Arun Jaitley: A tribute from the other side of the political and legal divide
My first close encounter with Arun Jaitley was in 1985 when we appeared as assisting counsel on opposite sides in the Supreme Court— he to Fali Nariman for Indian Express, and I to my father, Dr LM Singhvi for Jagmohan. The Express had challenged the reentry by government, alleging mala fides against Jagmohan (Delhi’s ex-LG).
In the newly commissioned court 6 on the first floor, above the main SC corridor, Justice AP Sen, a plump bachelor heading the Bench, with a highly understated and subtle sense of humor, turned to my father and said: “Dr Singhvi, can you really imagine your morning cup of tea without the Express?” His body then heaved with suppressed laughter at his own joke.
Watch| RIP Arun Jaitley: Former finance minister and BJP stalwart dies at 66
At the first break, I told Arun that we realized then that we had lost the case even before it had begun! Ironically, Jagmohan, with whom I shared an old India International Centre (IIC) library link, and who spent hours well beyond midnight in our chambers, and Arun, later became the best and closest of friends.
Though he was much older, Arun and I have opposed each other in innumerable cases and also appeared on the same side in some. Much more so in Delhi High Court than the apex Court, the former providing excellent opportunities for young lawyers. He was always first the advocate, then the lawyer. Not for him the turgid byelanes of hair splitting or the analysis of judicial precedents. His approach and style in law was the same as in his political addresses.
Facts were sacred, upon which he built a formidable superstructure of arguments, always rooted in common sense. Then came the flourish and the spin, combining the common sense logic with penetrating analysis, but basically on first principles and minimizing jurisprudence. It was all done with coherent, flowing, sonorous reasoning, delivered in a pleasing non contentious manner, with an economy of words and style, yet with sophistry and subtlety. Unlike many of his contemporaries (and friends!), he was a fair counsel who never took unfair advantage of delay stratagems, did not indulge in technical/ procedural traps or obstructive tactics, and never humiliated or berated his opponent.
But his heart was always in politics and law was only something which he did as a profession, for his upkeep, for pursuing causes, public or private, for the camaraderie, for the width of opportunities it provided and, above all, for its inherent connect with public life. Politics excited and enthused him the most. By 1999, when his political rise started, he had lost at least 15 years of his political career, having been viewed within his own party as part of one faction by the other.
But when he started asking me in 1999 to allow him to leave court by 3/330 pm in cases where we were in opposition, both those factions had buried their differences qua him and he was on the cusp of a meteoric rise. It started from those early exits from court to do spokespersonship, leading to an exponential rise till 2019, only to be cut short now suddenly at too early an age. I used to joke with him that there has been divine compensatory fast tracking for the lost years. He would respond with a wry smile and say: “Abhishek, in public life, it is important to be patient, not disheartened or disillusioned and to keep your foot in.”
Few realize that the best years of his political life were those as Leader of the Opposition (LOP) in the Upper House (2009-14). One day before being appointed to that post, we opposed each other in Delhi HC. I already knew about his impending appointment, though he did not admit its imminence.
Over coffee in a near empty part of the court canteen, somewhat naughtily, I told him that though he could continue law practice even as LOP (there was no law or prohibition against it), he should not do so since the post carried a Cabinet rank. I had no doubt that he never intended to do so, and we thus lost an excellent colleague at the Bar in 2009.
As LOP, Arun was the most frequent opening batsman for the then opposition BJP on all vital debates from 2006 onwards when I entered the Upper House. I had the privilege of being nominated the opening batsman in reply from the Treasury Benches in those debates. It was not uncommon for each of us to appear against each other from 10.30 am to 12 noon in diverse cases in the SC, after which Arun would rush to Parliament to open an important debate for the opposition in Rajya Sabha. Jokingly telling him that I am able to do a few more cases than him in SC, I would rush shortly after him, to be the opening person to reply to him, either at 12.30 or 2 pm. Frequently, he would tell me that I am safe and need not come before a certain time and that he would not finish before that given time. Of all the major opening debates I did in 2006-12, the maximum involved Arun on the other side.
Based on his usual meticulous research, Arun opened the Lokpal debate in 2011 by pointing out a virtually unimaginable coincidence viz that the son of the man who invented and coined the words Lokpal and Lokayukta in 1962 and relentlessly (and unsuccessfully) campaigned for its operationalisation (my father) has chaired the Committee in 2011 which was going to give birth to that institution after 50 years. He was always magnanimous, large hearted and a number of journalists, with no axe to grind, frequently told me in Central Hall how Arun had spoken highly of me behind my back, despite our legal and political opposition for so many years.
His love of food and feeding is legendary and in the pre-OB van days, when occasionally we did press debates in Noida TV studios, he would hesitate wistfully when offered a samosa with tea. While I would break into half of my favorite sin, he would settle for a small sandwich but start talking about his favorite Amritsari Chole and Bhaturas and his special list of special vendors of special food items in Chandni Chowk. Never have the lawns of the BJP main office, allotted in his name, been put to greater public interest use than at his foodie parties for lawyers designated as seniors or elevated to the Bench!
We have lost a good man in public life, a decent human being, a respected and able professional, a witty thinker, a lifelong student of politics, a remarkable communicator, a committed pillar of his party and a close friend to many.
(Abhishek Singhvi is a senior third term MP; National Spokesperson, Congress; former Additional Solicitor General; and former Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law. The views expressed are personal.)