On June 2, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) suspended Rajya Sabha MP Ritabrata Banerjee for three months. Apparently, his “lavish lifestyle” and activities violated the party’s constitution on more counts than one.
The party has received “scores” of complaints against the MP from West Bengal. According to the party’s officials, Banerjee has “secret links” with media organisations, which if proved, would amount to “betrayal of the party’s confidence”. He is also accused of having “questionable relations” with some women leaders of the party’s student front.
The exact reasons for the MP’s suspension have not been listed, however. “It is an internal matter and we will deal with it internally,” Surya Kanta Misra, the party’s West Bengal state secretary said when asked about the charges.
The CPI(M)’s elaborate constitution has a section on “Party Discipline”. It states: “Party members found to be strike-breakers, drunkards, moral degenerates, betrayers of Party confidence, guilty of grave financial corruption can be summarily suspended from Party membership and removed from all responsible positions in the Party...This summary suspension and removal from all responsible positions in the Party cannot be extended for a period of more than three months.”
Banerjee did not contest the suspension. “The party has groomed me and guided me all these years,” he reportedly told senior leaders at the meeting called to discuss his case. “I will accept any action that it may deem fit under the circumstances.”
Repeated attempts to reach Banerjee for comment failed as his phone was switched off.
The party has now set up a three-member panel to probe the charges against the MP. “Times have changed, values have changed,” Mohammed Salim, a politburo member who is on the panel said when asked about the status of the probe. “But unfortunately, my present position on the panel does not allow me to talk about this.”
Banerjee’s election to the Rajya Sabha in 2014 was backed by top leaders of the party such as General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and former West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
He has not endeared himself to the Marxist party’s cadre, however. In February this year, he invited “public censure” for purportedly flaunting an expensive Apple watch and a Montblanc pen in a Facebook picture. His comrades, mainly from South India, reacted with a barrage of social media posts criticising him for depicting a lifestyle that did not conform to the party’s ideology.
Breaking the mould
Although it rankles the party faithful, Banerjee’s lifestyle is not unknown among communist leaders in India.
Jyoti Basu, the former chief minister of West Bengal who helped found the CPI(M), was an aristocrat. A barrister trained in London, he lived an affluent life. His love for fine scotch, posh parties and good food was an open secret. As chief minister, he shifted his official residence for a time to the magnificent Raj Bhavan in Kolkata, raising eyebrows. Post retirement, he lived until his death in a sprawling state bungalow. Still, even radical comrades never doubted his commitment to the core values of communism.
Somnath Chatterjee, the most prominent communist face in Parliament for several decades until he was expelled from the CPI(M) in 2008, came form the same social class as Basu. The two of them were referred to as “communists with blue blood”, Chatterjee recalled. “When someone joins the communist party, there is a pledge of loyalty,” he said. “We swear we shall strive to live up to the ideals of communism and selflessly serve the toiling masses and the country, always placing the interests of the party and the people above personal interests.”
“If anyone thought Jyoti Basu’s spotless white dhoti and kurta or his aristocratic gait was a violation of this pledge, I am not ready to accept that,” Chatterjee added.
The former Lok Sabha speaker said Banerjee’s suspension has “pained” him. “I do not think that the use of some modern gadgets means an ostentatious lifestyle that should attract such penalty from the party,” he said. “But of course, I am not fully aware of the charges against him. There may be more serious charges against Ritabrata than this. But a penal action could have been taken after the inquiry was completed.”
By the book
At the far end of the communist spectrum from Basu and Chhatterjee are leaders such as Benoy Chowdhury, Hare Krishna Konar and Samar Mukherjee.
“One can hardly imagine a man can live such a simple life of austerity even after becoming minister and one of the top leaders,” Chhatterjee said, referring to Chowdhury.
Mukherjee was cut from the same red cloth. After joining the communist cause in the 1930s, he severed contact with his family and lived all his life in a commune. On his death in 2013, at the age of 99, the CPI(M) released a statement that read: “Rarely have we seen such an individual who sacrificed all personal interests, living a spartan life in a party commune in the service of the party.”
Biman Bose, CPI(M) politburo member and chairman of the West Bengal Left Front Committee, joined the party at 17. When he turned 18, he left home to stay in the party commune. He still stays in a small room in the party office on Alimuddin Street, washing his own clothes and tending to the office’s sprawling terrace garden all by himself. Bose has donated blood over 70 times; he stopped only when doctors refused to take any more.
Then there are leaders like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. His lifestyle fits somewhere between those of Bose, his contemporary, and Jyoti Basu, whom he succeeded as chief minister. Considered by his comrades a man of unflinching integrity, Bhattacharjee stays in a small government flat, which he did not leave even while he was chief minister from 2000 to 2011. His only “non-communist lifestyle”, according to the comrades, is his love for branded cigarettes. He relishes Benson & Hedges and State Express 555 cigarettes friends and acquaintances often gift him.
Surya Kanta Mishra, in contrast, is often seeing smoking bidis when tense.
Seeking the ideal
It is not just in lifestyle that communist leaders in Bengal seemingly deviated from their professed ideals. Subash Chakraborty, a mercurial mass leader, openly advocated participation in religious activities in order to get close to the masses. He showed the way by doing puja at a Shiva temple in Hoogly. But not even his mentor Jyoti Basu approved.
It was Chakraborty who started the practice of celebrating Basu’s birthday in grand style in the late 1990s. Until then, the only leader whose birthday was celebrated at the CPI(M)’s office in Kolkata was Muzaffar Ahmed, a founding father of the party. Despite such transgressions, Chakraborty’s mass popularity spared him any punishment save for verbal censures now and then.
At the organisational level, though, the party’s did attempt to address such “deviations” from the communist ideal, launching a “rectification programme” in 1996. But in 2009, Prakash Karat informed the party that the “last rectification drive had not yielded desired results”. The West Bengal state committee then launched a “continuous drive for purging corrupt elements from the party”.
“In order to maintain the revolutionary character of the party a continuous drive has to be on for rectification of faults both at the organisational level and other areas,” Karat, then the party’s chief, declared. “Values contrary to the communist ideals have encroached into the party. Money is playing a big role....the new members lack in political education, their ideals are not strong.”
The CPI(M) leadership later warned members against deviating from the “path of honesty and morality”, and decreed they must strictly adhere to a lifestyle befitting a communist. Eight years on, Banerjee shows the ideal is still hard to live by for many party leaders.