I’m not sure when I first met Abhishek Manu Singhvi but I vividly recall the first time he was a guest on one of my shows. It was Line Of Fire for SAB TV and the subject was a discussion of the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal Inquiry Report on the 2002 Gujarat killings. He was younger, thinner, immaculately dressed in a sober grey suit with a bright green tie and, yes, he had more hair. However, it wasn’t his appearance that caught my attention.
It was his brilliance and his helpfulness and both were in abundant display. These were the qualities that saved the day.
The discussion was about the “proof” assembled by the Report of Narendra Modi’s alleged authorship of the killings. Even more than today, 10 years ago this was a bitterly contentious issue. Remember, at the time the Supreme Court had not re-opened the Bilkis Bano and Best Bakery cases nor had it passed strictures on the Gujarat government and its chief minister. Haren Pandya had not spoken out, Sanjeev Bhatt was silent, if not unknown of, and Teesta Setalvad’s great campaign was yet to yield results.
Justice PB Sawant spoke in support of the Report. He was a member of the Concerned Citizens Tribunal. Balbir Punj spoke for the BJP. Abhishek, though a Congress spokesman, wisely chose to speak as a lawyer. “I don’t want to make this party political,” he explained. “Then it will become either polemical or, worse, a tu tu mein mein. The matter is too serious to be reduced to a slanging match.”
When Justice Sawant got lost in detail Abhishek simplified what he was saying and added a hard-edged point to it. When I accidentally converted allegation into fact he adroitly stepped in and corrected me. When Punj bristled and it seemed he might lose his temper Abhishek mollified him. During a recording break he leaned across and said, “It’s only Karan’s way of creating fireworks. He doesn’t mean to be offensive.” Mercifully Punj believed him, smiled and stayed on.
Thereafter Abhishek was a frequent guest. No matter what the subject or how short the notice he seemed to have a ready and plausible defence of Congress’s position. Of course, it was never simple nor was it ever brief. “I’ve got just five points,” he’d say and then, with a lawyers attention to precision and detail, he’d construct an elaborate explanation. But he dug Congress out of many holes, the most important being the credibility crisis of 2004, the vote of confidence of 2008 and the presidential election of 2007. It wasn’t his fault his party kept falling into them.
Even when he quarrelled with me, and that happened frequently, his anger was short-lived. “You’re incorrigible,” he’d say but I could hear the laugh in his voice and knew my interruptions had been forgiven. I don’t think he ever backed out of a commitment but often cancelled other engagements to fit me in.
When my show, The Last Word, transformed into a nightly programme on CNN-IBN this February, Abhishek was a guest on the first night. I made personal phone calls to persuade the others. Some were reluctant. In his case all he wanted was an assurance I’d let him speak. I’m not sure if I did yet he re-appeared many times subsequently. Alas, that can no longer be. None of us can quarrel with the vicissitudes of fate but I shall miss him. So too, I predict, will the Congress.
Views expressed by the author are personal