A little while back I attended a book release at New Delhi’s Teen Murti Bhawan—once the home of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and now a museum and a library.
The book in question was ‘Keeping the Faith: Memoirs of a Parliamentarian,’ an autobiography by former Lower House Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, which was launched by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the presence of numerous ruling Congress Party politicians, including its president, Sonia Gandhi.
Chatterjee was a Communist throughout his four-decade-long political life, representing the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) in parliament. But his association with CPI (M) ended last year when he was expelled from the party for his refusal to resign the speakership after the Communists withdrew their support from the Congress-led government (Chatterjee said he should remain in the post as the Speaker is supposed to be politically neutral anyway).
What’s interesting is that now, as he nears the end of his political career, the book is being praised not by his own party, but by his life-long political opponents in the Congress Party. Singh has paid tribute to the expelled Communist leader for his political achievements and for standing like a rock in defence of parliamentary tradition despite pressure from his party.
But personally, after reading the book, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Aside from the run-in with his party, I couldn’t find anything extraordinary. Indeed, the book is something of a celebration of the author’s mediocrity.
The media, of course, is hyping the book because of the author’s scathing criticism of the present leadership of his former party, particularly General Secretary Prakash Karat. The writer also dwells on the rapid decline of the once formidable Communist party in its former strongholds because of the rigidities of its policies and leadership.
Yet there’s nothing new in the autobiography that hasn’t already been said many times before. As a politician with decades of experience in public life, Chatterjee disappointingly fails to give any new insight into the future polity of the nation. All he does is predict a bleak future for his former party if it doesn’t move with the times—hardly revelatory.
But it’s not just the lack of interesting political insight that’s the problem—the author’s own history is equally disappointing. Chatterjee was born into a rich family, his father a lawyer turned politician who represented a right wing Hindu party, Hindu Mahasabha. Chatterjee apparently was offered the chance to run on the CPI(M) ticket in the 1970s due to his father’s connections. Meanwhile, at no point in the book is there any indication that he tried to genuinely infuse communist ideology into his politics, and his decision to shun the party as its fortunes declined seemed more about expediency than making an honourable stand.
A couple of years ago, I spent five days in his Bolpur constituency in West Bengal and saw abject poverty wherever I looked. The trip transformed my view of the Communist regime in West Bengal, and I can’t help but feel that the reason communism is gasping for breath there is because of such elite disciples of Marx as Chatterjee.
Of course, there are many politicians like Chatterjee who owe their existence in politics to their privileged background.It seems ironic, though, that the former house of Nehru—a visionary who despite his faults helped shape a nation—should have been chosen for a celebration of mediocrity.