When the Communist Party of India (Marxist) withdrew its support to the Manmohan Singh government, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee had before him two choices. He could give up the Speakership and stand with the party which sent him to the Lok Sabha. Or he could reject the party’s suggestion and stand with the house that had made him the Speaker. If he thought solely as a CPI-M man, he could only take the first choice. If, as demanded by the office of the Speaker, he looked at the issue from outside the framework of party politics, the second choice would become more acceptable.
If the report that he informed the party leadership that he did not want to vote with the Bharatiya Janata Party is correct, it is clear that he did not look at the matter solely as the Speaker. As critics have pointed out, the CPI-M has voted with the BJP in the past too. Whenever the party so directed, like other comrades, he had voted with the BJP. But it will be not be proper to characterize his present stand as dishonest on that ground. On the previous occasions, no other way was open to him. This time a new path was available and he took it. He had two different identities as a member elected to the Lok Sabha on the CPI-M ticket and as the Speaker. In the end, he attached more importance his identity as the Speaker. A democratic sensibility that makes it possible to set aside party interests and act in keeping with wider national interests is discernible here.
As one with long political experience, Chatterjee certainly knew that the party will brand him a lover of office. That this did not dissuade him from taking the path that he chose is something the party cannot easily accept. Under the system that the party follows, those lower down are duty bound to accept decisions taken by those at higher levels unquestioningly. Chatterjee’s decision has the potential to undermine its foundation.
Speakers usually assume charge with a promise to stay above party politics. When Varkala Radhakrishnan of the CPI-M, who has been Speaker of the Kerala Assembly, questions the concept of the Speaker’s impartiality and asks whether Vakkom Purushothaman, a Congressman who served as Speaker, had maintained impartiality, the gap between precept and practice in politics comes to the fore. In this country, there have been occasions when a person who was in the Speaker’s chair became the Chief Minister or a minister before one could flutter one’s eyelids. But it is not proper to torpedo the principle by pointing to such deviations. Leaders must treat them as exceptions and work for good precedents.
In including Somnath Chatterjee’s name in the list of party members submitted to the President, CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat harmed the concept of the Speaker’s impartiality. In the early years of Independence, the Congress had established the tradition of the Speaker staying out of the party while he held that position. It is doubtful if even that party observes that practice today. There are people in that party who, while being Speaker, were active in group politics.
Somnath Chatterjee continued his party connections even after he took over as Speaker in 2004. But he was excluded from the Central Committee at the party congress of 2005. It is said that he wanted to remain in the committee but gave up the desire on Karat’s advice. It is interesting to note that three years ago Karat was more eager than Chatterjee to adhere to precedents.
The confidence vote would have taken place without a hitch even if Chatterjee had resigned as Speaker in compliance with the party’s directive. The Deputy Speaker would have presided while the confidence motion was being discussed. Since he, like the Speaker, was under a party whip to vote against the government, there would have been no change in the vote count on either side.
Beyond the attitude of individuals and parties, what should be decisive in such matters is the desire to maintain healthy democratic practices. Everyone swears publicly to act without fear or favour when he takes up a constitutional post. He has to remain truthful to the Constitution, which says that We the People of India made it and gave it unto ourselves. But, for a Communist, the party is above everything else and his primary loyalty is to it. Loyalty to the Constitution comes only after that. According to a saying of the days of princely rule, the royal command can break the rock. As far as the CPI-M is concerned, commands issuing from the A.K.G. Bhavan in New Delhi and the A.K.G. Centre in Thiruvananthapuram have the same force.
Somnath Chatterjee’s crime is that he valued loyalty to the Constitution more than loyalty to the party. That is why State party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan called him a cheat. As Politburo members, Pinarayi Vijayan and Kodiyeri Balakrishnan stand higher in the party hierarchy than Chatterjee who only got to the Central Committee level. Those looking at things from within the party framework will have no doubt at all that Chatterjee deserves the ridicule. But at least some people outside it now see Chatterjee as a saviour of democracy.
The basic question is not whether Somnath Chatterjee’s decision as an individual is right or wrong. It is: to whom should party members who hold constitutional or other positions be loyal? The Speaker, the Chief Minister and the ministers are elected representatives. They got these positions as part of their political activity. If their conduct or that of their party is not satisfactory, those who elected them will have the opportunity to give a verdict against them. At the most they will have to wait for five years for it.
There are many government employees in Kerala who maintain relations with political parties. The political affiliation of their organizations is widely known. It is not uncommon for one to establish relations with a party while still a student. At one time, government jobs were denied in the name of such relations. The end of that practice is a triumph of democracy. For, one’s political belief must not be a bar to government employment. At the same time, under the service rules, a government employee does not have the right to be member of a political party. If he is a member of a party at the time of appointment he has to give up the membership. If he is not, he should not seek or accept membership while in service.
A government employee can be member of a cultural organization. There are many cultural organizations with political links in the country. Among them are the Rashtreeya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Purogamana Kala Sahitya Sangham (progressive artists and writers organization). Not content with being members of such organizations, government servants at various levels maintain party membership. Information about CPI-M members has come out from time to time. The clandestine membership of some government officials came to light when they earned the leadership’s displeasure and were expelled from the party. They included a university vice-chancellor and an executive engineer. Two police constables’ membership of the party became known when a leader attempted to prevent them from voting in party elections as they belonged to a rival group. Party considerations surface at election time in the organization set up to promote the welfare of policemen and take care of their work-related problems.
Like Somnath Chatterjee, government employees who are members of the CPI-M are bound by party rules to obey its orders. Since Chatterjee belonged to a high party body, the general secretary alone could issue directions to him. The branch secretary can issue instructions to a policeman who is member of a branch committee. The activities of persons in the lower echelons are keenly watched by those at the top. Television channels had brought us the scene of the party State secretary upbraiding an employee of the Kerala House in New Delhi who had raised an allegation against film star Mammootty.
It is not CPI-M members alone who have infiltrated government service. There will be occasions when a government employee who belongs to a party is compelled to decide whether his loyalty is to the party or to the government. Will he then cheat the party or the government? Here, cheating the government means cheating the people.
Based on column “Nerkkazhcha” appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated July 31, 2008