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The man who put Raja in the dock

In his pursuit of public interest, Prashant Bhushan, who recently argued for the ouster of A Raja, has gained both admirers and critics, Nagendar Sharma writes.

india Updated: Dec 19, 2010 02:15 IST
Nagendar Sharma

The anxious moments faced by the UPA government in the Supreme Court during the last two months — on the 2G spectrum scam case and on the appointment of the chief vigilance commissioner — could have been avoided, had either IIT Madras or Princeton University managed to retain a certain Prashant Bhushan nearly three decades ago.

The articulate lawyer, who kept the government on tenterhooks with his well-researched arguments and was virtually responsible for forcing the PM to seek former telecom minister A Raja's resignation, took a longer than usual route to enter the profession.

The eldest of the three children of former law minister and veteran lawyer Shanti Bhushan, Prashant, 54, who has been in the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court for close to three decades, feels a lot of work is still left in the 2G scam. And while his drive to doggedly pursue public interest cases has won him admirers, it has also attracted criticism. The latest is for his stand on the Radia tapes

It is unusual for a lawyer fighting for civil liberties to demand putting conversations obtained from tapping of phones in the public domain. But Bhushan wants it done for conversations allegedly involving former SP leader Amar Singh and lobbyist Niira Radia.

"The Radia tapes have conversations influencing public policy and government formation. Why should this be hidden from the public ? Similarly, in the Amar tapes, there are references to judiciary and UP government functioning. I don't support scandalising private conversations, but in both these cases there is huge public interest involved."

Bhushan joined IIT Madras to study mechanical engineering in 1977, but quit after the first semester. He returned to hometown Allahabad, completed his graduation and then joined the course for a law degree. He deviated yet again and before completing his law degree, went to Princeton to pursue higher

studies in philosophy and economics. "I returned after a year and a half, since I thought this was not what I wanted to do in life," he recalls.

Bhushan began practice as a lawyer in the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court in 1983 after getting his law degree from the Allahabad University. "You can say I started in the shadow of my father." Nearly three decades later, the number of cases fought by Bhushan Junior is not very big — by his own estimate, about a thousand. It is the impact he has created by the kind of cases he has taken up which has made his fraternity and the media sit up and take notice.

He accepts briefs only on cases related to corruption in higher places, social justice, environment and civil liberties.

Both recent cases which had the UPA government on the edge — the 2G spectrum case and the appointment of the CVC — were taken up by Bhushan free of cost. "Lawyers shouldn't charge for appearing in public interest litigations. If they do so, it defeats the very purpose of public interest," he argues.

Before these two high-profile cases, the major issues highlighted by him include the demand for declaration of assets by judges and the successful bid to serve a notice for a motion in parliament to impeach controversial judge PD Dinakaran.

He appeared on behalf of right to information (RTI) activist SC Agrawal, first before the Central Information Commission and later in the Delhi High Court to ensure that the judiciary was covered under the RTI Act.

"Prashant Bhushan has been appearing for me right from the CIC to the Supreme Court for the last five years, I am still waiting for even the stationery bills, forget the rest," Agrawal said.

Being termed an activist-lawyer does not bother Prashant. "Go to any gathering of lawyers and the talk is only about luxury cars and holidays abroad. I find it superficial and suffocating."

Former Chief Justice of India JS Verma, who has seen Bhushan appearing in courts before him and even earlier, says he stands out for his depth. "Prashant may not be flamboyant, but he has substance. It is because of lawyers like him that the common man can approach higher courts of the country with their grievances, which otherwise are out of their reach given the fees charged by top lawyers."

But the activist-lawyer has also courted several controversies. One of these led to a contempt of court case against him. In an interview to Tehelka magazine last year, Bhushan made the sensational claim that at least half of the 16 former chief justices in the Supreme Court were corrupt.

Leading lawyer Harish Salve filed a contempt case earlier this year, which is being heard and the Supreme Court has given Bhushan an opportunity to apologise, which he is unlikely to do.

The crusade against corruption in the judiciary being led by Bhushan and his father through their Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms has made them unpopular with some members of their own fraternity. "I was targeted by the Bhushans at the behest of another judge with whom I did not get along in the same high court. In the end none of the allegations levelled against me were proved," says a retired judge.

Another issue on which he has drawn flak is his perceived sympathetic approach towards the Naxal issue. Bhushan led the demand for a probe into the alleged fake encounter of Maoist leader Azad. But he dismisses the allegation. "When you fight for justice, the perpetrators of injustice would like to demonise you," he says.