Ashok Desai: A legal luminary, a multifaceted scholar
Ashok Desai, India’s former attorney general and one of the country’s most distinguished lawyers, passed away on Monday. It was deeply distressing and saddening news. I was privileged to know him over decades and every interaction with him was always enlightening. He also had a wit and sense of humour even while pursuing the somewhat sombre profession of an attorney.
He was a product of the London School of Economics (LSE) and thereafter of the Lincoln Inn, London. He was the chairman of the Committee on Administrative Law of International Law Association, and worked with the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva as well as represented India at the World Trade Organisation Appellate body. Understandably, he was conferred the Padma Bhushan having served both as Solicitor and Attorney General of India.
Having worked with him closely on some matters, here are a few instances I would like to recall.
First, he played a critical role in drafting an affidavit on behalf of the central government, which brought the famous Hawala case to a final closure. The case had, in many ways, altered the political milieu since many important politicians and others had suffered when their names had figured in the Jain Hawala diary. At a certain stage, when I became the revenue secretary, the repetitive hearings and adjournments by the Supreme Court was becoming exhausting for the government. It was Ashok — the then attorney general — who felt that we should expeditiously bring this matter to a closure.
The then Prime Minister I K Gujral had constituted a committee under the chairmanship of NN Vohra, former principal secretary to PM for drafting an affidavit. I was a member of the committee. The affidavit drafted by him, and which was finally accepted by the Supreme Court, made important changes by way of guaranteeing the security of tenure, the adherence to the selection procedures and the autonomy to be given to the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate. Later, the Central Vigilance Commissioner became the supervisory entity as an overarching watchdog. Ashok’s drafting of the affidavit, which was in line with the psychology of the court, led to the ultimate closure of the case. It was a relief to all the concerned stakeholders.
Second, much later, we were both members of the India Advisory Board of the London School of Economics, which was co-chaired by Lord Nicholas Stern and myself. As a member of the Advisory Board, given his past LSE connections, he always had creative ideas on what could be done to enhance the academic reach of this prestigious institution in India. Fostering interchange of students, faculty members and joint research projects were some of the ideas which he had put forward persuasively.
Third, on a somewhat a lighter side, being an exceedingly sophisticated individual, and given his interest in art and culture, his fondness for classical music, both western and Indian, was indeed awesome. I once recall that on a visit to Vienna, for a meeting of the Narcotics Control Board of the United Nations, we together witnessed an opera called Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. The opera was entertaining, although somewhat heavy and needed prior experience to be fully appreciated. I was stunned during the recital that he had remembered every aria (an elaborate melody sung solo) by-heart, and before the aria could even get started, to my amazement, he would fully recite the arias himself. Much later, when we were in London for a conference, we had gone to witness a popular opera by Giuseppe Verdi called La Traviata and, characteristic to his style, he repeated the same feat of reciting the operas by-heart as if he knew them inside out. He was equally conscious of British habits, and at the commencement of the play, reminded me that in case I wanted a drink, the right time to order was at the beginning of the performance to obviate any unseeming rush during the short interval. Perhaps few could recite the contents of all Shakespeare play with such velocity.
I also recall that during the private recitals of Pandit Jasraj or Kishori Amonkar at my house, he would invariably occupy a seat in the front and savour and enjoy every bit of the classical recital. He was a man of great equanimity, cultivated manners and scholastic understanding of a wide range of subjects. He was a towering personality in the legal fraternity.
India has lost one of its finest legal minds. I have lost a personal friend whose presence I will greatly miss. Without hesitation, it can be said that he was clearly a cut above the others, and by today’s standards, a class apart.
(NK Singh is the chairperson of the 15th Finance Commission and a former Member of Parliament. The views expressed are personal)