Somnath Da was in the thick of the 60-70s struggle to protect rights of the working people. There were a large number of organizations, especially government organizations, in which people had lost their jobs and he would fight for the restoration of these jobs and carried on with the struggle. He was committed to the Left movement.
He remained a teacher in the Parliament as well. Somnath Chatterjee was a Parliamentarian of rare calibre.
I have greatly been indebted to him. His strength was to be deeply committed to the institutions, therefore as a Speaker he made it a point that the Speakers’ office remained above partisan considerations and that was the legacy he left behind. The path he followed in the Lok Sabha should remain strong in times such as these when Parliamentary institutions are under a great attack. He created the Lok Sabha TV, which was supposed to be an independent voice of the Parliament.
There are a lot of things to emulate from him.
I have never seen him speak unprepared in the House. He would to be really displeased if he had to make major interventions in the Parliament on matters he had less information about. He used to call us up seeking inputs and then feel embarrassed about it. He prepared very thoroughly and in those days, we did not have Google search, so research was tedious. It involved getting material from reading local newspapers, foreign newspapers, archives papers etc.
Somnath Da had a great presence of mind. Parliament is not only about prepared intervention, but also impromptu interventions on substantial issues, as well as the procedural questions.
As a result, I think we were the only Parliament in the world that condemned the Iraq invasion.
He has consistently been spoken about as an honest conscious keeper who called out forces assaulting the democracy and unilateralism in Indian politics.
I remember one instance during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government when it was on the verge of being a part of the coalition willing to go to Iraq along with the United States and other forces. We had taken a stand that it is completely against our traditions of foreign policy of non-interference. He led the battle in which we adopted a resolution against this participation and was supported by the government.
I have met Indian diplomats who have privately admitted that the stand helped establish India’s foreign policy.
It is the purity and morality of these interventions and position and translation of Parliamentary instruments that really distinguished Somnath Da as an individual and left him as an independent political force.
I worked with him quite closely at the time NDA formed the government and that is when he honed my skills in taking on the government.
As told to Eram Agha