On August 13, 2018, veteran communist leader and former parliamentarian Somnath Chatterjee, took his last breath in a Calcutta hospital. With his death, India has lost an outstanding parliamentarian and an exceptional leader. In times of diminishing reverence for politicians and parliamentarians, he was the cynosure of all, displaying exemplary statesmanship and commitment throughout his illustrious career.
Born in Tezpur, Assam he attended the University of Calcutta earning a master’s degree at the University of Cambridge and a law degree from Middle Temple in London. On his return to India, he practiced law at the Calcutta High Court and Supreme Court of India. His political career began with joining the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — CPIM — and becoming a member of the Lok Sabha in 1971. He was subsequently re-elected nine times. In 2004, during the UPA-I government he was unanimously elected as the speaker of Lok Sabha.
As a Lok Sabha Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee introduced landmark changes and brought great dignity and respect to the office. He discontinued the practice of paying for toiletries and tea from the national exchequer. He was instrumental in starting a full-fledged 24-hour Lok Sabha television channel and telecasting live the Zero Hour proceedings replacing the erstwhile DD Lok Sabha. This was a big step in the line of increasing transparency and accountability of the Parliament.
During his term as the Speaker, CPM withdrew his support from the UPA government on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Despite belonging to the party, Somnath refused to resign as the Lok Sabha Speaker. Displaying the true essence of the Lok Sabha Speaker’s Office he stated that the post of the Speaker is above any party politics. He was defiant, taking the stand that party politics is immaterial to the post of a Lok Sabha Speaker and that he would make the decision for himself instead of just following the commands of the party. Consequently, he was dismissed by his party for taking that stand.
In 2009, he retired from active politics. Throughout his career he was an advocate of separating religion and politics. He believed that governance and religion are two different areas of functioning altogether. A strong believer of the constitutional and democratic values, he always stood up for responsible and ethical governance. Uncommon in Indian politics, he enjoyed the admiration and respect of people across all parties of the political spectrum. Befittingly, he was a recipient of the Outstanding Parliamentarian Award.