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July 24, 2008

The prime minister has survived the trust vote on Tuesday but the Indo-US nuclear deal devoured an unlikely victim on Wednesday. The axe fell on Speaker Somnath Chatterjee [Images] with the Communist Party of India-Marxist expelling him for his failure to step down and follow its diktat to vote against the government on the nuclear deal.

The decision was on the anvil since the meeting of the party’s Central Committee last week. It had been kept in reserve till the trust vote was over. All through the trust vote discussion, there was palpable tension between Chatterjee and members from the Left parties.

The Central Committee, the CPI-M’s highest decision-making body, had decided last week that disciplinary action should be taken against Chatterjee for going against the party’s declared position. No one came to his rescue at the CC, sources said. This included Jyoti Basu, Chatterjee’s mentor who could not attend the meet but is believed to have participated via teleconferencing.

Basu is learnt to have advised Chatterjee to step down, when he had gone to Kolkata a week ago to consult with the former West Bengal chief minister. The party also sent CPI-M West Bengal Secretary Biman Bose to Delhi last week and he tried to persuade him to quit the Speaker’s post following the withdrawal of the Left’s support.

The deal has led to churning inside every party, including the Communists.

A member of the CPI-M for four decades and a ten times MP, it is now end of the parliamentary road for Chatterjee. He had declared some time ago that he is not going to contest elections again. The delimitation exercise has converted Bolpur, which he represented many times, into a reserved constituency.

There are two options before him. One, to continue as Lok Speaker as an “unattached” member till the general elections. Two, to quit as Speaker and also resign from the Lok Sabha. One thing that Chatterjee has made clear in the last few days is that he, and not the party, will decide the course of action he takes and its timing.

There are many who believe that he will opt for the second course since he was elected to the Lok Sabha on the CPI-M ticket. The Speaker is scheduled to lead a delegation to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Union meeting in Malaysia from August 1-10.

Chatterjee chose to give primacy to his constitutional role as Speaker over his role as a member of the party and presided over the special session of the Lok Sabha July 21-22. He was not unaware of what lay in store for him. He also wrote to CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat [Images] expressing unhappiness with the party position and voting alongside the BJP on the issue.

CPI-M sources, on the other hand, justified the party action by saying that every member of the party has to fill a form stating that he will submit to the discipline of the party. “Somnath Chatterjee became Speaker as part of a special political arrangement when we decided to support a minority government in 2004 and we lent our person for the post of the Speaker. Once that arrangement disappeared, he should have quit.”

With Chatterjee openly taking a position against the party line, the party had no option but to take action against him,” said a senior leader. “Now that he has become an unattached member, he can do what he thinks best as an individual — resign or continue.”

The issue came to a head when Karat included his name in the list of CPI-M MPs who were withdrawing support to the government. He neither consulted Chatterjee nor included an explanation in the list that Chatterjee had been elected as Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Chatterjee is believed to have felt that this lent credence to the criticism that he was first a party man and then the Speaker. Once an MP becomes the Speaker, he is expected to be above party.

Chatterjee was a serious name for presidential elections last year and might have had Congress support but his party did not favour his candidature.

Since he has been expelled from the party, he now becomes an “unattached” member in the House. He can continue as the Speaker unless someone chooses to bring a vote of no-confidence against him. This is not something that the CPI-M is planning to do.

This is not the first time that the party has chosen to take action against a senior leader. It had not spared its own general secretary and icon B T Ranadive for “leading the party towards a sectarian line” over the Telengana agitation in the fifties. Though it did not expel him, it removed him from party’s elected positions and he spent two years acting as a typist as punishment after “self criticism”.

The party had expelled several others at various times like Nripen Chakravarty, who was the chief minister of Tripura and member of the Politburo, K R Gouriamma, who had been a minister in the Kerala [Images] government, and Saifuddin Chowdhury, CPI-M MP who had advocated a pro-Congress line before the party came to adopt it.

Expulsion from the party often entails a social boycott of the person by the members of the political family, say insiders, and this is not going to be easy for Somnath Chatterjee who has spent the best part of his life in the CPI-M.