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‘I plead guilty to being a bad husband. But avatars like Ram don’t do so’

Tête à tête

Ram Jethmalani has been busy. He has been shuttling between New Delhi and Mumbai while taking potshots at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Nitin Gadkari. And just when he was in the midst of a political imbroglio, the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray last Saturday sent him rushing back to Mumbai to attend the funeral of his old friend. He is now back in Delhi — but ready to fly off to Mumbai again.

“He was like a younger brother to me but I disagreed with him on many subjects,” says lawyer-politician Jethmalani about his relationship with Thackeray. One of the issues the two didn’t agree on was Thackeray’s dream of a Maharashtra exclusively for Maharashtrians.

“While it is true that jobs should be reserved for domiciled residents of Maharashtra, it was sad that he was not mindful of the rights of Indian citizens to reside and settle in any part of India,” says Jethmalani, 89.

The maverick lawyer is not known to mince his words. Earlier this month, he kicked up a furore when he wrote a letter to BJP leader L.K. Advani demanding that Gadkari be removed as the party head because of allegations of corruption that had been levelled at him.

“When there are serious allegations against Gadkari, he should have stayed away, if only to raise his stature in the public eye,” says Jethmalani, nattily dressed in a white shirt and a black pin-striped suit.

Jethmalani went to town about Gadkari, but the BJP president continues to hold on to his post. Does that indicate that the BJP’s parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is said to be backing Gadkari, still controls the party? “I am sure the RSS is trying to influence the functioning of the BJP. After all, BJP leaders have grown up with the RSS,” he says.

Despite publicly speaking out against his party, why has no action been taken against him? “They would never do so,” Jethmalani says confidently. “I have told them (party leaders) that I have the right to change them but they should not try to change me,” Jethmalani says with a tight-lipped smile.

The one BJP leader that Jethmalani has no qualms about is Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. “I had asked Gadkari to promote Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate,” he says in his familiar baritone.

But what about Modi’s role in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in his state? Pat comes the answer. “This is just a black spot on his otherwise immaculately clean dress. It can be easily washed away by sensible people who can speak the truth. I can do it for him,” he says.

Modi’s would-be campaign officer — an articulate and effective lawyer who has won several tricky cases — is clearly a political being. He won a Lok Sabha seat twice — once in 1977 as an independent candidate with the support of the Shiv Sena and then in 1980 on a BJP ticket. But in 1985, he lost to Congressman and former actor Sunil Dutt. He left the BJP the same year when he decided to defend Kehar Singh and Balbir Singh, charged with complicity in Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Ironically, we are sitting in his Akbar Road residence in Lutyens’s Delhi, which is right opposite the memorial of Indira Gan-dhi. Jethmalani was a staunch critic of Gandhi, and had exiled himself to Canada and the US during the Emergency.

His relationship with the Gandhis soured further when he defended the alleged assassins and won the acquittal of Balbir Singh. Jethmalani also defended three people accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

But then, he is known to defend the indefensible. Jethmalani works for 12 hours at a stretch and in his 70-year-old career as a lawyer has defended almost every high profile accused. Among them are the Hindujas in the Bofors case, Harshad Mehta in a security scam, underworld don Haji Mastan in smuggling cases, Sanjay Dutt in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case, Lalu Prasad Yadav in the fodder scam, Manu Sharma in the Jessica Lal murder case and Kanimozhi in the 2G scam — to name just a few!

Known to be highly unpredictable, Jethmalani is also a man full of contradictions. For example, he initiated a PIL that led to investigations into the hawala scam in the mid-1990s, but a few years later he defended BJP leader Advani, who was one of the accused. Then, five years ago, he raised a few eyebrows when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh released his book, Conscience of a Maverick.

“So what?” he retorts. “Even though Singh is from the Congress, he is a friend first,” he says, and then adds, “But he is too silent. He should have some control over his colleagues.”

Jethmalani’s political journey has seen many twists and turns. In 1988, he was an independent Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka. In 1989, he joined the V.P. Singh-led Janata Dal and three years later wanted to be President, only to find that he had few backers.

In 1993, he parted ways with the Janata Dal and was re-elected to Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra with the support of the Shiv Sena. In 1995, he launched his own political party, Pavitra Hindustan Kazhagam, which he later dissolved. A former minister in the National Democratic Alliance-led government, he joined the Rajya Sabha with the support of the BJP and Shiv Sena in 2000, had a spat with the BJP, which he left, only to rejoin the party in 2010.

And while he weaved in and out of politics, his legal life continued to flourish. Though some find him cantankerous, Jethmalani is also seen as a fearless lawyer. In 1998, he sought to impeach Justice M.M. Punchhi for allegedly deciding on a case in which he had a personal interest. Two years later, he had a face-off with former Chief Justice A.S. Anand as he alleged that Anand has passed an order favouring someone from whom he had received a plot of land. This created a hue and cry, and Jethmalani — then law minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government — was asked to resign.

Is it true that his relationship with Vajpayee was anything but cordial? After all, in the 2004 general elections, he had contested against Vajpayee from Lucknow and lost.

“I respected him but he was very susceptible,” says Jethmalani.

On the issue of judges and corruption too, the MP remains adamant. “A large number of judges are corrupt,” says the author of Big Egos, Small Men, waving his fingers.

I notice three gold rings on his fingers. One of them is embedded with an emerald. What’s with the rings, I ask him. “These are gifts from my numerous girlfriends. I like the company of young girls,” says the flamboyant lawyer who plays badminton regularly to keep fit.

Jethmalani’s biography by Nalini Gera mentions his two wives — Durga and Ratna — and the numerous affairs that he is supposed to have had. I am reminded of the recent controversy that Jethmalani triggered by announcing that Ram was a bad husband, referring to the Hindu god. Or was he talking about himself?

“I plead guilty to being a bad husband. But avatars like Ram don’t do so. There is no trial for them. Who are they answerable to,” he asks.

Jethmalani has few regrets — but there is one fact that he rues. He grew up in Shikarpur in Pakistan’s Sindh, where his father was a lawyer. He himself became a lawyer at 18 — after a special resolution made that possible because the stipulated age for a lawyer was 21.

He made Mumbai his home in 1947 but regrets that he never got a chance to go back to Shikarpur. “I always wanted to revisit Shikarpur but the Pakistan government has never allowed me to do so for reasons unknown,” he says.

As he refers to Pakistan, I ask his opinion about the hanging of Pakistani terror convict Ajmal Amir Kasab. Jethmalani, who had often spoken against death penalty, has a different take on the issue.

“One should understand that my principle objection is that justice is fallible. There could be a case of wrong conviction too. In Kasab’s case, there was no doubt about his involvement. He deserved it.”

The interview has been carrying on for a while and I now see that visitors have queued up to meet him before he leaves for Mumbai the next day. “My body is in Delhi but my heart is in Bombay,” he says. This is the second time in our conversation that he has referred to Mumbai as Bombay. Has he taken the liberty of calling the city by its old name now that Thackeray’s gone?

“No, I always say Bombay when I am speaking in English. Sometimes, Bal used to object to it, but in good humour,” he says with a laugh.