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  August 07, 2000

 

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  POLITICS 
The Wrath of Ram

Sacked as law minister to avert an impending executive -judiciary confrontation, a furious Ram Jethmalani blames his dismissal on Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee and also accuses CJI. As the government tries to paper over the cracks, Jethmalani complicates matters by releasing correspondence that shows India's legal establishment in a very poor light.

By Sumit Mitra

Interview with Ram Jethmalani

India Today issue dated August 07, 2000It was a cold but a very predictable parting for a cabinet member so full of vitality, flamboyance and colour. On July 22, as law minister Ram Jethmalani was driving from Mumbai to Pune to address the Symbiosis Law College, his cell phone rang. The voice of External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh was unmistakable in its deep baritone. Before Singh could end his formal prologue -- "I have been given the unpleasant task ..." -- Jethmalani cut him short. "I know the prime minister wants my resignation, but I can't send it now as I am driving. I shall fax it from Pune."

RAM'S TROUBLES

1. Jethmalani never enjoyed the confidence of Prime Minister Vajpayee. He was inducted into the Cabinet on Home Minister L.K. Advani's insistence.

2. There was a personality clash between the law minister and the attorney-general. Jethmalani felt Sorabjee was exceeding his brief and flaunting his political clout. There were exchanges of rude letters and a series of accusations on both sides.

3. Chief Justice A.S. Anand took exception to not being consulted on the appointment of MRTP commission head. Jethmalani felt the judiciary was poaching on the executive's turf. The exchange of letters turned acrimonious and culminated in Anand making a formal complaint to Vajpayee.

4. Jethmalani antagonised the legal fraternity with his brash handling of the lawyer's strike this year. He was even expelled from the Bar Association.

5. As urban development minister in 1998-99, Jethmalani's decision in the MS Shoes case landed him in controversy. Following a CBI inquiry, the Government concluded he was guilty of an administrative error but not criminal conspiracy.

6. The Supreme Court made adverse comments on the Government's doublespeak on the Srikrishna Commission report. This was interpreted as evidence of the judiciary's exasperation with the law minister.

On reaching Pune, the 77-year-old minister, ace criminal lawyer and a man of the world wrote by hand a three-line letter which said that he was stepping down "as desired". He didn't have the Race Course Road fax number, so called Singh to get it. His ministerial innings behind him, Jethmalani began his address by telling the students he'd speak to them not as a minister but as "a lawyer, like what all of you would soon become".

In Delhi, outside Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's inner circle, there was only one person who was probably in the know: Attorney-General of India Soli Sorabjee. And he wasn't unhappy. Nor for that matter was Chief Justice of India Adarsh Sein Anand when he learnt of the development. It was Anand's stated displeasure with Jethmalani that ultimately forced Vajpayee's hand.

Between Jethmalani and Sorabjee, however, it was the unhappiest silver jubilee of a relationship. Following the 1975 Emergency, Sorabjee toiled in a team led by Nani Palkhivala to save Jethmalani from the long arm of the notorious MISA. The team obtained a stay, with Sorabjee's forceful advocacy leaving a mark on the proceedings.

When the two came together 23 years later in Vajpayee's Government, there was little of the old camaraderie left. Last Thursday, addressing the press after Parliament was rocked by a controversy over his proposed personal statement, Jethmalani made it clear that he could not coexist with Sorabjee in the same dispensation. "My being law minister is certainly not congenial to the attorney-general."

GETTING PERSONAL

"Your busy schedule leaves you with little time for the attorney-general 'who has chosen to take on functions which do not belong to him'. It pained me to read your letter and gave no pleasure penning the reply. Hopefully, there should be no occasion in the future for such correspondence. I am willing to raise a toast to that in the choicest of liquors."

Sorabjee to Jethmalani, February 16, 2000

"Unlike you, I have no ambitions left. I am not your competitor or rival. I do not grudge you whatever you have achieved in life nor do I covet any part of it. How can I forget you are a distinguished attorney-general? How can I ignore your tremendous political clout which I experience every day? On the other hand, my power is my renunciation, the ability to quit."

Jethmalani to Sorabjee, February 16, 2000

His pique was understandable. On July 21, during a hearing on a case concerning the non-implementation of the Srikrishna Commission report, the chief justice of India sternly admonished the Centre for lacking collective cabinet responsibility. No one was in any doubt that the target was the law minister. The judge said he was distressed and the attorney-general responded that he was "equally distressed".

The next day, Jethmalani hit back at the chief justice. The exchange alarmed Vajpayee and convinced him that Jethmalani was becoming a liability. The prime minister spelt it out on July 28. "We completely disagree with his (Jethmalani's) perception of the facts," he told the Lok Sabha. "Thus, in order to ensure that this harmonious relationship is not only maintained but strengthened, I exercised my prerogative and asked Mr Jethmalani to resign."

BATTLING OVER TURF

"I thought such events happened only in Alice in Wonderland. I am shocked at these happenings in the Law Ministry. It is obvious that it is not merit but other considerations which have prevailed for the engagement of (government counsel) B.P. Aggarwal. It is astonishing."

Sorabjee to R.L. Meena, secretary, Law Ministry, seeking the removal of a senior counsel, February 10, 2000

"The gentleman concerned was not appointed by me but by the then law minister Thambidurai on the recommendation of an MP and a cabinet colleague whose recommendation I personally value. It is my duty to record that some of the problems have arisen from the fact that you have chosen to take on functions which do not belong to you."

Jethmalani to Sorabjee, February 15, 2000

Actually, Jethmalani's position was weakened after he riled his mentor home minister L.K. Advani with his opposition to the new TADA bill. Yet, Advani did try a compromise by proposing Jethmalani be shifted to another department. But Vajpayee stood his ground.

The Jethmalani affair was the outcome of a disastrous trigonometry between the pinnacle of the judicial system, the top law officer of the Government and the political head of the Law Ministry. But beyond the clash of personalities, the whole episode painted a grim picture of disharmony, discord and sheer malevolence in the top levels of judicial administration. An infuriated Jethmalani revealed a mass of documents that showed the extent of power rivalry in the legal administration. Ironically, this prompted attacks on him in Parliament for violating the Official Secrets Act, an expedient diversion from the issues at stake.

The Jethmalani papers, comprising his correspondence with Sorabjee and Anand, point to a clear rift in the administration since he was made law minister. His trouble with Sorabjee began over complaints against B.P. Aggarwal, a government panel lawyer. On February 10, Sorabjee wrote to the law secretary demanding to know why Aggarwal, whose "negligence and lapse" had cost the Government heavily, was briefed by the Law Ministry on important anti-dumping cases.

     

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