Old Veteran’s Tale
- There has been speculation regarding Somnath Chatterjee’s return to the CPI(M). He was expelled in 2008.
- At a meeting with Sitaram Yechury, he ruled it out, citing ill-health
- It’s known that he’s not averse to returning, but wants an invitation from the party. He won’t apply for a return.
- That, however, is against strict party guidelines. Therein lies the impasse regarding Somnath’s re-induction.
“Let me tell you something I have never told anyone,” Somnath Chatterjee says, speaking to Outlook in an interview from his home in Shantiniketan, in the midst of widespread speculation that he is rejoining the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “I will never make that application to the party to take me back. And since that’s a prerequisite for an expelled member to be reinstated I don’t see how it can ever become a reality.”
Ever since Sitaram Yechury took over as CPI(M) general secretary earlier this year, speculation has been rife that the veteran politician will return to the party. Unceremoniously expelled in 2008 during the tenure of Yechury’s predecessor Prakash Karat for refusing to step down as Lok Sabha Speaker even when his party withdrew support to the UPA-I coalition government over the Indo-US nuclear deal, Somnath had earlier told Outlook that he won’t rule out a return, though never under Karat’s watch. So, when on July 9, Yechury and Somnath shared a Calcutta stage along with party stalwarts Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Biman Bose while celebrating the 102 birth anniversary of CPI(M) patriarch Jyoti Basu, a comradely return was widely reported. In fact, Yechury fanned expectations when he told reporters, “There are certain methodologies for such cases. Those...are taking place. You will get to know about it soon.”
On July 19, Yechury visited Somnath in Shantiniketan to inaugurate a women’s college which the latter has started. Their bonhomie over luncheon was apparent to all. “Whether he’d be in the party or not is immaterial, he’s always with us. The party never considers him an outsider,” Yechury said, while answering the question of a possible return for the veteran leader. Somnath agreed: “I was never disconnected from the party’s Bengal unit. And for the rest of my life I’ll remain with them.” Yet a direct response was forthcoming later. “I have no chance of rejoining the party. It is not possible because my health is not good.” But the Bengal unit of the party, as well as national leaders who hold him in high regard have not given up hope.
Speaking to Outlook, Somnath said that, while he is no longer averse to becoming a member again, he will not budge from his decision not to apply. Comrades have read into Somnath’s determined stand a tacit wish to be extended an invitation. Wounded by the five-member politburo decision to expel him and hurt further by the lack of protest by party colleagues, Somnath still considers the day of his expulsion as one of the saddest days of his life. “We can understand his sentiments,” says a CPI(M) leader at the party’s headquarters on Calcutta’s Alimuddin Street. “But there are strict guidelines laid down by the party on all matters and everyone has to abide by them.”
Pointing out that many in the party are eager for Somnath Chatterjee’s return, CPI(M) MP and politburo member Mohammed Salim also explained the difficulties of an invitation, especially a formal or written one. “The party constitution does not allow for it. A new member can be asked to join but not an expelled member...there are issues connected to an expulsion which have to be addressed.” Clearly, it’s a catch 22 situation.
However, according to Salim, invitations are often extended informally and it is expected that an expelled member would take such cues as indicators of the party’s intentions. Insiders reveal that such invitations have gone out to the 85-year-old on many occasions. A CPI(M) leader told Outlook, “At the moment, the party has a severe crisis as far as leadership is concerned.... We are at our lowest in terms of morale. We feel that the Bengal CPI(M) needs a charismatic personality with experience of national politics to bring us out of this rut and Somnath Chatterjee’s name figures in our thoughts in spite of his age. He is experienced, erudite and well-respected.” To Outlook’s question whether he was speaking about a chief ministerial candidate in the likelihood of a Left return in 2016, the leader nodded affirmatively, saying that the people of Bengal may just change their mind and “forgive everything” if this became a reality.
Somnath, however, dismisses the possibility of him playing any role in bringing Bengal out of what he calls the “throes of utter despair”. According to him, the very idea of CPI(M) making a comeback in Bengal is itself fraught with uncertainties. “Fear—dread of physical violence—is keeping party workers and leaders from even coming out of their houses (he narrates how of a party worker in his area went out one night with his face covered to attend a secret meeting at a comrade’s house), forget organising themselves to do the kind of work required to swing public opinion and win an election.”
Somnath, who has called Karat’s style of functioning autocratic, tells Outlook, “I had first warned him (Karat) of the danger signs in Bengal when in the 2008 panchayat elections, key Left areas like South 24 Paraganas were lost to the Trinamool. No action was taken.... Now it’s very difficult to get it all back.”
When pointed out that the atmosphere of ‘fear and physical violence’ are believed to be the legacy of the 34-year-old Left regime, Chatterjee shoots back, “If the Left held on to power with force and intimidation like the present rulers, how is it that they lost the elections in 2008, 2009 and finally 2011?”
While Chatterjee doesn’t discount the role that “excesses in Singur” (when the Left government acquired land for Tata’s Nano factory against the wishes of farmers) played in the ultimate defeat, he blames Karat’s decision to withdraw support to the Centre as the main reason for the debacle. Because the Left’s withdrawal paved the way for a tie-up between the Congress and the Left’s ultimate enemy, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
At the CPI(M) Congress in Vishakhapatnam this year, Bengal leaders supported Yechury against Karat’s candidate, with the likes of Biman Bose barely concealing their pleasure at the outcome. So what changes have been ushered in with the new leadership? “These things take time but there is a will to work for a solution in Bengal and that is the most important thing,” Somnath said. He pointed out that he believes Yechury will try and focus on building up leadership, encouraging the “younger generation” (naming Ritabrata Bandyopadhyay as an example) to come to the fore.
When asked what he’d do in the ‘unlikely’ scenario of him becoming the Bengal CM, he said, “The police has to be reawakened, political opponents have to be given back their voice and education has to be rescued from violence.”
While his protestations of ill-health have put the lid on a return for now, insiders believe it’s the resolution of the prickly, uncertain issue of a formal invitation on which it depends. To have the heft and experience of Somnath on its rolls, the CPI(M) will have to set aside its rules to assuage his wounded honour.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta