|Somnath Chatterjee (right) with Manmohan Singh and Meira Kumar at his book release in New Delhi on Saturday. Picture by Rajesh Kumar
New Delhi, Aug. 21: The occasion was mined for explosions but for the most part the formal release of Somnath Chatterjees Keeping the Faith: Memoirs of a Parliamentarian was like the air that has pervaded Delhi lately: excessively damp.
Somnath played mostly demure as a boy on arc-lit debut, and a debut it was — I have been accustomed to speaking all my life and my wife says I speak too much, this is the first time I have written a book.
His successor in the Lok Sabha Chair and the evenings presiding personage, Meira Kumar, served up a thesaurus-bowl of highfalutin praise of the kind that issues from secretarial pens. The mines were all being politely side-stepped, breath remained collectively bated in frustration. The Nehru Memorial auditorium was a packed but terribly orderly house, so orderly it would have beggared Meira Kumars belief it is also possible to preside over such tranquillity.
Then came the man who hasnt made a great name for setting lecterns alight but who is known, on occasion, to blow the fuse on a depth charge: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Three years ago, he famously pushed the so-be-it button on the Left. A year later, he invoked Machiavellian parliamentary manoeuvring to win the trust vote on the N-deal and became life manifest of Bollywood bluster: Singh is King.
Tonight, in a low, almost imperceptibly subtle note, he made to amend that description; he might well be called Singh is Sting. And true to the location of the nip in the proverb, it came at the end of his tale. Commending Somnaths book as the work of a man of extraordinary talent, sagacity and integrity, the Prime Minister said he regarded the author most for keeping the faith and rising above his party and ideology to do what is right, may his tribe increase.
Such a clarion for rebellion from the ranks of the Left has rarely ever been sounded from so high and hallowed a station. But as Singh swiftly wrapped up and left and the hall became a hubbub of VVIP departees — UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, petroleum minister Murli Deora and former Lok Sabha Speaker Balram Jakhar among them — the import of Singhs parting missive to his favourite adversaries was left to echo another day.
None was present to hear him first hand, of course. Somnath had made a pointed pre-release point of not having invited the high and mighty among his former comrades in the CPM, not after they bestowed on him possibly the worst slight in communist lexicon — a defector to the ruling establishment.
And the few he had requested from the party in Bengal all found politically correct reasons for not being there. Somnath is not kosher, goes the party diktat, sup with him at your own peril.
The closest the party came to attendance at Somnaths fine hour was by several degrees of separation; and the outlaw was actually an in-law, a man by the name of Amarjeet Bannerji who happens to be related by marriage to state industry minister Nirupam Sen. Not that the man of the moment himself was missing them too much.
Teased on whether his friends from Bengal were going to oblige him, Somnath remarked a little ahead of the function: Well, I have many friends in Bengal and many of them have come. But from the party? What party? he retorted: I am partyless.
But in a discernibly emotional moment as he began to speak to the gathering, one communist name did well up to his lips in longing and in tribute: the late Jyoti Basu, who defied Somnaths summary exile from the CPM to the end and remained publicly close. Like the passing of my parent, Somnath said, the death of Jyoti Basu orphaned me, he would have been the happiest person today.
As if to rub in his proximity to Basu in the face of the partys censure, as if to say he has higher patrons in the CPM than those who rule the party today, he went on to say it was Basu who had persuaded his father to permit Somnath to contest his first Lok Sabha election as an Independent backed by the Marxists.
And do buy the book, he pleaded to his audience while on the subject, I say this especially because part of the proceeds will go to a trust for tribals in Bolpur that I intend to set up in my parents name.
It is my first book, was how he worded his bashful recommendation. I am grateful for the first review which is a good one, I know the brickbats will follow. After tonights renewed jibes at his former mates, they well might. But on the evidence of the book-launch atmospherics, Somnath is well-protected in his defection to the ruling establishment.