On 9 September, the veteran lawyer Ram Jethmalani announced his retirement from legal practice. Jethmalani will turn 94 on 14 September, and his retirement comes after spending over seven decades as an advocate at the bar. In an interview he gave to the web publication LiveLaw after announcing his retirement, Jethmalani said, “I want to do some important work in my life. I want to save India from corrupt politicians.”
In her book Courting Politics, Shweta Bansal recounts the lives of nine lawyer-politicians, of whom Jethmalani is one. Bansal writes that these nine men comprise some of India’s “most distinguished legal luminaries who have gone on to dominate the political arena and continue to hold sway.” In the foreword to the book, the senior advocate Fali S Nariman writes that “with the re-emergence, after over three decades, of a super-majoritarian government,” it is not possible for lawyer-politicians to be loyal to both the parliament and the judiciary. Nariman continues: “Each of these nine men must now make a choice and it is a dilemma that they face—a dilemma that did not trouble the lawyer-politicians of yesteryear.” In the following excerpt from the book, Bansal recounts Jethmalani’s foray into politics and how he holds the BJP stalwart LK Advani responsible for his expulsion from the party in 2013.
The Nanavati case also brought Ram close to the then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon. Ram even campaigned for Krishna Menon in the 1962 elections. This was Ram’s first brush with politics and his love affair with it continues to this day. “Politics is also a matter of interest and gives you a sense of satisfaction that you have done your job well,” says Ram. He would often be called by Krishna Menon to help him with his political speeches and translations of his English speeches to Hindi. Ram always did as he pleased and at one instance, while translating the speech from English to Hindi realised that it would not hold the interest of the audience; he added elements of humour to the speech without telling Krishna Menon. When the crowd burst out laughing, Menon was shocked.
In 1967, Ram fought his first election petition on behalf of Congress’s K Patil against George Fernandes. Ram lost the case but impressed Fernandes tremendously with his cross-examination and legal acumen. In 1967, Ram also applied to the Mumbai Pradesh Congress Committee for a ticket to contest the parliamentary elections, but was denied. Since Ram had represented Patil, he had hoped to be considered favourably. Nevertheless, he received an assurance from YB Chavan [a former member of the Congress and first chief minister of Maharashtra] that he would be nominated to the next Rajya Sabha seat, but that promise was breached. This was not the only time Ram would want to cash in on his legal representation. Throughout his life, he represented many political figures in complex court cases; some of them rewarded him with a Rajya Sabha nomination and some of them proved “ungrateful.” Ram assumes that those whom he has helped by winning cases and getting bail, will return the favour by giving him political appointments, but he is often left disappointed. According to Mahesh [Jethmalani, Ram’s son who is also a lawyer-politician], Ram is naïve, but Ram knows the stakes. During the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, Ram made trips to Patna “to apologise to the people of Bihar for supporting Modi.” He was unequivocal in his support of the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress alliance. When the results were declared, Nitish Kumar was given the throne and Ram his current Rajya Sabha membership. It also helped that Ram is the counsel for Lalu Prasad Yadav in the Rs 9.4 billion fodder scam case presently pending before the Supreme Court.
Ram learnt the ways of the legal and political world early enough and knows most things work on a quid-pro-quo basis. He is therefore quick to call those who have betrayed him “thankless and shameless.” LK Advani is one such person. Ram defended him in the Jain Hawala case [a political scandal in which senior Indian politicians were alleged to have received black money between February 1988 and April 1991 through four hawala agents] and got him acquitted, but today Ram holds Advani responsible for not withholding his expulsion from the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2013. Few know that Advani’s wife Kamla was Ram’s rakhi sister.
Kamla died in 2016 and the last chord binding him to Advani snapped. In fact, Ram recalls that he had refused to accept the brief on the Jain Hawala case as Arun Jaitley was Advani’s first choice for a lawyer, but it was on Kamla’s insistence that he agreed. Few know that Ram did appear for Advani, but that it was Kapil Sibal who got him relief as Sibal was already arguing the case on behalf of SK Jain when Deepak Chopra, a close aide of Advani requested him to appear for Advani in Ram’s absence. Ram was miffed with the BJP for not backing him for the election of the president of India and therefore left the matter midway and flew off to Japan. Sibal eventually got relief for both Advani and SK Jain though he never received any official credit for it. Ram has conveniently accepted all the credit and he is comfortable not sharing it with Sibal.
Speaking of Advani, Ram says, “He had every reason to be grateful. He wrote his memoirs, a huge book—(My Country My Life)—and yet there is only one reference of me. He has been party to signing the expulsion order against me in the BJP and he has still not done anything to show remorse for what I regard as rank ingratitude. Apart from my fighting the Hindutva judgment … I don’t know why he’s behaved like this. I have no rancour against him, I was continuously paying visits to his wife, his family. Even when Kamla passed away my family and I attended the condolence ceremonies. But deep down I must say, I expected something better from him.” Ram, in an open letter dated 26 December 2016, stated reasons why Advani was not an appropriate candidate for the upcoming presidential election. He wrote:
I must remind you of some services that I have rendered to the party and you too. In a criminal prosecution for money laundering, the sessions court had framed charges against you and written a 200 pages long judgment in support. You, and your lawyer, today’s Finance Minister the Hon’ble Arun Jaitley, approached me to get you out of this mess. I refused and advised you to continue with your chosen lawyer. I know you left in anger. But after a few days you both again came and made a pathetic show, almost a Satyagraha.
You cashed on my weakness for my rakhi sister, your wife. I relented and fought for you in the high court and got the charges against you quashed. The government approached the Supreme Court. Again I appeared for you and got a clean chit for you from the highest court.
If I had been expelled from the party twice, how come that in 2010 I was requested to join and become a member of the Upper House.
You are an ungrateful person. You owe me a big debt of gratitude; instead you have turned into an enemy and joined hands with crooks; in other words you have no high character, which a Rashtrapati should have.
Even when you were busy expelling me from the party I was working for Modi without any selfish motive.
Lastly, you were a party to assuring me that the expulsion will be withdrawn but even you broke it.
This is an excerpt from Shweta Bansal’s Courting Politics, published by Eastern Book Company in 2017.
Shweta Bansal is a lawyer who joined the Indian Foreign Services after winning a three-year long case with the government about her rank and cadre in 2016. Courting Politics is her debut book.