'In 2019, we'll know who the real Pappu is'

The Congress’s fortunes might have reached a nadir, but senior party leader Kapil Sibal is humming Mast hawa  and Tere bina . The busy lawyer-lyricist, however, finds time for a metaphysical chit-chat with Sonia Sarkar 

  • Published 3.07.16

It's not easy being Kapil Sibal. When he speaks on politics, he is trolled. When he is elected to the Rajya Sabha, his opponents do their best to have him defeated. And when he talks of love in a song for a Hindi film, there is an outcry, though the hullabaloo, of course, is more over the film than the song.

Let's start with his love song. Earlier this week, a Hindi film called Shorgul, based on the riots of Muzaffarnagar, was released in many parts of the country, but was not allowed to be screened in theatre halls in parts of western Uttar Pradesh. Sibal , 67, had written two songs for the film. One was an item number called Mast hawa (crazy current); the other a love song called Tere bina (without you).

"All of us have a romantic streak is us," the senior Congress leader says modestly. "That's why we are fallible, aren't we?" Sibal switches on his iPad and zooms in on his debut Bollywood song Tu jaldi bata de (tell me), which he wrote for a 2013 crime thriller, Bandook.

It's been a busy week for Sibal. His comments about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's interview to a television channel led to an uproar on social media sites. "Modi ji, have a press conference. Let our journalists ask you questions. This is better than an interview with one person," Sibal had said after the interview.

The Twitterati, as one would expect, had pounced on him. What exactly did he mean by "our" journalists, they asked. Indeed, just what did he mean by that?

"When I said, 'our' journalists, I meant journalists sitting in front of us at press conferences. They (PM Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party) may have journalists in their pocket but we don't."

Sibal, who has been fighting the BJP for long years, was a mite shaken during the RS elections from Uttar Pradesh last month. He had been nominated by the Congress, and was expected to sail through, but an independent candidate, backed by the BJP, put a spoke in his wheel. The candidate, Preeti Mahapatra, got 18 first preference votes cutting across party lines. Sibal finally made it through with 25 first preference votes. Six Congress MLAs have been expelled for not supporting him. Three of the six voted in favour of Mahapatra, the others sided with the BSP.

"The BJP had sent her (Mahapatra) to poach votes. It shows the mindset of the party. Cabinet ministers - Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley - moved heaven and earth hoping to ensure that I wouldn't get into the Rajya Sabha. They made it out to be like a Lok Sabha election," Sibal says.

No, it's not easy being Kapil Sibal. And it's certainly not easy to be in a party that is seen losing ground in almost every state. Is that because the party doesn't have a credible leader any more? Rahul Gandhi - who once evocatively spoke of farm widows in Parliament - is being lampooned as Pappu across the media, social and otherwise.

"If you look at the army of trolls who use that term, you'll understand that it's part of a political campaign by the BJP in the social media," he says. "But personal politics cannot work in a huge country like India. In 2019, we'll know who the real Pappu is," he says, referring to the next general election.

Looking at the state of the Congress, few would believe that the party could reclaim power, I point out. "We have to get our act together. We have only 44 seats (in the Lok Sabha). We have a long way to go," he says.

Congress watchers believe that the party is not trying very hard to get its act together. They refer to the recent appointment of Asha Kumari, convicted in a land grab case, as the Congress in-charge of Punjab, which goes to poll next year.

"BJP president Amit Shah has been charged with murder. Babubhai Bokhiria, involved in illegal mining, continues to be a minister in Gujarat. B.S. Yeddyurappa was involved in illegal land dealings is the president of the Karnataka BJP. Is that all right for the BJP? Why are fingers always being pointed at the Congress?"

Sibal breaks off to take a call, and I look around his office on the second floor of a palatial house that he's leased in Jor Bagh in central Delhi. The bookshelves behind him are filled with fiction and non-fiction, as well as legal journals and copies of judgments. There is a framed photograph of Tagore by his side, while Shakespeare is framed on the wall. Sibal, as is well known, acted in several Shakespeare plays as a student of St. Stephen's College, which he joined after schooling in Chandigarh.

Sibal later studied law - completing a master's degree in maritime law at Harvard when his late wife, Nina, who was an Indian Foreign Service officer, was posted to the United States. One of the most prominent constitutional lawyers of India, Sibal was the additional solicitor-general of India from 1989 to 1990. In 2005, he got married again - his wife, Promila, is a social activist.

With the Congress out of power at the Centre - Sibal was a minister during the United Progressive Alliance's two terms - the Supreme Court lawyer has the time to practise law. He defended Modi's opponent, Patidar leader Hardik Patel, in court.

Sibal also represented Trinamul's Madan Mitra in the Saradha scam - for which he was sharply criticised by his party colleagues in Bengal. Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury wrote to party president Sonia Gandhi in 2015, urging her not to allow Sibal to take part in any party meeting in the state.

"Some Congress leader from West Bengal, charged with murder, came to me for advice. So should I give advice only to Congressmen? I am a lawyer by profession. What's their problem? I don't cow down to these things," he replies.

Sibal also defended Jawaharlal Nehru University students' union president Kanhaiya Kumar in Delhi in the high court. Kumar's arrest from the JNU campus had evoked nationwide condemnation.

"Universities are not places where police can come and arrest people. Let the children have a discourse as they want to. They will learn as they move on in life. But to target individuals and institutions is dangerous," Sibal says.

The former human resource development minister is critical of the way the ministry is now being run. "The harm the ministry is causing to the future generation is unimaginable," he says.

I mention, in the context of JNU's Kumar, who has been charged with sedition, that the controversy started over student protests about Afzal Guru who was executed in 2013, when the UPA was in power. It has been often said that Guru was not given a fair trial, and that he was hanged without his family being informed.

As a lawyer who defended the Kashmiri separatist leader and co-founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Maqbool Bhat (who, too, was hanged), does he believe that Guru's execution was a right move?

Sibal does not give a clear answer. "The judiciary is entitled to finally resolve a dispute. Not every decision is right," he replies.

The former minister, who won his first Lok Sabha election from Delhi's Chandni Chowk constituency in 2004 by defeating the current human resource development minister Smriti Irani, has often been criticised for his own tenures as minister.

As minister of communications and IT, he had claimed in 2011 that "zero loss" was caused by distributing 2G licences on a first-come, first-served basis. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India estimated the loss at Rs 1.76 crore. Sibal, however, stands by his comment.

"I meant that it's not our policy to auction the spectrum. Where is the question of loss? Now that you have auctioned it, it is in loss. We did not auction it. The sum, Rs 1.76 crore, had not been pocketed by us," he clarifies.

He has been reminded again by his aides of appointments with clients. We have discussed a range of subjects, and it's time for me to leave.

But before that, he wants me to listen to one of his poems, a particular favourite that has been sung by Adnan Sami. The first line goes like this: Iss jahan mein mera kuchh bhi nahin hai, jo mera hai who bhi mera nahin hai - nothing in this world belongs to me, not even that which is mine.

"That's the philosophy of my life. Everything I have is meaningless," explains Sibal, who also released an album, Raunaq, with music director A.R. Rahman two years ago.

His last words ring in my ears as I walk towards the main gate of the house, past his brown Toyota Camry. No, it's not easy being Kapil Sibal.