Former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee dies in Kolkata hospital

Former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee died in a Kolkata hospital on Monday morning, days after he was admitted with a kidney ailment. He was 89.

Chatterjee was admitted to Belle Vue Clinic on June 28. He was discharged on August 5 but taken to the hospital again on August 9, when a dialysis was performed on him. He was put on ventilation on Friday.

A 10-time member of the Lok Sabha, Chatterjee was one of the most respected parliamentarians of the country.

The son of barrister Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, a prominent parliamentarian of the Hindu Mahasabha – the ideological forerunner of Bharatiya Janata Party, Chatterjee joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist), of which he was a member fro 1968 to 2008.

Chatterjee first contested for the Lok Sabha in 1971 from Burdwan constituency, a seat that fell vacant after the incumbent, his father, died that year. He won nine more elections to the Lower House.

He was first elected as the member of Parliament in 1977 in the Lok Sabha from Jadavpur constituency and reelected in 1980. In 1984, he was defeated by Mamata Banerjee, then a 29-year-old Congress worker.

From a byelection in 1985 to 2005, he won seven consecutive polls from Bolpur constituency in Birbhum district. He won the Outstanding Parliamentarian award in 1994.

Somnath Chatterjee’s ties with the CPI(M) was severed dramatically on July 23, 2008, when the party issued a statement expelling him on grounds of “seriously compromising the position of the party”. Chatterjee was a central committee member then.

In a politburo meeting where the expulsion decision was ratified, everybody except Sitaram Yechuri supported his exit. However, none of the politburo members from West Bengal such as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Biman Bose were present in the meeting.

The decision came after he refused to toe the diktat of the party and resign as the speaker of the Lok Sabha when the Left party decided to withdraw its support to the United Progressive Alliance I government led by Manmohan Singh over the signing of the India-US nuclear agreement.

It was during his term as the speaker of the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-2009) that DD Lok Sabha was replaced by Lok Sabha TV, a step that was recognised as a step in increasing transparency of Parliament.

A section of the CPI(M) also felt that Chatterjee was one of the serious alternatives to take over as the chief minister of West Bengal after Jyoti Basu stepped down in November 2000 after a 23-year term.

Chatterjee also had made a contribution to West Bengal’s transition from a state in the grip of obstructionist policies to one earnestly seeking private investment to increase employment opportunities and overall development.

As the chairman, he piloted the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation for about 10 years from 1994, when former chief minister Jyoti Basu began inviting private investments.

Somnath Chatterjee was close to Basu and led the thrust of the veteran communist leader to transform the state that suffered a strong anti-investor image due to years of ‘naysayer’ politics.

In June 2011, just about a month after assuming charge in West Bengal, chief minister Mamata Banerjee sent Partha Chatterjee, then the industry minister, to take Chatterjee’s advice on how to take the state forward in the path of development.

An archetypal ‘bhadralok’, Chatterjee obtained a degree in law from Middle Temple in London. He was born in Assam’s Tezpur and educated at Kolkata’s Presidency College before moving to Cambridge.

Chatterjee is survived by son Pratap, a lawyer, and two daughters Anushila and Anuradha.

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