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Somnath, from da to ji
- ‘Wise shepherd’ takes charge as Speaker

New Delhi, June 4: Till yesterday, he was the quintessential Bengali babu or da, Somnathda. Today, he graduated to ji, Somnathji.

As veteran CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee today took over as the “wise shepherd” — in Manmohan Singh’s words — of the 14th Lok Sabha, marking his transition to the bigger national stage, the suffix to his name also went national.

All manner of leaders from the venerable Prime Minister to the venerable former Prime Minister to the hallowed Soniaji addressed him as Somnathji as they felicitated the coming of age of the first communist Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

Prime Minister Singh was the first to sing paeans to the Chair, fondly recalling a little story about Somnath’s father N.C. Chatterjee, who had been a member of the first Lok Sabha. Taken together, the senior and junior Chatterjees have made 13 of the 14 Lok Sabhas.

“Some 50 years ago, when I graduated from my college, your illustrious father presided over the convocation where I got the degree and today, sir, when I am going to assume a new office, you are in this illustrious chair as our guide, friend and philosopher,” Singh said.

“In you, sir, we have a wise shepherd to conduct this House.”

Wise or not, the shepherd did show his wisdom rightaway, at least in matters of dress.

Having flirted with a bandhgala suit on the first day of the House --- even Singh was caught on camera admiring it --- Somnath today fell back on his customary dhuti panjabi. Apparently, the bandhgala had set many tongues wagging, and Speakerji did not want to risk a repeat of that!

His job, after all, was to shut people up, as former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told him, taking a friendly dig at Somnath during a brief congratulatory speech. “Aap Bolpur se aaye hain, ab bolne se kaam nahin chalega, chup rahne se chalega,” Vajpayee said, punning on his native place Bolpur.

Somnath was unanimously elected Speaker at 11.40 this morning in what turned out to be a very brief affair. His name was proposed by leaders cutting across party lines, including Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, NDA chairperson Vajpayee, RJD boss Laloo Prasad Yadav, NCP president Sharad Pawar, Samajwadi Party leader Ram Gopal Yadav, BSP leader Mayavati, Janata Dal (U) leader Nitish Kumar, Ram Vilas Paswan and others.

Leader of the Lok Sabha Pranab Mukherjee, Leader of Opposition L.K. Advani and CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta seconded his candidature.

After the House endorsed Somnath’s election with thumping of desks, a train of congratulatory speeches followed. “I do not have words adequately to express my feelings for the great honour bestowed on me,” Somnath said at the end of it.

Singh, who turned a wee bit “sentimental” in his reference to the senior Chatterjee, hoped Somnath would be an ideal foil for him in the House and, as its custodian, work to make it a place “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”.

Pranab hoped Somnath, with all his years of experience, would help the House establish parliamentary control over the executive in a real way. Somnath first entered the House in 1971 and has been a permanent fixture since save for a few months after an upset defeat in the 1984 elections.

Advani said Somnath’s unanimous election was good for parliamentary democracy. He hoped Somnath would ensure that the Opposition had its say in the House.

Sonia said Somnath symbolised the election verdict that rejected the politics of divisiveness. She called him a “thoroughly modern man steeped in tradition, a person rooted in ideology but wedded to pragmatism.”

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