Bengal MP is suspended for ‘lavish lifestyle’, leading to the question: Who is an ideal communist?

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.

Ritabrata Banerjee's picture on Facebook that led to the uproar.
Ritabrata Banerjee’s picture on Facebook that led to the uproar.

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.

Jyoti Basu had a taste for fine living and stayed in a sprawling state bungalow after retirement. Photo credit: Reuters
Jyoti Basu had a taste for fine living and stayed in a sprawling state bungalow after retirement. Photo credit: Reuters

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.”