Burp! We had Karat for lunch

Sita calls on Somnath, seven years after the purge

By Our Bureau
  • Published 20.07.15
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Sitaram Yechury with Somnath Chatterjee and his wife at the expelled CPM 
leader’s house at Bolpur. Picture by Indrajit Roy

Bolpur, July 19: Sitaram Yechury today broke bread with Somnath Chatterjee, seven years after the veteran had earned Prakash Karat's wrath and was expelled in one of the most dramatic confrontations in the country.

Yechury not only called on Chatterjee at his Bolpur home and had lunch there but also described the man who was summarily expelled from the CPM on July 23, 2008, as an "asset to the party".

The new CPM general secretary stopped short of saying Chatterjee's re-induction was a possibility.

At 86, Chatterjee is not keeping in good health and is unlikely to be able to marshal much political capital.

But any overture to him is certain to be interpreted by a section of the CPM in Bengal as a vindication of its stand that driving the Congress into Trinamul's arms was a blunder.

A divided Opposition suited the CPM and this section felt that despite Singur, Nandigram and 34 years of anti-incumbency, the Left would not have received a drubbing if the Congress and Trinamul had fought separately. With the CPM struggling for survival in Bengal, the issue is as relevant to the local unit now as it was in 2008.

As symbolic overtures go, little could have been more eye-catching than Yechury's "home-going". The CPM is no stranger to homecomings but few could recall a CPM general secretary striding into an expelled leader's home so soon after succeeding the person who was instrumental in the ejection. Yechury had taken over from Karat exactly three months ago - on April 19.

In 2008, as the US nuclear deal stand-off between then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then CPM general secretary Karat achieved critical mass, Chatterjee had injected an extraordinary element by refusing to step down as Lok Sabha Speaker despite the party leadership asking him to do so.

The Left was then the biggest supporter of UPA-I. Chatterjee's refusal to step down was seen as the loudest articulation of the chasm within the CPM on whether the Manmohan government should be toppled over the nuclear deal.

A domestic political factor was also at play. A section of the CPM in Bengal, where Mamata Banerjee had tasted blood and was preparing herself for the kill, felt that nothing should be done to compel the Congress to embrace the Trinamul Congress and help consolidate the anti-Left vote.

Although the Speaker's post put Chatterjee above the play of power politics, his defiance and eventual expulsion without being given a chance to explain himself came to be seen as a reflection of the disconnect between the CPM bureaucracy, represented by Karat, and those who deal directly with the people.

It has always been rumoured that Yechury was not in favour of Karat's decisions in 2008. But the new general secretary, in keeping with the tradition of communist parties, had stuck to the line that all decisions were collective.

It was against this backdrop that a smiling Yechury stepped into the house of Chatterjee and spent almost two hours there.

Yechury "pleaded" with Chatterjee that the need of the hour for the CPM was a broader coalition of anti-BJP Opposition forces, and that veterans like him were required to push the unity through. It is learnt that Chatterjee agreed to the idea but preferred to be non-committal on formally rejoining the party.

Asked about the discussions and Chatterjee's possible return, Yechury said: "He is already with the party.... Somnathda has always been with the Left family and the Left movement. He was always there. He already campaigned in elections. There are some party programmes where he participated. His rejoining the party is not a formal issue."

Chatterjee said: "I have no chance of rejoining the party now. It is not possible because my health is not good. I have retired many years ago. Suddenly I can't go back to political activities."

Earlier this month, on Jyoti Basu's 102nd birth anniversary, Yechury had shared the dais with Chatterjee and fondly recalled the days he had spent with the former Speaker who was his "guardian". Yechury was also seen interacting with Left partners, signalling the idea of a broad-based Opposition unity against Trinamul in Bengal and the BJP at the Centre.

A rapprochement drive has sputtered to life since Yechury took over. Last week, it was announced that Kerala veteran K.R. Gowriamma would return to the CPM after a 21-year break-up.

In the early 1990s, Nripen Chakraborty, who was Tripura chief minister, had questioned the business deals of Basu's son, triggering heartburn in Alimuddin Street and his expulsion from the party in 1995.

Almost nine years later, when Chakraborty was on his deathbed at SSKM Hospital in Calcutta, the party had decided to reinstate him. Gowriamma is returning at a time she is 96.

However, there is a key difference. Both Gowriamma and Chakraborty had fallen foul of the party over local issues. But Chatterjee had taken on the central leadership represented by Karat over a principle - whether a party can dictate terms to a Speaker who is supposed to be above politics.

What Karat and the hardliners found particularly galling was that Chatterjee presided over the no-confidence vote on July 22 that was forced on the government by the CPM's decision to withdraw support.

The UPA government won the vote, thanks to the Samajwadi Party's support. Chatterjee refused to resign as Speaker while Karat's contention was that he was a CPM MP first and came under party discipline. But a Speaker, on being elected, ceases to be a party member - that was Chatterjee's argument. It was seen by the hardliners as taking a pro-Congress, pro-nuclear deal line.

"Sitaram wants all like-minded Left-leaning persons to join a united movement against the ruling parties in Bengal and Delhi. We don't find anything wrong with this approach," said a CPM state secretariat member.

Asked about the visit, politburo member Mohammad Salim, however, said: "Please do not read much into this."

Today, Yechury was in Bolpur to attend the inauguration of a science building named after Chatterjee's mother Binapani Devi at Purnidevi Choudhury Girls' College. At Chatterjee's request, CPM MPs, including Yechury, provided Rs 1.05 crore to construct the building.

At the discussions at Chatterjee's home, two central committee members - Shyamal Chakraborty and Ram Chandra Dom - were present.

Yechury had scheduled a party meeting in Sattor village, where he was to meet the woman who was allegedly tortured with nettle leaves and blades. However, the meeting was cancelled as police did not grant permission.