reportage

The Argumentative Indian

The precarious ambition of Kapil Sibal

By PRAVEEN DONTHI | 1 November 2012

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ON A PLEASANT WINTER DAY in November 2010, as the afternoon sun shone on the leaves of the Katsagon trees outside Shastri Bhavan, the telephone rang in room 302, C-Wing—the office of Kapil Sibal, the Minister for Human Resource Development. The prime minister’s office was on the line, and Sibal calmly adjourned a meeting to take the call.

After the brief distraction of US President Barack Obama’s four-day visit to India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had decided Sibal would be the man to replace A Raja, the communications minister tainted by the 2G spectrum scam. Sibal’s office wasn’t expecting a call from the prime minister, but he was not surprised: according to one ministry official, TKA Nair, the principal secretary in the PMO, had been a frequent visitor to Sibal’s office in the preceding days. Raja soon submitted his resignation, and the very next day Sibal took over.

It was the second time in a week that an additional portfolio had been placed under his charge; only a few days earlier, he was asked to take over the Ministry of Science and Technology, a position he had held in the previous government. With the winter session of Parliament underway and an aggressive opposition pressing its advantage after a season of scandals, the prime minister had once again turned to the man he appeared to trust the most. Six years after he first won an election to the Lok Sabha, Sibal had nine secretaries reporting to him as the head of three ministries—at the time, the most for any minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

At that moment, Sibal’s ascent within the Congress party looked meteoric. A spectacularly successful lawyer before he entered politics in the late 1990s, Sibal rose to prominence as the party’s most vociferous public advocate—a spokesman who could always be counted upon to staunchly defend the party’s leaders and denounce the opposition.

Summoning the theatrical and oratorical skills he displayed as an actor in the Shakespeare Society at Delhi’s elite St Stephen’s College and honed in hundreds of court appearances, Sibal relishes any opportunity for verbal jousting, confident that he will inevitably have the upper hand. He comes prepared to every press conference, arriving early and carrying papers, which he likes to thrust dramatically into the air while making an argument, the better to underline its authenticity; he anticipates the questions of reporters, launching into his answers before they’ve finished, contesting their premises, correcting their language, and generally controlling the debate.

But he has remained an outsider within the party, one of the “professionals” favoured by Singh and derided by many of the career politicians and family loyalists who make up the Congress upper echelon. Among the country’s chattering classes, his innumerable television appearances and indefatigable zeal for defending the indefensible have made him a favourite target for mockery and derision—in which he typically appears as a caricature combining the worst qualities of lawyers, politicians and out-of-touch elites. But Sibal is well aware that his prominence within the party depends on these over-the-top performances, and it could be argued that no other politician has taken better advantage of the present age of around-the-clock television shoutfests and exaggerated sound-bites.

“He is made to fight for the party and he’s made many enemies because of that, but it helps him rise within the party,” one of his close aides told me. “He enjoys it, as a lawyer, to be in these combative situations and stick his neck out.”

WITHIN DAYS OF TAKING OVER the communications ministry, Sibal leapt into action, briefing newspaper reporters and appearing on multiple television channels to defend Manmohan Singh (“the prime minister is a man of integrity”; “he would not allow anyone to indulge in corrupt practices”) and attack Subramanian Swamy, whose unanswered letters to the prime minister’s office in 2008 seeking prosecution of Raja had led the Supreme Court to criticise Singh’s “alleged inaction”. Dubbing Swamy “a person who is interested in only political one-upmanship”, Sibal condemned his efforts as “a clear move to destabilise the government”, and insisted that the prime minister was not obligated “to start responding to every piece of unsubstantiated paper sent to him”.

News reports indicated that Congress leaders were pleased by Sibal’s initial counteroffensive—but he was just getting started. At the end of November, without relenting from his defence of Raja’s decision to allot cellular spectrum without an auction, Sibal announced that notices would be issued to operators suspected of benefiting from Raja’s largesse. Around the same time, he established a one-man committee, headed by former Supreme Court justice Shivaraj Patil, to investigate spectrum and licence allocation going back to 2001—a clear attempt to spread the blame to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose tenure in government lasted until 2004. Last, and certainly not least, he began to take aim at the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), whose report on the 2G scam, released in November 2010, had affixed a mind-bogglingly enormous sum to the scandal, suggesting that Raja’s malfeasance had cost the exchequer Rs 1.76 trillion.

Sibal’s rhetorical strategy, which was most visibly on display in his 2G pleadings, almost always involves fighting on multiple fronts: all at once, he will deny an allegation, attack the opposition for hypocrisy, and suggest that whatever has been alleged was in fact the correct policy to begin with.

By the beginning of January 2011, Sibal had become the unquestioned face of the government in its pushback against the 2G charges. But then, it seemed, he may have stuck his neck out a little too far. On 7 January, he called a press conference in an attempt to debunk the CAG’s numbers—whose sheer magnitude had damaged the government more than any other single revelation in the long unfolding of the scam.

“The figure of 1.76 lakh crore, with the greatest respect to the CAG,” Sibal said, pausing for a few seconds as if to warn listeners of what was to follow, “is so utterly erroneous.” Through a series of calculations—each of them founded on the premise that “the logic underlying this estimate is completely flawed”, because the government’s policy had been to “maximise public welfare… and not merely to maximise government revenues”—Sibal whittled the unthinkable Rs 1.76 trillion down to a far more manageable figure of zero. “No loss at all. Zero is the loss,” Sibal declared. “A complicated and complex issue like this shouldn’t have led to the conclusions of presumptive loss of this magnitude,” Sibal said, indicting the CAG. “It has embarrassed the government, it has embarrassed the nation.”

Sibal was not the first Congressman to suggest that the putative “scam” was merely a rogue minister’s poor implementation of an existing policy—or, if you didn’t believe that, an unsound policy that had anyway been introduced by the BJP.  (At the same press conference, Sibal did allow, in a reference to Raja, that “prima facie, there was something wrong in the procedures adopted for allocation of 2G spectrum”.) Nor was he the first to suggest that “presumptive loss” was not equivalent to “actual loss”. But these were just efforts to minimise the scam: no one before Sibal had taken the revolutionary step, from a public relations perspective, of insisting with a straight face that as far as losses were concerned, there was no scam at all.

The opposition erupted with outrage, mocking Sibal’s “cover-up exercise” as “bizarre”, accusing him of besmirching the CAG and attempting to undermine the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), whose inquiries were still underway. The Indian Express dubbed him “Kapil Denial Sibal”, and the rest of the media had a field day repeating Sibal’s apparent defiance of reality, which seemed to confirm the existing picture of a government that was fundamentally unserious about combating corruption in its ranks. Even fellow Congressmen were privately aghast: Ashwani Kumar, then just a Member of Parliament (and now the science and technology minister), wrote a letter to the prime minister with a sample of derisive newspaper clips criticising Sibal’s “zero loss” defence, which Kumar suggested had “altered the flavour of public debate on the 2G spectrum issue against ourselves”.

But there was a method to Sibal’s madness. This was his opening statement before the court of public opinion, and he had unquestionably taken the strongest possible line in his client’s defence. That few seemed to believe him was beside the point. His audacity had muddied the waters just enough to introduce doubts in what had looked like an open-and-shut case, demonstrating that a sufficiently strenuous and elaborate defence of the indefensible could perhaps make it defensible after all.

Soon enough, Sibal’s line had become the government’s line as well: by late January, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the former World Bank and IMF economist and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, was echoing Sibal’s argument. In an interview with Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN, Ahluwalia said the CAG’s figure was “a way out, unrealistic number”, adding that “Kapil himself has explained why it is not reasonable… Kapil has explained that on certain calculations, if you make an assumption that maybe by a different kind of pricing or by a different kind of auctioning you might have made more money, you have to weigh that against the benefits you lose by lesser spread of telecom services at a competitive price… We were not trying to raise revenue.”

To this day, “zero loss” hangs around Sibal’s neck like a weight—his detractors never fail to cite it as evidence of his mendacity, and even those who agree with his argument insist that it did more harm than good. One Congress MP complained that “it took one year to undo the problems caused by ‘zero loss’—nobody says ‘zero loss’ now”. Another Congressman, a former Union minister, suggested that while he believed Sibal was technically correct, “the distinction between the real and presumptive loss was not very clear to the public, and as a result there was huge public outrage at Sibal’s statement.” It seemed Sibal had blundered, but he understood his job well: not to win the debate, but to shift its terms in any way that might benefit the Congress. As he wrote, in a poem from the first of his two published volumes of amateur verse, I Witness: Partial Observations:

A successful politician is one who:
makes the unconscionable
sound reasonable
and the reasonable
sound unconscionable.

IN THE LAST WEEK OF AUGUST 2012, the prime minister had once again come under pressure from a CAG report on the allocation of resources without auction, this time relating to the allotment of coal mining blocks to private companies. Prevented from reading his statement in Parliament by the opposition, Singh had defended himself with an Urdu couplet (“My silence is better than a thousand answers”), but accusations from the opposition were unrelenting. Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the BJP opposition in the Lok Sabha, alleged that “mota maal” (big bucks) had flowed into Congress coffers from “Coalgate” corruption, while her counterpart in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, called the prime minister’s statement “an assault on constitutional democracy” and demanded his resignation—over which the opposition had shut down Parliament.

In the movies, this would be the moment that Superman dons his cape and flies to the rescue—so it was time for Spokesman to come forth. A press conference was hurriedly scheduled for 5 pm that afternoon at the Press Information Bureau, featuring Sibal, Finance Minister P Chidambaram, and Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni. Sibal, with his typical eagerness, arrived almost 45 minutes before the first journalists appeared; wearing a white kurta pyjama and a grey Nehru vest, he sat in the empty conference hall reviewing papers and making notes as the information officers made frenetic calls from the corridor. Chidambaram sauntered in, looking relaxed, at 5.30 pm, followed shortly by Soni.

During the course of the press conference—which Chidambaram insisted had only been called to “respond to the comments made by the two honourable leaders of the opposition”—it was easy to see the difference between Sibal and the other Congress ministers deployed to defend the government. Chidambaram took the lead, but never named the “honourable leaders of the opposition”, saying only that “such phrases should be avoided in a civil discourse on an important issue”. While Chidambaram slowly made his points, Sibal looked restless, jumping in at a few moments to supply facts or dates; but when his turn arrived, the increase in energy and decibel levels was hard to miss. As Chidambaram looked on with amusement, Sibal launched immediately into personal attacks on Swaraj and Jaitley. “I want to ask Sushma-ji, ‘Do you know how long it takes to extract coal?’ It takes fifty-four months. It doesn’t take much time to allege something, but mining takes time,” Sibal said, gesturing energetically with his right hand as he spoke. Towards the end of his remarks, Sibal reminded the reporters that a BJP minister—Jaitley—had called the CAG “stupid” when the party was in power, and suggested Swaraj was an unworthy successor to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. “We have seen big leaders of BJP,” Sibal said. “If Sushma-ji walks in the footsteps of Vajpayee-ji, she wouldn’t use such words.”

A few days later, Sibal’s close aide told me the press conference should be considered a success: “The coal press conference was very good—he can put doubt in people’s minds about the authenticity of the charges.” But Mamta Verma, Sibal’s officer on special duty and the chief information officer at the education ministry, told me she had warned the minister there would be collateral damage. “Now get your bills passed, I told him,” Verma said with a smile—referring to his swipes at Swaraj and Jaitley, whose support is essential to get Sibal’s stalled education laws through Parliament. According to Verma, Sibal replied that “somebody has to say these things”, fully aware of his role as the party’s defence lawyer.

When the press conference came to a close, Sibal stayed back long after Chidambaram and Soni had departed, arguing his case with a pack of persistent journalists for 30 more minutes, not a moment of it on unsure ground. The debate continued right up until Sibal walked out the door into a heavy downpour and got into his white Hyundai Accent—a modest vehicle for a man whose last statement of assets totalled Rs 450 million.

“He realises he is an outsider in the party,” Sibal’s aide told me later. “If he doesn’t say these things, he would still be just a minister of state.

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SIBAL’S OVERZEALOUS FIREFIGHTING on the government’s behalf kept him in the news for almost all of 2011, from the “zero loss” episode in January to the controversy over Internet censorship in December, when a New York Times report revealed that he had pressured Facebook, Google and other companies to remove content the government deemed objectionable. He was not the only cabinet minister to be deployed in the course of the long confrontation with the swelling anti-corruption protests led by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev. But in the end he was the most visible and the most vocal: the public face of the government in its showdown with the Lokpal crusaders, and for critics—including many within the Congress—the face of its disastrous mismanagement.

Sibal’s aggressive rhetoric made him a favourite target of Hazare and “Team Anna”. Hazare accused him of “cheating” and claimed Sibal was “not fit to be a minister”, while Team Anna staged a “referendum” on support for their Lokpal Bill in Sibal’s Lok Sabha constituency, Chandni Chowk, in a bid to embarrass him. (Though Hazare later broke with his colleague Arvind Kejriwal over the latter’s entry into politics, he vowed to support Kejriwal if he contests against Sibal at the next election, telling reporters, “If he fights against Sibal I will go and campaign for him.”)

After Hazare’s fast-unto-death at Jantar Mantar, which pressured the government into convening a Lokpal “joint drafting committee” composed of cabinet ministers and representatives from Team Anna, the television yoga guru Baba Ramdev announced his own plans for a protest against black money to be held at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan in June 2011. Wary of another prolonged and televised anti-government spectacle, the cabinet bent over backwards to demonstrate its interest in Ramdev’s demands, and dispatched a team of senior ministers—including Sibal and Pranab Mukherjee—to convince Ramdev to call off his fast. But after Ramdev went back on the agreement Sibal had negotiated (during a lengthy meeting at the posh Claridges Hotel) and the police were called in to forcibly evacuate Ramdev and his followers, it was another public relations disaster for the government. “The Anna and Ramdev issues were being talked about everywhere in the party,” a Congress cabinet minister told me. “It was understood and recognised to be a failure. Sibal became the face because he was the most articulate, but also the most combative.”

Within Congress circles, the maladroit handling of Hazare and Ramdev alike stoked a renewed chorus of complaint against the party’s “professionals”—ministers like Chidambaram and Sibal, who came into politics after successful careers elsewhere—and, by implication, against the prime minister, who is often criticised by old party hands for relying too heavily on his fellow professionals. “It’s quite clear that whether it is Team Hazare or Baba Ramdev, neither of them was a particularly important political outfit—there was an inadequate understanding of the political dimensions by these so-called professionals, which is why Congress had to go back again and again to a professional politician in Pranab Mukherjee to defuse its problems,” the former Congress minister said. “Had we been less professional as lawyers and technicians and more professional as politicians, I don’t think any of these unnecessary crises, which have so badly sullied the image of the government, would have arisen.”

Sibal is only one among a crop of professionals who rose quickly under Manmohan Singh—the others include Jairam Ramesh and Shashi Tharoor—but the pace of his ascent and his public visibility have made him a lightning rod for criticism inside the party. “Lots of MPs complain that he is arrogant,” the Congress cabinet minister told me, while describing Sibal as “very close” to the prime minister. “You don’t hear this so much from his cabinet colleagues, but the general refrain from MPs is that he doesn’t take them seriously.”

In his opening address at the Indian Science Congress in 2006, with Singh in the audience, Sibal signalled his loyalty to the prime minister while subtly acknowledging his own status as an outsider. “I know why Dr Manmohan Singh, a professional economist, leads our nation today,” Sibal said. “Perhaps unwittingly he thinks the way Pandit Nehru thought, and I quote… ‘A person like me who is not exactly a man of politics has to take an intimate part in political activity. I have often asked myself the question why this is so. Why should I go into politics? It is so because it is not possible to progress in any field, more particularly in the field of science, until you remove the vast number of fetters which prevent people from functioning as they ought to.’”

What these remarks also reveal, however inadvertently, is the assumption that eminent men like Sibal and Singh must lower themselves into politics for the good of the nation. For all his facility in defence of colleagues accused of corruption, Sibal is widely seen as a “clean” politician, with no ambition to line his own pockets; independently wealthy, thanks to his law career, he is said to regard the venal accumulation of other politicians with scorn. “He is not into dalaali (brokering) and petty money-making,” a bureaucrat who worked under Sibal said. “But it shows in his attitude towards small time politicians. Having earned his money defending the Jayalalithaas and Lalus of the world, he has developed a moral uprightness and looks down upon other politicians. He only mingles with the upper echelons.” Sibal is “extremely intelligent—it’s easy to brief him”, the bureaucrat added. “But after ten minutes of talking to him, you can tell that he is full of himself. More than the intellectual arrogance, he is in love with his own voice.”

Within the cabinet, Sibal is regarded as the embodiment of competence—someone who can pick up a complex portfolio like communications and quickly master the necessary technical and legal details. “The PM needs somebody who can do technocratic jobs—that’s where Sibal comes in,” the Congress MP said.

That he has retained the communications ministry long after it was expected to be reassigned can be taken as a sign of Singh’s faith in Sibal. “He had several things going for him,” the telecom expert Mahesh Uppal told me. “He enjoyed the prime minister’s confidence, and he was a lawyer who had been involved with telecom sector cases. But somewhere down the road, he seems to have lost his way—he hasn’t been able to unravel the mess, and all the early disputes continue unabated.”

THOUGH THE COMMUNICATIONS MINISTRY has understandably absorbed a considerable proportion of his time and energy, it’s clear that he’s more interested in the education portfolio, which the bureaucrat who worked under Sibal described as “his first love”. As Sibal’s close aide told me: “He prefers education. Telecom doesn’t have the human angle, and all politicians want a human angle.” Sibal’s grand ambitions for the education sector are no secret: he trumpets them at every opportunity, with soaring rhetoric about his dreams for the nation and the dawn of globalised education. According to reporters who cover the ministry, Sibal, who was handpicked for the job by Manmohan Singh, has said that he wants “to do to education what the prime minister did to the economy in 1991”.

There is wide agreement that the education system is badly in need of reform, and Sibal sees it as a blank canvas on which to make his mark in history—in a field that affects almost everyone in the country. As he said on the eve of his first day as minister: “This ministry offers great opportunity and challenges due to its vast expanse. It touches the life of every child, youth, every family.” Within a month of taking office, Sibal unveiled what he called “my 100 days agenda”, which included seven new reform bills and a slew of other policy and administrative initiatives. “This is a historic moment,” Sibal said during a friendly interview to roll out the “100 days agenda” with the Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta. “Everybody is clear that we need to change fast.”

Sibal’s eagerness undoubtedly pleased the prime minister, who had urged the Planning Commission in 2007 that “we cannot discuss options [for education reform] endlessly. We need to work with a sense of urgency and work to fixed timelines…” But that same “sense of urgency” struck many people—including some of his party colleagues—as an excessive haste, which bypassed stakeholders (including state governments) and produced incomplete legislative proposals with little chance of advancing through Parliament. During one Lok Sabha debate, a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MP summed up the prevailing scepticism: “Rather learned Sibal-ji is fond of fly by night operation—one hundred days. Educational development is not like a construction of housing colony. It takes time and due diligence is required.”

Sibal brushed aside his critics with a familiar ease, invoking the historic significance of the proposed reforms, which he framed as an unfinished sequel to the economic liberalisation carried out in 1991. “[Some people say] he is moving too fast,” Sibal told Gupta. “I am not moving too fast. I am 18 years too late. If I can do it today, I will do it today. The system will not let me do it today.” Gesturing once more to 1991, Sibal cited the famous Victor Hugo quote from Singh’s historic budget speech: “An idea, as the prime minister says, whose time has come cannot be stopped.”

By September 2009, Sibal had introduced five new education reform bills, and announced to reporters that “we have fulfilled the 100-day agenda by 100 percent”. But one year later, the ideas whose time had come had indeed been stopped: held up by objections from opposition parties in Parliament or dissent from other ministers; at one point this year, 14 of Sibal’s bills were stalled in Parliament. “He is intelligent and all, and his grasp is good,” the cabinet minister told me. “But he has not been able to deliver the goods. As his political ambitions have grown, he started doing more politicking and started losing track of his ministry.

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KAPIL SIBAL WAS BORN IN 1948, the youngest son in a family of high achievers. All three of his older brothers graduated with law degrees; two of them, VK Sibal and JK Sibal, became Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers while the third, Kanwal Sibal, joined the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), serving as ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia, and as foreign secretary under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The talented Sibals were only following in the footsteps of their father, Hira Lal Sibal, a renowned lawyer at the Punjab High Court in Lahore. Hira Lal was from Dinga, about 80 km west of Sialkot; his wife hailed from Bhimber, in what is now Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The family came to India amid the riots of Partition. “We shifted from Lahore to Jalandhar, hoping that we would be able to return to our home after conditions improved,” Hira Lal recalled in a 2007 interview. “But that was not to be, so we moved to Simla, and then when the Punjab and Haryana High Court shifted to Chandigarh in 1955, we did too.”

The elder Sibal served twice as the advocate general of the Punjab High Court; in 1994, he was honoured as a “Living Legend of Law” by the International Bar Association, and in 2006 he was awarded the Padma Bhushan. By the time of his retirement in 2005, at the age of 90, he had fought innumerable cases, many of them for high-profile ministers or politicians. But he is most celebrated today for a series of cases he fought as a young lawyer, defending one of the subcontinent’s greatest writers, Saadat Hasan Manto, against obscenity charges in Lahore—a fact that has not been lost on the critics of his youngest son’s efforts to expunge “offensive” material from the Internet. “I was so young, so full of energy,” Hira Lal said of his defence of Manto in a 2005 interview. “I did not care about the reputation of big lawyers, and was ready to take them on in court.”

According to a family friend, Sibal was born while his mother, Kailash Rani, was still in a refugee camp in Jalandhar with her three older sons; Sibal’s father had remained in Lahore, and his mother was worried that her husband might not be able to make it across the border. When he finally did, several months after Kapil was born, the family had to rebuild their lives from scratch after leaving everything behind in Pakistan. By Sibal’s own account, related to me by the family friend, his mother always felt guilty that she had not been able to give her infant son more attention in the months when her husband’s arrival remained uncertain. But being the youngest in the family also shielded Sibal from the pressure of his imposing father. “His elder siblings did rather well, but he was sort of lost in the crowd, as not much was expected of him,” Sibal’s elder son, Amit, told me. As Sibal himself recalled in an interview, “I hated school, loathed homework, and was the black sheep in my family. My mother often said, ‘What do I do with this kid?’” But Hira Lal recalled that all his sons “excelled in academics”, and described Kapil as “an all-rounder” who thrived in sports and theatre. It was theatre, in fact, that helped Sibal earn admission to St Stephen’s College, where he studied history.

Stories from Sibal’s college days are dominated by accounts of his performances in the college’s Shakespeare Society and his grand romance with Nina Singh, who would soon become his wife. Singh, the daughter of a Sikh father and Greek mother, studied in Miranda House, a women’s college not far from Stephen’s. Several of Sibal’s candid love poems narrate their romance, including ‘Lovers and the Chowkidar’:

Every time you met me,
your arrival woefully late,
I stood, somewhat embarrassed,
outside your college gate.

Those who saw me waiting
smiled knowingly at me,
a sight that they had witnessed
ever so frequently

[…]

We waited for the sun to set
to hold each other tight;
nocturnal prowl, the chowkidar,
sentinel of the night.

Spotted with his flashy torch
both in disheveled state,
ensuring that potential sinners
must never fall from grace

Subroto Mukerji, who was Sibal’s junior at Stephen’s, recalled Nina Singh as “the beauty of Miranda College—she had classic Grecian features with coppery brown hair, like those ladies who light the Olympic torch. It didn’t come as a surprise that they were together.” Decades later, Mukerji still described Sibal with a tone of teenaged awe: even then, it seemed, Sibal projected a preternatural confidence.

Sibal was “stocky and strong, but you couldn’t call him fat”, Mukerji remembered, and his voice “travelled across the room effortlessly”. Sibal landed all the biggest roles in college theatre productions, Mukerji said, and particularly remembered his part in Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceros, in which the characters turn into the titular animal. “He was particularly suited for the role, you know, with his strong shoulders and build, as if it was written for him,” Mukerji said. “He portrayed all his roles with utmost ease—his dialogue delivery was flawless, he never fumbled his lines.” Sibal’s dramatic performances made him a highly visible figure on campus. “He was very popular because of his Shakespeare roles—he was the star, you know. You couldn’t be in St Stephen’s and not know him,” Mukerji said. “People used to call him ‘Kapilious Sibalious’. He knew this, but it didn’t bother him.”

After graduation, Sibal started teaching history in Hindu College and attended evening law classes; Nina taught in Daulat Ram College and qualified for the IFS in 1972. Sibal passed the civil services exam the next year—a fact that is invariably mentioned in his official biographies—but withdrew after he was assigned to the IAS. “He told the interview board he was keen on IFS because of his wife,” the family friend told me. “But the board thought it was a lame reason, and assigned him IAS instead.” That summer they were married, and two years later, Nina was posted to New York. Sibal followed her and took a master’s degree in maritime law at Harvard Law School, paying his own way through the course, and then worked as an associate at the New York law firm Cole & Deitz.

Nina Sibal published three books of fiction: Yatra, The Secret Life of Gujjar Mal and The Dogs of Justice. Her writings touched on contemporary political issues—Kashmir, the Bhopal tragedy, terrorism in Punjab—and were reviewed as part of a feminist literary tradition. In 1998, reviewing her third book, Khushwant Singh wrote in his column: “There is little doubt Nina Sibal can write well and when she takes the trouble to do so, she can depict scenes with poetic skill. It is equally clear that she did not devote as much time to writing this novel as she should have done. Novel-writing needs single-minded devotion; it cannot be done in spare time after office hours. Nina Sibal has been unfair to herself and her readers.” (A decade later, Singh would play the key role in bringing Kapil Sibal’s part-time poetry to the world, by recommending Sibal to Pramod Kapoor of Roli Books.)

Nina Sibal’s books drew frequently from her own life and experiences: her first novel, Yatra, features a heroine with a Greek mother; in The Dogs of Justice, a girl studies in Miranda House, as Nina had done. A short story published in the UNESCO in-house magazine in 1993, ‘Miss Savitri and Her Shadow’, is narrated by a male librarian who works in Shastri Bhavan, where Kapil Sibal would later sit as a minister. The narrator’s lover is a female politician, just elected to Parliament for the first time, and the story contains an uncanny intimation of Sibal’s political ambitions: “One day,” the librarian says, “you will ride in state up this great central road of the city, slowly up the low hill leading to Rashtrapati Bhavan, abode of our President, with its grand cupola, and be sworn in as Minister in this or that cabinet. Have patience, you are still young, you have time.”

By then, Sibal had returned to India and become one of Delhi’s most prominent lawyers, after a series of high-profile cases throughout the 1980s; in 1989 he was appointed additional solicitor general of India. Nina would go on to become the director of UNESCO’s New York office. After a long struggle with cancer, she died in 2000; her body was returned to Delhi and cremated at Nigambodh Ghat. “Breast cancer carried her away in her prime,” her friend and fellow diplomat Shashi Tharoor wrote. “It is less than a year since I wrote her a recommendation for a fellowship that would have allowed her to take time off from her job to work on a new novel. Now she has run out of time too soon.”

More than a few of Sibal’s poems make reference to Nina’s death. In one, ‘You Left Me Midway’, he writes:

I still reach out to touch
the texture of your skin
unmindful of the years gone by,
the emptiness within.

By 2000, Sibal was already in his third year as a Rajya Sabha MP. Four years later, he would fight the elections that would finally let him drive up to Rashtrapati Bhavan to be sworn in as a minister, just as Nina had predicted.

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AFTER RETURNING FROM NEW YORK at the beginning of the 1980s, Sibal began to practice law in Delhi—and, following in his father’s footsteps, he took up several controversial cases, which quickly brought him renown. In 1984, he argued in the Supreme Court for a petition to dismiss the death sentence of Maqbool Bhat, a founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, who had masterminded the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in 1971. “Nobody was willing to take up his case,” Muzaffar Hussain Baig, a former deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir who was senior to Sibal in Delhi University’s Faculty of Law, told me. “Amnesty International had asked me to take it up and demand that he be treated as a political prisoner. Because I was a Kashmiri Muslim, I approached Kapil Sibal, thinking he might get a better hearing because he is Hindu. Though he first said no, by the next morning he agreed.” (One friend of Sibal’s remembered that his father had urged him not to take the case.)

Sibal forcefully argued Bhat’s case before the Supreme Court, Baig said, but the justices were in no mood for clemency. “There was a lot of pressure on Indira Gandhi to calm the public outrage, because an Indian diplomat, Ravindra Mhatre, had been killed in London by Kashmiri militants demanding Bhat’s release.” On the day the verdict was returned, Sibal took Baig and a few of his associates to the Oberoi Hotel for tea. For the first time, Baig remembered, the usual smile had vanished from Sibal’s face. “I asked him why he was looking so sullen and he said, ‘I am sorry a life has slipped out of my hands’,” Baig told me. “I had to console him. Lawyers are as thick-skinned as politicians, but I realised he had sensitivity and compassion.” Another one of Sibal’s poems, ‘Lease of Life’, tells us that he is an opponent of the death penalty:

Life’s a precious gift
nature provides,
absent our consent.

We have no right
to snuff it out
with capital punishment.

It was not the first time Sibal had argued a case from Kashmir at Baig’s urging: in 1981, he represented Mohiuddin Malik, the speaker of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly, who had been unceremoniously expelled from office by Sheikh Abdullah, the “Lion of Kashmir” who was then the state’s chief minister. Sibal won the case, and obtained a stay order against Abdullah. “The Supreme Court was critical of Sheikh Abdullah and said he should respect democracy,” Baig said. “The result was broadcast on All India Radio, and the next morning Kapil Sibal was all over the newspapers. Because Sheikh Abdullah was the ‘lion’ those days, you know. That was the first case that got Sibal a lot of publicity. I remember a very senior Supreme Court lawyer walked up to him the next day, congratulated him and said ‘a star is born in North India’. Because until then all the big names were either from Bombay or the South.” According to Baig, the case even brought Sibal to the attention of Indira Gandhi: “He had come into the zone of consideration for the party, as she was looking for professionals at that time.”

But the case that put him squarely on the path to stardom came a decade later, in 1993, when he became the first non-parliamentarian to address both houses of Parliament, another fact that is noted without fail in his official biographies. Sibal was arguing on behalf of V Ramaswami, the first Supreme Court justice to face impeachment, over allegations of excessive expenditure. Sibal’s defence lasted for several hours, and proceeded in his usual theatrical style. “We must uphold the traditions of this great institution and not make wild allegations against judges,” he said at the start of his presentation. Sibal argued the charges against Ramaswami were baseless, but framed the case as a test for the independence of the judiciary, contending that the allegations were in any case insufficient to merit the extraordinary act of impeachment. “I appeared today certainly for the judge, but more for the institution,” Sibal said. “The judge may be removed or may not be removed, it is not my concern. I will certainly defend him. I am concerned with the fallout of the vote.”

The impeachment motion was defeated, and Sibal became a legal celebrity. “We used to get inquiries from people eager to know what he charged to fight a case,” the Congress cabinet minister, who was then an MP, recalled. “But it wasn’t Sibal’s genius that won the case—it became a north versus south issue. PV Narasimha Rao was the prime minister, and the ruling party, Congress, decided to abstain from voting,” the minister said. “But Sibal was the biggest beneficiary of the case.”

OVER THE COURSE OF MORE THAN TWO DECADES, Sibal appeared in innumerable high-profile cases, many of them involving the country’s most prominent politicians, including BJP stalwart LK Advani, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. He also represented Sanjay Dutt when the actor was accused in the 1993 Bombay blasts case. “There is no case worth its name without Sibal in it,” a Supreme Court advocate told me. “He chooses them very carefully.” Sibal himself, in a recent interview, said, “There has hardly been any political party or corporate house that I have not represented.”

Several of Sibal’s friends recalled that he had long had his eye on entering politics, even before the legal cases that made his reputation. “One day Nina brought an astrologer to their house in Maharani Bagh,” Baig told me. “The astrologer, who seemed familiar with the power circles, predicted that Sibal would become a famous lawyer, and at the peak of his success and fame, he would become a minister. And Kapil replied by saying, ‘Law is my profession, but politics is my passion.’” By the mid-1990s, Sibal seemed determined to get into Parliament, and even went to meet the godman Chandraswami, who was close to then-prime minister Rao, the family friend told me. Sibal would go on to become Rao’s defence lawyer in a 1996 case when Rao and Chandraswami were accused of cheating a businessman, Lakhubhai Pathak. The two would be given a clean chit by the CBI years later, and Sibal got a ticket from Rao to contest the 1996 Lok Sabha elections from South Delhi, losing by more than 100,000 votes to Sushma Swaraj.

By the time elections came again two years later, Rao had been sidelined by the party over the fallout from the Babri Masjid demolition. But Sibal’s growing political connections left him with other options. He had defended Lalu Prasad Yadav, then the chief minister of Bihar, in the 1997 Fodder Scam; the following year, Lalu supported Sibal as a candidate for the Rajya Sabha from Bihar, and convinced Sitaram Kesri, the Congress president and a fellow Bihari, to back Sibal as well. After joining the upper house, Sibal continued to represent Lalu in court as well as in Parliament, arguing in the Rajya Sabha that the charges were “frivolous”, and leading the opposition’s walkout over the issue in April 2000. Sibal also led the Congress’s charge to have Rajiv Gandhi’s name deleted from the Bofors scandal charge sheet, which was filed in 2000, arguing that it was unprecedented to name a deceased person as among the accused. Around the same time, Sibal served as defence lawyer for three of the billionaire Hinduja brothers, who were accused of taking illegal payments as part of the Bofors arms deal. (Two of the brothers were spotted earlier this year as guests at the Mumbai launch of Sibal’s second book of poetry, My World Within.)

After Sonia Gandhi replaced Kesri as the Congress president in 1998, she selected Sibal as one of the party’s spokesmen, and he served as part of her core strategy team during the 1999 elections. But he has not been close to Gandhi since 2000, when he lent support to the dissidence brewing against her in the wake of the election defeat. After a poor Congress performance in April 2000 Rajya Sabha elections, seen as another setback for Sonia, Sibal added his voice to the chorus of critics, telling The Indian Express, “The time has come for every right-thinking Congressman to sit up and ask himself the reason for the present situation in the party.” Later that year, Sibal backed the Congress rebel Jitendra Prasada in his ill-fated challenge to Gandhi’s presidency, which ended in a humiliating defeat, with Prasada taking less than two percent of the vote.

But Sibal had established a foothold for himself in the party with his performance in the run-up to the 1999 elections, which presented the first real opportunity for him to showcase his inimitable style of televised argument. During one appearance, after the release of exit poll results that correctly predicted a defeat for the Congress, Sibal attacked the psephologist who had conducted the poll, demanding to know who had financed the survey, and then flinging accusations that it was a ploy to influence voters. “When these figures are proved wrong, as I’m sure they will be,” Sibal demanded, “who will take the responsibility? Who is to be held accountable?” Though his talents are now usually deployed on defence, at the time he took the lead in attacking the NDA government, accusing then-Prime Minister Vajpayee of conspiring in secret with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to import unneeded sugar from Pakistan. Sibal insisted that what he dubbed “Sugargate” was “the scandal of the century”, and called Vajpayee a “habitual liar” who was “not only sleeping when the enemy came [during the Kargil War] but also actively connived and consorted with the enemy”.

In a candid moment after the votes were counted, Sibal admitted that “many a thing I said during elections was not because I wanted to say so, but because I was required to”. As a rule, the public does not always expect politicians (or lawyers, for that matter) to believe their own arguments, but the charge of insincerity has stuck to Sibal with particular tenacity, in part because he had a very different reputation in his days as a lawyer. “Of all the politician-lawyers, he was the only one to take up rights issues against the state—when the government is out of power, Chidambaram will only appear for the big corporates, he will never challenge legislation. But Sibal has conviction, credibility and competence,” one Supreme Court advocate told me. “He was unaffordable, but he would lend himself to a cause. And when Sibal stands up for a case, people take note of it.” Many people see his rapid rise in the party, in spite of his status as an outsider, as clear evidence that his ambitions have driven him to say and do whatever it takes to demonstrate his loyalty and effectiveness. “I think he’s lost his objectivity in his effort to please the powers that be,” a BJP central executive committee member who was once Sibal’s law client told me. “Otherwise he is an extremely sharp man, he understands what the facts are. But we think his arguments are fundamentally ridiculous. He is like Digvijay Singh, we don’t go to great lengths to defend against what he says—we take Chidambaram more seriously.”

Sibal’s poems, which often refer, in a manner both clumsy and earnest, to political issues like the US-India nuclear agreement, the global economic crisis and terrorist attacks, also suggest a deep cynicism about the practice of politics and an ambivalence about the role Sibal has been drafted to play. A few stanzas from ‘Riding Dangerously (Recipe for the opportunist)’ are particularly revealing:

 

In the stable
must always try
to catch hold of
the leader’s eye.

Blind faith and trust
are virtues which
will help you soon
to strike it rich.

If under siege
do not stand by
rise to defend
don’t question why.

The leadership
will look to see
and calibrate
your loyalty,

and if you fail
to be steadfast
the chances are
you will not last.

| 5 |

EARLIER THIS SUMMER, Sibal began telling reporters who are close to him that he wouldn’t care if the education ministry was taken away from him in the next cabinet reshuffle. It was a remarkable admission of frustration, given the enthusiasm with which he announced his grand plans to transform education in India. During his first year at the ministry, Sibal had introduced at least a dozen pieces of legislation, a very ambitious programme by any measure. But until this May, 14 of these bills still had not passed through Parliament. There are several plausible explanations for this logjam—Sibal would cite an intransigent opposition and “vested interests” resistant to reform—but most observers concur that he has been the primary author of his own woes.

Sibal’s aggressive performances as the government’s public advocate and his frequent dismissive jibes at the opposition and its leaders—which are far more visible than his work as a minister—have played a key role in his difficulties in Parliament. As a lawyer, he had argued on behalf of politicians from almost every party, and befriended many lawyers who have since entered politics: his friendship with Arun Jaitley, who was also a top lawyer, goes back to the 1980s. Those who have seen him argue cases in court say that he was unfailingly diplomatic and charming; the Supreme Court advocate told me that “he has a way of getting to the judge’s heart faster than anyone else”. But as a politician, Sibal seems incapable of diplomacy. In Parliament, the true testing ground for political success, his personality stands in the way of his bills: he rarely conceals his disdain for competing arguments, and other MPs describe him as arrogant and dismissive. For a cabinet minister with two portfolios and the backing of the prime minister, he commands precious little respect on the floor of the house, where his speeches are often disrupted by interruptions and heckling from the opposition benches.

Sibal rose to speak during a debate on the Lokpal Bill in December 2011, and he had barely finished his poetic opening lines—Desh ke bhavishya mein kuch aise lamhe bhi aate hain, jab waqt ki ghadi ruk jaati hai (In the future of the nation, there will be moments when the clock of time will come to a standstill)—when a chorus of sarcastic “waah-waahs” cut him off. The speaker, Meira Kumar, had to intervene, saying “what is happening, this is not proper”, and Sibal managed to carry on. The other Congress leaders who spoke that day, before and after Sibal, did not face similar interference, perhaps because their speeches did not contain lines like Sibal’s putdown of Sushma Swaraj: “My knowledge of the law is a bit rusted. It seems Sushma-ji has read the Constitution very closely.”

A more recent episode, from August 2012, highlighted both Sibal’s dismissive approach to dissenting opinions and his inability to smooth the obstacles that stand in the way of passing his bills. When Ananth Kumar Hegde, a BJP MP from Karnataka, raised an objection to the National Accreditation Bill, a key part of Sibal’s education reform agenda, Sibal waved away his argument with a patronising assertion of seniority, suggesting that Hegde’s opposition was irrelevant because, he said, “I have spoken to all your leaders.” When Hegde refused to back down, saying, “This is not the problem of the leaders, this is the problem of the House,” Sibal tried once again to sidestep the issue. “You are saying it’s unconstitutional, but speak to your leaders first.” Hegde had mounted a blistering attack on the quality of the bill under debate: “My little daughter writes good stories, but the last time this bill was introduced, it was worse than that. What’s the hurry in introducing bills like these without any consultation?… I don’t expect a well-read Supreme Court advocate to commit such a mistake, that the ministry will commit such a mistake. This is an insult to the House that without groundwork this bill was introduced. Is everybody sitting in the House illiterate? Ignorant?” The bill had to be deferred, and Sibal was left looking like an amateur boxer who knows how to throw a punch but forgets to duck when one comes his way.

Harsh criticism of this sort has not come only from the opposition. In September 2010, during a debate on the National Education Tribunal bill in the Rajya Sabha, one of Sibal’s own party colleagues, K Keshava Rao, attacked Sibal for rejecting all the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, and for giving MPs only an hour to study the bill when it was introduced. The opposition benches cheered Rao when he told Sibal that “his thoughts run faster than the deeds of his ministry”, and seized the opportunity to demand that the bill be deferred. Not a single Congress MP came to Sibal’s defence, even as Rao called him “a first-class file-pusher”. Rao wasn’t reprimanded for his attack on Sibal, and there were widespread rumours that he had the quiet support of other senior party members. “I have never seen Sibal so furious,” a ministry official told me. Sibal even complained to Manmohan Singh, who reiterated his support two days later in a speech on Teacher’s Day. “I compliment and pay tribute to my colleague Shri Kapil Sibal,” Singh said, “for the zeal, dedication and enthusiasm that he has brought to bear on the work of this most important ministry of the Union Government.”

Sibal has become such a polarising figure inside the Parliament that even his well-meaning attempts to support other ministers have sometimes ended disastrously. When Sharad Pawar, the agriculture minister, moved a bill in the Rajya Sabha to introduce an agricultural university in Uttar Pradesh in December 2011, he was opposed by a first-time Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP, P Rajeev, who argued that the Constitution does not give the central government power to incorporate a new university, an argument that was supported by the BJP MP Chandan Mitra. Pawar began to defend the bill, arguing that the government had introduced similar universities in the past, but when Rajeev turned the argument back to the Constitution, Sibal attempted to intervene, flatly declaring that Rajeev’s interpretation of the Constitution was incorrect. At this point things went out of control, and the debate was shut down by interruptions; the house was adjourned three times, and the bill was deferred.

“Pawar is a very senior and respected minister,” Mitra told me as he recounted the episode. “He has a better sense of the house and knows better how to handle the Parliament. While he was speaking, nobody said anything. Sibal unnecessarily intervened. After that, Pawar sat with a Buddha smile on his face and when he understood the situation was not going to ease, he took the bill back. Sibal kept shaking his head in great disappointment.”

Another senior BJP MP presented me with a prepared document outlining the opposition’s objections to the education bills that Sibal had introduced. It concluded with a list of bullet points under the heading “The Kapil Pattern”: “No proper consultation. Unilateralism. Casual drafting. Centralisation of power (against federalism). Privatisation. Bureaucratisation.  Commercialisation.” But the BJP MP argued that Sibal’s abrasive demeanour had worsened the situation. “Even if [Daggubati] Purandeswari had introduced those bills, half of them would have been cleared by now,” he said, referring to one of the ministers of state who serves under Sibal. “If he places the bills, even good ones will be destroyed. He is highly self-centred, and instead of understanding the problems, he accuses everyone of lobbying against him.” I asked Mitra if he agreed. “These things said in jest do convey a sentiment,” he said. “The problem is that he is so dismissive of your case—his attitude is, ‘Are you telling me about the Constitution?’”

Several people I interviewed drew unflattering contrasts between Sibal and his predecessor at the education ministry, Arjun Singh. While Singh introduced several controversial measures, he had greater success persuading other politicians and stakeholders to lend their support—and several of the most significant programmes to come into force during Sibal’s tenure, including the landmark Right to Education act, were actually introduced by Singh. Though Sibal often says that education touches everyone in the country, critics complain that too many of his bills have been drafted and introduced without any effort to solicit input from outside the ministry.

Reviewing one such bill, the Parliamentary Standing Committee admonished the ministry for its failure to do so: “It is evident that consultation with all the stakeholders, which should have been ideally the starting point for formulating such a crucial piece of legislation… remained the least priority issue for the department.” One member of the Central Advisory Board for Education (CABE), which advises the central and state governments on education policy, said that in the past, “all and sundry got to give inputs, and ownership was ensured in the process”. But under Sibal, he said, “ownership is seen as a personalised thing in these bills. In a democracy, when things get personalised with the minister and the ministry then it’s not going to go down well.” Because education is on the Constitution’s concurrent list, the states have to be consulted. “Many of the state governments’ issues are not always valid,” the CABE member said. “But in our chaotic democracy, if you are going to bring in legislation without discussing with them, they will feel violated.” Though everyone agrees further reforms are urgently needed, many academics and education experts feel Sibal has disregarded their concerns because he is determined to enact substantive changes with great speed. “He wants to leave a stamp on the Indian universities,” the CABE member said, referring to Sibal’s plans to ease the entry of foreign higher education institutions. “He travels a lot to the US, and has connections there. But he should realise education is not like setting up a Maruti plant, it is about human beings.”

“Sibal has a particular disdain for the academic community,” one education policy expert told me. “He has a simple-minded conviction about everything, and comes with a lawyer’s sense that ‘I have the best answer.’ But what’s ‘new’ in his new and radical reforms? Just the entry of foreign and private players?”

WITHIN THE MINISTRY, Sibal has faced criticism for ignoring the advice of senior bureaucrats in his haste to push legislation through Parliament. In his early days at the ministry, there was considerable enthusiasm for his energetic approach, but morale has plummeted as bill after bill failed to pass. Bureaucrats who have worked with Sibal describe him as personally affable and unconcerned with hierarchy; when he first came to Shastri Bhavan, he made his own coffee. One of Sibal’s poems, ‘Smooth Sailing’, traffics in the usual jokes about bureaucratic inefficiency:

Our bureaucrats
have finely tweaked
Newton’s famous
Law of motion.

[…]

They slow down
movement of the files,
taking recourse in
Law of gravity:

Those requiring
urgent action
kept at the bottom
of the pile.

“Professionally he acts like he knows everything, but personally he is very likable,” one source said. Another ministry official admitted that spirits had been low, but defended the ministry’s efforts. “We have tried our best, but if the bills won’t get cleared, what can we do? An elephant can’t move at the pace of a cheetah—legislations take time,” he said. But as the backlog of bills grew larger, Sibal’s frustrations mounted, and pressure built up inside the ministry. “He feels that in the last few months the bureaucrats have not been supporting him,” a senior journalist who covers the ministry told me. “But having seen both sides, I can tell you he is not right.” Things came to a head earlier this summer when Vibha Puri Das, who served as secretary for higher education, was shunted out overnight to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Das refused to discuss the details of her departure, but other sources close to the ministry confirmed her transfer had been unusually abrupt—she was notified on the same day she was transferred. “It was an episode that reflected the sense the ministry was in free fall,” one source said. “Bills were not getting cleared, Sibal wasn’t happy, Das wasn’t happy, and it all exploded at that moment.” After many attempts to speak with Das, who now sits elsewhere in Shastri Bhavan, she declined to comment on the circumstances that led to her transfer. “It’s not proper on my part—I’ve left that ministry,” she said. But when I asked her if she felt the ministry had been in a hurry, and if she felt hurried as a result, she said “the direction was right, we all agreed. But political consensus could not be built. The proof of the pudding is in political success, and there wasn’t much of that. Government processes take time, but I can’t say I was rushed.”

AS SIBAL’S BILLS PILED UP IN PARLIAMENT, he began to appear increasingly intolerant of any criticism. In September 2010, after a bill to establish new education tribunals was blocked, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), a Delhi think-tank, penned a blistering column in The Indian Express excoriating the ministry’s reform efforts as “shockingly shoddy in their execution”. Criticising what he called an “arbitrary slash and burn approach to reform”, Mehta took apart a series of bills and initiatives: the draft of one law, Mehta wrote, was “so awful” it had to be “completely redone”; another was “a terribly drafted piece of legislation”. Mehta concluded by suggesting that while the urgency on display was “admirable,” the ministry’s “unthinking haste” suggested it was “more intent on making a statement than solving a problem”.

Sibal, who has rarely been shy about making his displeasure known to journalists and editors, was so outraged that he called up Mehta later that night to vent his anger. When I approached Mehta to ask him about the call, he wouldn’t tell me what Sibal had said, because “I have to think about the organisation I head too”. (The Indian Council of Social Science Research, run by the education ministry, contributes funding to CPR.) But since Sibal’s pushback, Mehta has not discussed education in his weekly Express column, so it’s safe to say the message was a firm one.

Sibal’s combative side was put on display again late last year, when The New York Times reported that he had asked Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo to “prescreen user content from India and to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online”. The report, which created a massive uproar, said that Sibal had called “legal representatives from the top Internet service providers and Facebook” into his office and showed them a Facebook page maligning Sonia Gandhi, saying, “This is unacceptable.” At a press conference called in response the following day, Sibal essentially confirmed the report, insisting that the government had to protect “the sensibilities of our people” from material that was “so offensive… it would offend any reasonable person”. After explaining that the government had approached the Internet companies requesting that they design a mechanism to remove such content, he complained that they did not respond to several further requests, which “suggested the seriousness with which they took our statements”. At that point, Sibal said, “I told them, look, you better come to me with a solution now, and whatever your response is, you come to me in writing, because this cannot go on any further.” For good measure, Sibal added one final allegation against the foreign Internet companies: “I must also share something else with you. Sometimes when data with respect to terrorists is sought from them in terms of emails and other things, there is hesitation on their part to even provide that data.”

An employee at one of the companies told me that even before the matter was leaked to the press, Sibal had taken a hard line in meetings with company representatives. “We said it’s not possible to pre-censor the content and that we have review mechanisms and a flagging system in place,” the employee told me. “He didn’t accept the explanation, and after four meetings in October 2011, he said, ‘Now see what we do to you.’” At a meeting with one of the companies after the New York Times report, the employee said that Sibal was even more angry. “For the first fifteen minutes he gave them a dressing-down,” the employee told me. “He said things like, ‘You’ve ruined my reputation. I have become a laughing-stock. How can you do this?’ We decided not to send our senior executives to the meetings because he was so arrogant.”

| 6 |

A LAWYER WHO KNOWS Sibal’s family told me that his dealings with the Internet companies had come as a shock. “I always found him to be a rational person. His family is all very Westernised and liberal in their thinking, which is why this episode came as such a surprise,” the lawyer said. “Sibal is not someone with sharp elbows. Maybe he is trying to prove a point to his party—that he can be a hardliner too.” Another friend of the family praised Sibal’s “great personal skills”, and suggested that “all his juniors are very fond of him, because he is the most non-hierarchical person”. But more recently, the friend said, “There is a certain arrogance in him, because he is holding the fort for the government—sometimes he behaves like he is the deputy prime minister.”

A member of the team that accompanied Sibal when he visited Antarctica as the science and technology minister in 2005 said that Sibal insisted on being treated like any other member of the contingent. On the flight from South Africa to the south pole, in a rickety Soviet-era cargo aircraft, he sat on the heater. “The next morning, he said, ‘I had a tough night’—he couldn’t sleep a wink. But when we said ‘Why didn’t you tell us before,’ he said, ‘Somebody had to sit there.’ He was the oldest member of the team, but he didn’t complain about the sub-zero temperatures; he even tried to wash his own plate in the kitchen, but we stopped him.” Over the course of my reporting, I saw Sibal arrive early for at least six events. Unlike most politicians, he is unassuming and travels without personal security, and his enthusiasm and energy rarely seem to fade.

Sibal’s elder son, Amit, who is also a lawyer, described his father in terms that contrast starkly with his familiar television persona. “What he values greatly is maintaining relationships with family members,” Amit said. “He will bite his tongue and reserve his opinion to preserve his family ties. He approaches other relationships similarly and doesn’t usually like to burn bridges with people.” Growing up, Amit and his brother Akhil—who practices law as well—lived with their mother during her assignments in places like Cairo and Paris while Sibal was in India. “One would feel the physical distance palpably, but at the same time he exerted a strong influence on my life. He made sure his presence was felt,” Amit said. When I asked him about Sibal’s shift into politics, he said his father “had achieved a lot of success as a lawyer, and he didn’t want to do the same thing for the next twenty years. He wanted to be involved in policy-making. But he felt he had to secure himself financially before entering politics, and gave me the same advice.”

“He told me once, ‘to be a great lawyer, you need courage,’” Amit said. “He doesn’t fear failure. To contest elections in South Delhi [in 1996] was courageous—he was new to the area, but believed he could win. He had the courage to publish a book of poetry, knowing very well that it would be reviewed. To open your heart out to the public when you are in public life is courageous.”

The reviews of Sibal’s two books of poems, which he composes on his phone, have not been very charitable. When I asked Amit what he thought of his father’s poetry, he nimbly evaded an answer. “That’s a question that will say things about me and not him,” he said. In the acknowledgements to his first book, Sibal writes that his sons, “though not entirely convinced, still encouraged me to publish”. His manuscript was first rejected by one leading publisher, but Sibal was determined to share his poems with the world, and Khushwant Singh—who had printed a few of Sibal’s verses in his column—recommended Sibal to one of his publishers, Roli Books. Sibal, who has said he reads a lot of Ogden Nash, Robert Frost and William Wordsworth, in addition to his old favourite Shakespeare, presumably has some sense that his own work falls short of the mark. “A poet can be awful in different ways,” one reviewer wrote, considering Sibal’s first book. “For one, he could be afflicted by the triteness of emotional or personal feelings; for another, he could suffer from lack of talent. Kapil Sibal qualifies on both counts.” For his part, Sibal claimed to be unruffled by the bad reviews. “I don’t care—if some people like to read esoteric blank verse, so be it,” he said in an interview. “Let people who want to read it, read it; those who don’t want to, don’t have to.”

A glance at the books, however, confirms that Sibal is quite serious about his own poems, and he was keen to have them translated into Hindi, which was done by the poet Ashok Chakradhar, who is known for his humourous verse. “Sibal was invited for a poetry reading where Chakradhar instantly translated his poems and read them out,” a publishing executive told me. “Sibal was very impressed, and asked him to translate his poetry. Not very long after that, Chakradhar became the vice president of Kendriya Hindi Sansthan,” an organisation to promote Hindi funded by Sibal’s ministry. (Sibal serves as the president.) “He acts like a personal assistant to Sibal,” the publishing executive said of Chakradhar. “He knows that Sibal has a weakness when it comes to poetry, and he’s taken advantage of that.”

In spite of the reviews, Sibal has been invited to read his poetry at the Jaipur Literature Festival for the past two years. In 2012, he was supposed to participate in a session titled “The Truth of Poetry and the Truth of Politics” with the eminent Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi, but when Vajpeyi missed his flight, Chakradhar stepped in as a substitute. The session was moderated by one of the festival’s directors, Namita Gokhale, whose daughter Shivani is married to Sibal’s younger son.

| 7 |

ON THE AUSPICIOUS 25TH EVENING of Ramadan, in August of this year, I followed Sibal to an Iftar dinner at Faiz Masjid in his Lok Sabha constituency, Chandni Chowk. Despite having won the seat in 2004 and 2009, Sibal still seemed like a fish out of water among the crowds, clearly a little uncomfortable. (“He is not a born politician, not a people’s person,” one of his aides told me. “He doesn’t like too many people around him.”)

There were a few police vans outside the mosque, but nothing to suggest a minister was nearby. Inside, the fragrance of chicken biryani and mutton qorma wafted through the air, and people sat at tables waiting to eat. The event had been organised by Shoaib Iqbal, a Delhi MLA and the area’s political strongman. There was a small crowd, and a few TV cameras. Sibal sat with two of his assistants, looking a bit like a sheepish bridegroom; he had a tiny skullcap perched awkwardly on his head. People came over to catch a glimpse of the minister saheb. When the biryani was served, he ate two spoonfuls and drank water from a plastic cup. A man standing next to me asked Sibal a question about what the government was going to do about the communal violence in Assam. Afterwards, I asked him how he felt about Sibal. “Woh to hygienic MP hain, (He is a hygienic MP),” he said with a smile. “Yahan zayada aate nahin, Paris mein zyada rehte hain (He doesn’t come here often, he stays in Paris).”

After about 30 minutes, Sibal left for the next venue: a secondary school 100 metres away, where yet another Iftar party had been organised by yet another local politician. Farid Ahmed, of the Delhi Minorities Welfare Foundation, called out the names of more than 20 people, who came up one by one and handed bouquets to Sibal. He looked more than a little bored. Then he made a short speech, in eloquent Hindi, laced with many Urdu words. “I love this place, and I wish I could come here more often,” he said. “I’m restless sitting at home because I want to come here.” When Sibal was done, a woman got on stage to speak, and said to Sibal, “Aap Purani Dilli ke Dilip Kumar hain (You are old Delhi’s Dilip Kumar).” He got up, beaming at the comparison to the yesteryear film star, and said, “I used to be a big fan of Dilip Kumar in those days. When I became a successful lawyer, I got to know him—he used to visit me in Delhi.” And then, with a big smile, “It always felt like I was meeting a brother when I met him. He is from Lahore, and I am also from Lahore.” After the party had ended, Farid Ahmed described Sibal to me as “the most secular leader”. “His father Hira Lal always fought cases for Muslims, and so does his son,” Ahmed said. “After he became HRD minister, he’s not been able to fulfil his duties as an MP. But he is busy with the country’s education.”

For Sibal, who knows that he will always be regarded as an “outsider” by the career politicians in the Congress, having twice won a Lok Sabha seat—especially in Delhi—gives him a modicum of political credibility he would otherwise lack. “He had always wanted to be in the Lok Sabha,” Amit Sibal told me. Sibal’s first victory in 2004, Amit said, “was an emotional moment, which had come after so much hard work. It was the culmination of his desire to be in active politics. Winning the Lok Sabha election was much more significant than becoming a minister—there are many ways to get to the ministry, but winning in the Lok Sabha is unique.” Sibal meets with visitors from his constituency at his home in Lutyens’ Delhi every week, aware that retaining the seat—which he won by a considerable margin even after the boundaries were enlarged in 2009—is critical to sustaining his political ambitions. “He has told me, ‘If I lose this, I lose everything,’” a reporter close to Sibal said.

It’s clear that Sibal wants to be more than the government’s TV lawyer—to make his mark and leave a legacy behind. Those achievements have so far mostly eluded him, but his ambition remains, restless and highly visible. As a friend of his family said succinctly, “Sibal is not half as successful as he wants to be.”

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ON A PLEASANT WINTER DAY in November 2010, as the afternoon sun shone on the leaves of the Katsagon trees outside Shastri Bhavan, the telephone rang in room 302, C-Wing—the office of Kapil Sibal, the Minister for Human Resource Development. The prime minister’s office was on the line, and Sibal calmly adjourned a meeting to take the call.

After the brief distraction of US President Barack Obama’s four-day visit to India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had decided Sibal would be the man to replace A Raja, the communications minister tainted by the 2G spectrum scam. Sibal’s office wasn’t expecting a call from the prime minister, but he was not surprised: according to one ministry official, TKA Nair, the principal secretary in the PMO, had been a frequent visitor to Sibal’s office in the preceding days. Raja soon submitted his resignation, and the very next day Sibal took over.

It was the second time in a week that an additional portfolio had been placed under his charge; only a few days earlier, he was asked to take over the Ministry of Science and Technology, a position he had held in the previous government. With the winter session of Parliament underway and an aggressive opposition pressing its advantage after a season of scandals, the prime minister had once again turned to the man he appeared to trust the most. Six years after he first won an election to the Lok Sabha, Sibal had nine secretaries reporting to him as the head of three ministries—at the time, the most for any minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

At that moment, Sibal’s ascent within the Congress party looked meteoric. A spectacularly successful lawyer before he entered politics in the late 1990s, Sibal rose to prominence as the party’s most vociferous public advocate—a spokesman who could always be counted upon to staunchly defend the party’s leaders and denounce the opposition.

Summoning the theatrical and oratorical skills he displayed as an actor in the Shakespeare Society at Delhi’s elite St Stephen’s College and honed in hundreds of court appearances, Sibal relishes any opportunity for verbal jousting, confident that he will inevitably have the upper hand. He comes prepared to every press conference, arriving early and carrying papers, which he likes to thrust dramatically into the air while making an argument, the better to underline its authenticity; he anticipates the questions of reporters, launching into his answers before they’ve finished, contesting their premises, correcting their language, and generally controlling the debate.

But he has remained an outsider within the party, one of the “professionals” favoured by Singh and derided by many of the career politicians and family loyalists who make up the Congress upper echelon. Among the country’s chattering classes, his innumerable television appearances and indefatigable zeal for defending the indefensible have made him a favourite target for mockery and derision—in which he typically appears as a caricature combining the worst qualities of lawyers, politicians and out-of-touch elites. But Sibal is well aware that his prominence within the party depends on these over-the-top performances, and it could be argued that no other politician has taken better advantage of the present age of around-the-clock television shoutfests and exaggerated sound-bites.

“He is made to fight for the party and he’s made many enemies because of that, but it helps him rise within the party,” one of his close aides told me. “He enjoys it, as a lawyer, to be in these combative situations and stick his neck out.”

WITHIN DAYS OF TAKING OVER the communications ministry, Sibal leapt into action, briefing newspaper reporters and appearing on multiple television channels to defend Manmohan Singh (“the prime minister is a man of integrity”; “he would not allow anyone to indulge in corrupt practices”) and attack Subramanian Swamy, whose unanswered letters to the prime minister’s office in 2008 seeking prosecution of Raja had led the Supreme Court to criticise Singh’s “alleged inaction”. Dubbing Swamy “a person who is interested in only political one-upmanship”, Sibal condemned his efforts as “a clear move to destabilise the government”, and insisted that the prime minister was not obligated “to start responding to every piece of unsubstantiated paper sent to him”.

News reports indicated that Congress leaders were pleased by Sibal’s initial counteroffensive—but he was just getting started. At the end of November, without relenting from his defence of Raja’s decision to allot cellular spectrum without an auction, Sibal announced that notices would be issued to operators suspected of benefiting from Raja’s largesse. Around the same time, he established a one-man committee, headed by former Supreme Court justice Shivaraj Patil, to investigate spectrum and licence allocation going back to 2001—a clear attempt to spread the blame to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose tenure in government lasted until 2004. Last, and certainly not least, he began to take aim at the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), whose report on the 2G scam, released in November 2010, had affixed a mind-bogglingly enormous sum to the scandal, suggesting that Raja’s malfeasance had cost the exchequer Rs 1.76 trillion.

Sibal’s rhetorical strategy, which was most visibly on display in his 2G pleadings, almost always involves fighting on multiple fronts: all at once, he will deny an allegation, attack the opposition for hypocrisy, and suggest that whatever has been alleged was in fact the correct policy to begin with.

By the beginning of January 2011, Sibal had become the unquestioned face of the government in its pushback against the 2G charges. But then, it seemed, he may have stuck his neck out a little too far. On 7 January, he called a press conference in an attempt to debunk the CAG’s numbers—whose sheer magnitude had damaged the government more than any other single revelation in the long unfolding of the scam.

“The figure of 1.76 lakh crore, with the greatest respect to the CAG,” Sibal said, pausing for a few seconds as if to warn listeners of what was to follow, “is so utterly erroneous.” Through a series of calculations—each of them founded on the premise that “the logic underlying this estimate is completely flawed”, because the government’s policy had been to “maximise public welfare… and not merely to maximise government revenues”—Sibal whittled the unthinkable Rs 1.76 trillion down to a far more manageable figure of zero. “No loss at all. Zero is the loss,” Sibal declared. “A complicated and complex issue like this shouldn’t have led to the conclusions of presumptive loss of this magnitude,” Sibal said, indicting the CAG. “It has embarrassed the government, it has embarrassed the nation.”

Sibal was not the first Congressman to suggest that the putative “scam” was merely a rogue minister’s poor implementation of an existing policy—or, if you didn’t believe that, an unsound policy that had anyway been introduced by the BJP.  (At the same press conference, Sibal did allow, in a reference to Raja, that “prima facie, there was something wrong in the procedures adopted for allocation of 2G spectrum”.) Nor was he the first to suggest that “presumptive loss” was not equivalent to “actual loss”. But these were just efforts to minimise the scam: no one before Sibal had taken the revolutionary step, from a public relations perspective, of insisting with a straight face that as far as losses were concerned, there was no scam at all.

The opposition erupted with outrage, mocking Sibal’s “cover-up exercise” as “bizarre”, accusing him of besmirching the CAG and attempting to undermine the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), whose inquiries were still underway. The Indian Express dubbed him “Kapil Denial Sibal”, and the rest of the media had a field day repeating Sibal’s apparent defiance of reality, which seemed to confirm the existing picture of a government that was fundamentally unserious about combating corruption in its ranks. Even fellow Congressmen were privately aghast: Ashwani Kumar, then just a Member of Parliament (and now the science and technology minister), wrote a letter to the prime minister with a sample of derisive newspaper clips criticising Sibal’s “zero loss” defence, which Kumar suggested had “altered the flavour of public debate on the 2G spectrum issue against ourselves”.

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Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.

READER'S COMMENTS

15 thoughts on “The Argumentative Indian”

Excellent description!!! This was my first visit to this website. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for this special column of Kapil Sibbal. I studied in an Institute who has tradition to be Presided by Minister of HRD. And I have had pleasure of listening Mr. Sibal on number of occasions. I was not able to figure out his actual personality, when he use to indulge himself in criticizing a book of which book release function he was invited as chief guest. It was strange for all of us.
I hope most are scenes are rewinding before my eyes and things are looking clearer. Thanks a lot.

Enjoyed the article thoroughly. Because of his TV performances and the zero-loss rhetoric, Kapil Sibal seemed inhuman or irrational or both to me. The lines about His wife’s death.. kind of made me realize he is human too! I think that is the best thing about this write up. You realize he is just another ambitious-yet-to-be-successful human being!

This is a poorly researched article. It gives the impression that Kapil Sibal is an aging widower. Even a casual internet search reveals the facts about the subject’s current marital status. Kapil Sibal married social activist Promila many years after the death of his first wife Nina. The article also needed to go through several redrafts. It contains bloopers like “He is made to fight for the party and he’s (sic) made many enemies because of that,….” “Lots (sic) of MPs complain that he is arrogant, …” The writer also fails to mention that the figures cited in the spectrum scam were speculative and plagued by problems of perception. Many people saw through it as a hatchet job by the opposition. KS’s attempts to censor the internet was a response to material that could spark communal riots in India. Then the article goes on to make wild insinuations that KS prefers to stay in Paris, has connections in the USA, supports foreign investment in education, is not a people’s person, fussy about hygiene etc., without a shred of evidence. KS’s clean and non-corrupt image, patriotism, secular credentials, reputation for defending the indefensible etc., could have been expanded in greater detail. The lawmakers cutting across party lines stand exposed for their pettiness in blocking education reform owing to their dislike for one individual KS, rather than their love for the country and its future generations. KS’s deft fire fighting saved the day during Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev agitations. No politician or lawyer is objective. In the final analysis, anyone who has the guts to call a spade a bloody shovel by referring to Narendra Modi as an “encounter specialist” has to have something going for him. It is not far fetched to imagine Kapil Sibal being catapulted to the office of PM by default in 2014.

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