|August 07, 2000|
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
It 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."
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."
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."
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.
© Living Media India Ltd