Somnath Chatterjee, a former speaker of the Lok Sabha and a former member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is a disappointed man. He is disappointed with the lack of leadership plaguing his former party, the growing prominence of religion in Indian politics, and the state of the nation and its judiciary. In July 2008, the Politburo of the CPI(M) expelled Chatterjee for “seriously compromising the position of the party.” After the Left parties had withdrawn support from the Indo-US nuclear deal that month, Chatterjee had refused to step down from the position of speaker of the Lok Sabha despite both implicit and explicit requests from the party leadership, leading to his expulsion. At the time, Chatterjee was a ten-time member of parliament and the first member of the CPI(M) to be appointed speaker.
On 16 May 2017, Parul Abrol, an independent journalist based in Delhi, visited Chatterjee at his house in Kolkata. Chatterjee spoke candidly on a range of issues—from the growing influence of the Bharatiya Janata Party across the country to the failure of the CPI(M) to execute the Tata Nano project at Singur. He also spoke about Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the CPI(M), and recounted Yechury’s efforts to persuade Chatterjee to return to the party. Chaterjee told Abrol that he refused the offer since the party rules required an expelled member to file for membership again, and he did not believe he had done anything to warrant either the expulsion or the request for membership.
Parul Abrol: Why do you think the BJP rose to power in the manner that it did?
Somnath Chatterjee: This is the danger of using religion for politics. It is easy to rouse people with slogans of religion in danger, of a particular community suffering from greater problems, and of the failure of other parties to deliver [change]. What happened in Uttar Pradesh [the BJP’s victory in the state elections] is shudder-inducing. They are romping home elsewhere also. In Assam, they never had any influence and [now] they have the state. Kerala and West Bengal, are somewhat …
SC: Resisting, but not so much on principle. Not against religious fundamentalism, it is somehow to remain in power. The fight is not on [the] principle that India should get rid of this type of politics—divisive politics. That is the weakness of our state right now. It is dangerous to decide the progress or development of a country based on a particular religion, sect, or language. But here, we are trying to create divisions. The primacy of religion is dividing people. If you are fighting for one religion, you are necessarily becoming against other religions and that is contrary to democratic ideas.
PA: Were you surprised by the appointment of Adityanath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh?
SC: It’s a very deliberate choice, no doubt about it. After they got such success in the Uttar Pradesh election, this is their experiment. [It is a] very calculated experiment—to appoint a person like him and see the reaction of the people. God help this country!
PA: What do you think of Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
SC: Good actor. Quite ruthless, good showman. He’s got a demography behind him. He is helping his party spread but [I don’t know] how many people realise the danger. He is organising these public meetings, winning elections, for that he has [been bestowed with] some sort of a halo, but is it helping the country?
PA: What kind of institutional changes do you see taking place under the current government?
SC: The empathy of the ruling party towards a particular religion has become a very important matter for the country at the moment. This empathy, that Hindus are in majority and therefore they should rule, in a country like India [with] such a [large] percentage of people following other religions, will be self-destructive. Governance and religion cannot be a question of compatibility. It is a question of different areas of functioning altogether. Religion is a personal matter. Governance is a matter which is different. So I don’t think they will be very successful. Maybe in some states like Gujarat, industry benefitted. But the whole approach is keeping some out. That is my worry—this is against the democratic ethos.
In the judiciary also, already the attempt is very clear. Suddenly there is an attempt to select the judges. Of course, there have been mistakes earlier also, but there was ultimately some judicial intervention also. Now that is gone.
As citizens of India, we have a right to consider the good or bad [decisions] of the administration, and to express our view. That is also getting difficult.
PA: It is apparently getting difficult in the parliament as well. I was attending a conference of The Media Project, an international network of journalists, in New Delhi in December 2016. A journalist who covers the parliament spoke about how the current speaker doesn’t allow arguments of the opposition to be on record. If this is true, what do you think are the implications?
SC: That question presumes that the current speaker is not doing her duties properly. I never comment on any speaker’s action.
But it is a difficult job, I can tell you that. Not only during my time, even before that. There is a new method in parliament that they won’t let it function. During my time also, the leader of the opposition would call me up in the morning and say, “Today we will not let the Parliament function.” I said, “Why not?” “No, we have decided.” I used to call many editors and owners of newspapers also and say, “Please don’t publish what is not duly happening in the parliament.” If you give publicity to those who create disruptions, they get more political advantage. But a good debate is never reported properly. There have been good speeches, good discussions on many matters. This is bad publicity for the parliament on the whole.
PA: What do you think happened with the Left?
SC: It is a leadership failure, of course. It started with [the former] Mr general secretary earlier, Mr [Prakash] Karat. Instead of the party expanding, the party tried to give importance to its leaders and lost touch with the people—the common people, the fighting people, the working class.
That was the basis on which the party expanded in Bengal and became very popular. They really worked for the common people. But after [the deaths of] Jyoti Basu and Pramod Dasgupta in West Bengal, and [Harkishan Singh] Surjeet at the centre [the three were among the nine founding members of the CPI(M)], the [former] general secretary got complete hold of the party. Earlier, people felt that the CPI(M) is a friend of mine, friend of my family. But later on, they found that nobody was standing beside them. The government was in power for 34 years [in Bengal], nobody thought [the CPI(M) could lose].
PA: There was a lot of resentment against the Left government in Bengal after its controversial acquisition of land for a Tata manufacturing plant in Singur, in 2006.
SC: Our government was totally incompetent in tackling the situation. I know party people from the district, they were not given any hearing. They wanted to represent the situation. The Singur problem would have been solved within two days. An opposition party sitting there, putting the state in total disarray, controlling the affairs of the state—the government came across as an incompetent government. Unfortunately, that was the impression. The ordinary members said, “We shall go there and remove them,” but Buddhadeb [Bhattacharya, the former chief minister of West Bengal and a member of the CPI(M)] never agreed to that.
People have to have faith in the leadership, but that faith in the party was lost. It was disastrous. The question became—whom to go to? It became an office bound party, by office I mean with branch offices where people gossip. I shall die somewhat disappointed, somewhat disillusioned.
PA: When the Aam Aadmi Party won in Delhi, did you think that it came from a space that the Left had not considered entering?
SC: That I agree with. But then, why [was the party powerful in] just Bengal and Kerala? That is because of the leadership. There were leaders like Jyoti Basu, Pramod Dasgupta, Hare Krishna Konar—people still love them. In Kerala, there was Namboodaribad, Gopalan [two other founding members of the CPI(M)]. People knew they were friends and leaders. But there has not been even an attempt to see new leaders come up from the youth. Today there is clamour for young leadership in the party—why? In West Bengal also, there is no change in the leadership and people have really voted against them. Not a single youth leader has been given prominence. I don’t want to say much about them [the CPI(M)]. This is a very sorry part of my life.
PA: What prospects do you see for the BJP in Bengal?
SC: They are already the second party. Earlier we hardly ever heard of the BJP here, I mean active BJP. [Now] it is apparently making some impression in Bengal also.
PA: Do you see it winning in the state?
SC: I won’t be surprised. Unfortunately, that may happen. I hope it isn’t in my lifetime.
PA: What about the Congress?
SC: They should realise that they shouldn’t let go of the important role they played during the Independence movement, should not surrender to parties that are trying to divide the people. They should have a future but they also seem to have a leadership problem.
PA: Do you think a ban on beef is possible in Bengal?
SC: Yes. I think it is entirely possible. Although it shouldn’t be done. I hope it is not done. You cannot interfere with people’s choice of food.
What is this whole issue of gau raksha [cow protection]? How does it help the country? What is its importance to the people? People will decide what to eat and how to eat—how is the government concerned about that? People are being killed on these grounds. I don’t see any improvement in my time.
PA: What are your views on the current debate around nationalism?
SC: Why should this question be asked at all? Who is a nationalist? If [one goes] by definition, it means one who fights for the nation, who believes in nationhood, and will work for the country, will work for the people. I don’t think many people have that wide an objective. Unfortunately, our multi-party system has divided the people more than having the view that country comes first. And now with religion being added to this question—that nationalism means including religion or not—this is weakening our option for unity.
I am sorry I’m rather despondent, but the dreams we had on 15 August of 1947—I was a student then, the whole of Calcutta was on the streets, there were spontaneous processions and celebrations. The expectations, the hope, the honour to be an independent country—what they would do for a country that had been exploited by foreigners. It’s been 70 years and people’s promises have not been fulfilled.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Parul Abrol is an Independent Journalist based out of New Delhi. She has worked with the Hindustan Times and IANS among other organisations. Her articles have been published in The Caravan, Tehelka, Financial World, and MediaVoice. She writes on politics and issues related to development and society.