From London to Chennai to Karnataka high court to secure bail for former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa is all in a day’s work for lawyer Ram Jethmalani.
Ignore the landing of the overnight flight at 1.30am, the one-hour trip to the hotel and the jet lag, 92-year-old Jethmalani was in court 10.30am sharp on September 30 to fight for his client.
Exhausting schedules are for lesser mortals to crib about, not him.
Jethmalani did not have his way with the court and his move for an urgent hearing was criticised by both legal pundits and lawyers.
“Lawyers, for fabulous fees or otherwise, must not be rushed into filing petitions and applications that cannot realistically be granted,” wrote Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hedge.
Jethmalani shoots back, “The accused has the right to apply for bail as soon as possible.” With his famed sharp humour, he adds, “Tell those people someday they’ll be convicted, and they’ll do the same.”
On charging exorbitant fees, he tells HT, “Yes, I am charging Jayalalithaa. But I fight many cases pro bono. All in all, I make money from 10% of my clients.”
Apart from his legal acumen, his rise to fame began as the maverick lawyer in sensational cases such as the Nanavati murder trial.
Jayalalithaa has joined a long list of controversial clients, but he insists they approach him and he’s constrained by law to take briefs. “It’s a basic principal of law that everyone, no matter who, deserves a defense.”
While Jethmalani’s client list reads like India’s who’s who and he is the arguably the only advocate recognised by every Indian, this fame comes at a price.
Former high court judge RS Sodhi recalls, “When I asked him to fight Indira Gandhi’s alleged assassin Balbir Singh’s case, he was a BJP member. He gave up his membership, but not the case.”
Senior advocate Kamini Jayaswal who fought with him to defend SAR Geelani in the case arising out of the 2001 Parliament attack said she was “disturbed” by his decision to fight for Manu Sharma who was accused of murdering Jessica Lal in 1999.
Unfazed, Jethmalani always adheres to his conscience. “If taking up an unpopular cause will result unpopularity, so be it.”
This unflinching belief in the law’s wisdom is a part of Jethmalani’s upbringing as a third generation litigator. “My grandfather was a great lawyer. It’s in my blood.”
A student of Karachi Law School, he passed the Bar examination at 17. Then he had to argue before court to have a special provisio enacted to be allowed to practice at a time when 21 was the standard age for enrollment into the Bar.
His dogged love for the judicial system is also the reason why he is “an inspiration and a tough act to follow”, his son and senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani says.
The public fascination with the senior lawyer, however, goes beyond his achievements in the courtroom.
He wakes up early to enjoy a game of badminton, eats some fruit, usually works through lunch while drinking buttermilk, and for dinner, “I take my two whiskeys, and occasionally a little bit of ice cream.”
Jethmalani has often been punished for his unabashed love for the finer things in life. In 1977, he started his career as a Parliamentarian by winning a Lok Sabha seat. However, he was not made law minister because Prime Minister Morarji Desai disapproved of his ‘lifestyle’.
It is possible Desai remembered having his lecture on celibacy interrupted by a young, blunt lawyer’s scathing words — “Morarjibhai, had my wife looked like Gajraben (Morarji's wife), I'd have turned celibate at eighteen.”
Jethmalani’s acerbic wit and unforgiving honesty are the stuff of legends. Often, he is blunt before people who, spoilt by power and privilege, aren’t used to truthful opinions.
During the Emergency, he was forced to leave the country under threat of arrest for speaking out against Indira Gandhi. More recently, he reportedly told a Supreme Court Judge, “Gone are the days when judges would read.”
Most people would be held for contempt, but “Ram floats on higher thermals in the Elysian fields where the normal rules of behaviour of mere mortals hardly apply,” says senior advocate Anil Dewan.
Accordingly, his life too is an open book. The many and varied accounts of his romances in the authorised autobiography written by Nalini Gera reveal a softer side. For instance, to converse with a Damascus dancing girl who spoke only Arabic, Jethmalani enrolled in language classes.
Jethmalani’s romanticism extends beyond his personal life. Expelled from the Bharatiya Janata Party, he still came out in full support of the Narendra Modi government. Yet, he declined Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to attend his swearing-in ceremony. “I told him I didn’t want to meet others who I didn’t like.”
He admits that a large part of his support for the present regime was to oust the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which he describes as “that corrupt government.”
His next move? “To bring back the black money to India.” He wishes the government would extend more support to this cause.
For now, though, he sits surrounded by a mountain of papers, preparing for Jayalalithaa’s next bail plea hearing on October 7.