This is an important book for students studying civics or political science, equally important for those interested in the Indian state. Somnath Chatterjee bestrode the Lok Sabha like a colossus of conscience – that same conscience that led to his being evicted from the Communist Party of India which he had served faithfully for four decades. As the Speaker of the House enforcing discipline, he expelled 10 members who were involved in a ‘cash for votes’ scam issue which caused more controversy. During his time in the Lok Sabha he was known for the speeches that he made orations which highlighted his sterling qualities and focused on the reforms that were needed and the administrative duties that should be performed for the efficient functioning of the Indian democracy.
“Don’t ever forget that democracy is a system of alternatives — of alternative parties, alternative policies, alternative principles, alternative approaches and alternative leaders. In a democracy, today’s Opposition party could be tomorrow’s ruling party and vice versa. This fact enjoins upon us to display a very high degree of tolerance of other people, parties, religions, views and principles. Tolerance is the basic tenet of democracy.” He wrote, thus succinctly summing up his views of the subject and proving that he held by those views through thick and thin.
It speaks volumes for the fact that as a politician he was never defeated in the Lok Sabha elections except on the single occasion in 1984 when he lost to Bengal’s current Chief Minister, the maverick Mamata Banerjee.
Many of these speeches have been brought together in this seminal work. They have been thoughtfully organised into eight sections, ‘Parliamentary Democracy and Politics’, ‘Governance and Politics’, ‘The Media’, ‘The Economy’, ‘Panchayats and Decentralisation’, ‘Education, Youth and Empowerment’, ‘Foreign Relations’ and ‘Miscellaneous Speeches’, which amply cover the wide range of subjects to which Chatterjee devoted his interest.
In his speeches he refers not just to the expulsion of the 10 MPs when he was Speaker, but also to the three-month suspension of four MPs for suspected misuse of MPLADS funds and the investigation into human trafficking charges levied against certain Lok Sabha members. He discusses other issues as well — women’s empowerment, proposed reservations in Parliament, economic reforms with a focus on poor, the Right to Information Act and, of course, the people’s right to recall their representatives, if found wanting. He supported this last issue mainly because he felt that it would anticipate the need to wait till the next set of elections came round to vote unworthy politicians out.
In Chatterjee’s view, parliamentary democracy is the best model for India given the size, the ethnic complexities and the economic disparity of a nation with millions living below the poverty line. He is however not blind to the failings within the system. Religion for example has become part of politics while the Constitutional creed of justice and economic well being for all has become sluggish, to put it mildly. And because of his communist leanings he disapproves of the unabashed capitalism that characterises the Indian state. For Chatterjee democracy stands for reform, an efficient judiciary and a responsible Parliament. And for him it hinges on the well being of the lowest common denominator, the ‘aam aadmi’ or the man on the street.
Certainly many will call Chatterjee idealistic but it is this idealism which has made him one of India’s most respected senior politicians. And he has stood by his ideals in the face of fire. Perhaps the best way to end is by quoting this speech made by the Prime Minister on the last day of the 14th Lok Sabha session: ‘You stood like a rock to defend our best parliamentary traditions, and in doing so have raised the bar for those to follow….”
The Collected Speeches of Somnath Chatterjee
Speaker of the Lok Sabha (2004 – 2008)
Published in India by Westland, 2012
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