following his refusal to quit the Speaker’s post, he was deeply disturbed over the treatment meted out to him and called his expulsion as "the saddest day in his life."

The writer had an uninterrupted career as an MP for 38 years since 1971 (with just a year’s break following his defeat in December 1984 Lok Sabha elections at the hands of Mamata Banerjee (Congress) by less than 20,000 votes from Jadavpur in Kolkata. Interestingly, he returned to the Lok Sabha in a by-election in December 1985 by defeating Siddhartha Shankar Ray (Congress) from Bolpur in West Bengal.

The country passed through several upheavals in the past four decades, which he has lucidly presented in the book. In his inimitable style, he recollects some important debates in Parliament together with his own contribution.

His antagonism towards the Congress and the style of functioning of successive Congress governments at the Centre was well known. A staunch critic of the Emergency (1975-77), he gives vivid details about how the government had unleashed a reign of terror during the Emergency. He was particularly aghast at the shabby treatment meted out to his mentor and MP, Jyotirmoy Basu, at Haryana’s Hisar jail. Incidentally, he learnt his lessons on Parliament from him, his father and Prof. Hiren Mukherjee, among others.

A true democrat, he is totally opposed to any form of dictatorship. A champion of civil liberties and the rule of law, he fought tooth and nail against the government’s repressive measures through such legislative enactments as the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), the National Security Act (NSA) and the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA).

He is a champion of the working class and the trade union movement. His role during the 1974 Railwaymen’s strike was commendable. He writes about how Railwaymen were peremptorily dismissed during the 21-day strike without even an inquiry, a show-cause notice or a charge-sheet.

He and his colleagues in the Bar contributed funds and filed petitions challenging the "illegal orders" dismissing the Railwaymen in the Calcutta High Court. Subsequently, the court allowed the petitions, set aside the dismissals and ordered the employees’ reinstatement.

Mr Chatterjee gives a graphic account of his role as the Lok Sabha Speaker. He handled important debates with tact, grace and authority and never tolerated indiscipline in the House. He was fair and objective in his duties and he often pulled up ministers and members who were not present in the House when their questions were taken up.

Significantly, he championed the cause of the independence and supremacy of Parliament and never accepted any encroachment into its domain by the judiciary. He is a strong believer of the doctrine of separation of powers between the three pillars of the Constitution — the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary.

The Lok Sabha TV is his brainchild. He sincerely hopes that it would function with a high degree of professionalism and autonomy and enhance the esteem of parliamentary institutions.