"I do not have to reply to every dog that barks.” This infamous statement of Rajiv Gandhi characterising Ram Jethmalani as a dog was front page news in all papers, including the Indian Express on June 17, 1987. The background to Rajiv’s remark was the payoff to Indian politicians in the Bofors deal disclosed on Swedish Radio. Rajiv Gandhi had denied the news as “entirely baseless and mischievous” and called it “yet another link in the denigration and destabilisation of our political system”. In those days, the Indian Express — which exposed the most powerful government then since Independence and brought it to its knees in just a month after Rajiv Gandhi ordered raids and arrests against the daily — was charged with destabilising the government.
Reacting to Rajiv Gandhi’s outright denial, Jethmalani had said, “If he were honest, Rajiv would have said ‘I deeply regret what the radio has reported. We will make full inquiries and request the Swedish government to do the same. Anyone found guilty will be severely dealt with’.” Rajiv’s reaction, Ram pointed out, was like Lady Macbeth’s first utterance on the discovery of King Duncan’s slain body in her castle, which was a complete giveaway of her guilt. When an MP needled Rajiv to reply to Ram, he gave a near-vulgar response.
10 questions a day that finished Rajiv
After our morning routine of offering prayers at the Hanuman Mandir in Karol Bagh on June 17, when Rajiv’s barking dog remark was the prime news, Ramnath Goenka and I drove to Ram Jethmalani’s house. As we entered the Maharani Bagh flat where he was staying, Ram was intently writing something. Goenka asked him, “Ram, did you read the newspaper today? The Prime Minister has called you a barking dog. What is your response?” Saying “Mein usko ek kath likh raha hoon (I am writing a letter to him), Ramnathji,” Ram read out the first couple of lines: “Dear Prime Minister, You are lucky I am only a barking dog and not a bloodhound. But do remember that dogs bark when they see a thief.”
Ram Jethmalani had gone on to say in that letter that he would ask Rajiv 10 questions every day for the next 30 days, till either Rajiv answers the questions or resigns. We stood stunned at how the sharp mind of Ram had weaponised the abuse against its author Rajiv himself. The next day, Indian Express headlined, “Dogs bark, yes, at thieves, says Jethmalani.” Thus began Ram’s historic 10 questions a day, which turned the political tide against Rajiv. They were front-paged by Indian Express day after day.
All language newspapers began carrying the questions that went beyond Bofors into the entire list of scandals of all buccaneers associated with Rajiv. Ram’s 10-question bomb every day virtually became questions in the mind of the people over Rajiv’s honesty. People began to believe that Rajiv, who was at that time seen as Mr Clean of Indian politics, had no answer for them. Ram demonstrated how his sharp brain could demolish a brainless brute power.
The Ram-Ramnath partnership
Ram’s association with the Indian Express predates Emergency in 1975. He stood with Ramnath Goenka and Indian Express and defended both in the innumerable cases filed by Indira Gandhi. Like Rajiv did later, she termed Jayaprakash Narayan and Nanaji Deshmukh, who led the famous Bihar movement that Goenka supported to the hilt, as destabilisers and declared the infamous Emergency. Goenka fought Emergency from within and Ram fought it from outside India. The declaration of Emergency and suspension of democracy brought about a paradigm shift in national politics. It turned anti-Congressism into a principal political philosophy in the 1970s and the 1980s. The relationship between Ram and Ramnath forged before and during Emergency was founded on their common opposition to the authoritarian Congress.
When the Indian Express exposed the shenanigans of the Ambanis in the mid-1980s, Ram stood with the Express, and fought and stopped the takeover of the engineering jewel of India, L&T, by the Ambanis. After that the Rajiv government came in defence of the buccaneer openly and blatantly. It registered a case under the Official Secrets Act against me, raided me and Goenka and arrested me on the day the Indian Express carried the letter the then President Zail Singh wrote to Rajiv castigating him for denigrating the office of the President.
The Zail Singh letter later turned into a high-voltage political issue. And the arrest and action against the Indian Express turned into a fiasco. Ram exposed before the court that the entire action against the Express rested on a forged letter. It made the beleaguered government run for cover. The government then appointed the Thakkar-Natarajan Commission to inquire into the choice of Fairfax Inc USA as the private detective to obtain information on secret assets held by the Indian buccaneers and politicians abroad.
The Indian Express had helped the then finance minister V P Singh and his two trusted bureaucrats V C Pande and Bhurelal hire Fairfax. Ram told the two Supreme Court judges Thakkar and Natarajan who constituted the commission, “I must remind both of you that you are now not Lordships for me as you don’t sit as judges of the Supreme Court. Sorry, I will address you only as commissioners.” It was a scathing remark Ram alone had the guts to make.
His blunt remarks made the two judges and also the Bar realise how the government had demeaned the sitting judges and how they had acquiesced in it. The effort of the commission to associate Fairfax with America’s spy agency CIA to reinforce the official line that the appointment of Fairfax with the help of the Indian Express was yet another link in the conspiracy to destabilise the Rajiv government, too ended in disaster thanks to Ram’s brilliant advocacy. An unrelenting Rajiv’s sleuths raided the Indian Express again and foisted 300 cases on the newspaper. Ram and Ramnath celebrated with sweets as the tally of the cases filed reached triple century! They were not only fearless, they laughed at what would frighten others to death.
Ram’s fearlessness as a man was matched only by his conviction as a lawyer bound by only the call of justice as he saw it. He chose to defend those to defend whom would offend not just the high and the mighty, but the entire public sentiment of the day. He defended the assassins of Indira Gandhi and got sacked from the BJP. That was the extent of public fury over Ram’s decision to defend Indira’s assassins. Yet he stood alone to defend the undefended.
Finally, Ram had the last laugh as he shamed those who kept away from him by getting one of the assassins acquitted by the Supreme Court. By doing so, he taught a lesson to the public too, that had earlier pronounced guilt and scared away lawyers and even courts from rendering justice. As Ram got vindicated, the BJP had to invite him back to the party. This single act of courage ensured that when later he defended the assassins of Rajiv Gandhi no one dared question him.
His fearlessness often turned him into a maverick. His decision to defend Manu Sharma who was charged with the horrendous offence of cutting his lover into pieces was one such maverick act that stunned his friends and adversaries alike. His defence of rape accused icons or of the Parliament attack accused, too, would fall in this category. His decisions as a lawyer were mysterious and complex. He would expose the Bofors scam and yet take a U-turn to defend and get the Hindujas who were involved in it, acquitted.
He would spearhead the famous Jain diary exposure and turn back and brilliantly argue and establish that diary entries were hearsay evidence and not proof in law. Likewise he would defend a Haji Mastan or a Lalu Yadav, a Harshad Mehta or a Ketan Parekh unfazed by criticism and yet claim to crusade against corruption. When media asked him how could he justify his defending the corrupt in court and yet claim to fight corruption in politics, he said, “My clients are Congressmen or their associates and I take extraordinary pleasure in relieving them of their ill-gotten wealth,” which made the media eat out of his hands. He did most of his anti-corruption battles and the defence of the Indira murder accused pro bono. He never charged for defending Ramnath Goenka or the Indian Express despite the enormous amount of time he had spent on their cases.
He was perhaps the highest paid lawyer of his times and, may be, forever. His matchless brain and unmatched advocacy commanded the high and mighty to pay whatever fee he would fix and yet he would make them think he has done a favour by accepting their brief. When Goenka once asked him “Ram how do you fix your fee for clients?” he responded, “My fee would depend on the weight of his client’s purse and the extent of his trouble.” As a lawyer his knowledge of law was as unmatched as his grasp of facts. He would read the case laws line by line and would prove that judgments cited by the other side were actually against it and in favour of his client — something which I have experienced often.
Affectionate friend, unforgiving enemy
He was abundant and affectionate as a friend and unforgiving and dreadful as an enemy. He was generous to a fault to his friends and colleagues. He was a true democrat at home or in office. His son could question him at home and his junior in law in office could fault his view of a case or the law. He fought against dictatorship in any form. He did not just love democracy, but lived for it and also by it. He was thrown out of the BJP in 2013 for his open revolt but filed a case against the party to question the decision as illegal and undemocratic. He turned a normal issue of party discipline into an extraordinary question of public law — something unheard of in political history. The BJP had finally to withdraw the suspension and make peace with him.
Hypocrisy was never in his dictionary. He was transparent about his personal habits, enjoyed his life and never pretended to conceal the things he loved to do. Ram was complex at the one end and yet simple at the other. He was highly principled on issues, yet equally compromising on persons. He was rational, but would go in search of the best astrologers.
He would fast on Tuesdays right through the day and yet would not miss his drink at night. He was not a law unto himself but framed his own rules of life and stood by them. He was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He was not a person but a phenomenon. A marvellous one. The world of law and politics may never see one like him ever.