Considering that you are said to be India’s highest-paid lawyer, why have you chosen to represent Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, in the civil and criminal defamation cases filed against him by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, for just Re 1?
Listen, I have this reputation that I am a highly paid lawyer, but what many people don’t know is that I earn money from only 10% of my clients. The rest of my work is pro bono. I work free. Sure, I am not charging any fee from Kejriwal and that’s because his government itself is so poor. (Laughs heartily.)
Did the Aam Aadmi Party leaders reach out to you or did you reach out to them?
I don’t get in touch with anyone on my own. Kejriwal got in touch with me and I promptly said to him, "Yes, I will surely represent you."
Have you been through the papers pertaining to the charges of corruption in the Delhi & District Cricket Association?
So do you think the charges of defalcation of money from the DDCA during Jaitley’s tenure as president are legally tenable?
If a person was reasonably careful, he would have detected the fault and certainly brought it out or dissociated himself totally from it. There is good reason to believe Jaitley has consciously shut his eyes to the fraud in the DDCA. Beyond this, I am not willing to go. But many people would draw stronger inferences than I have. I am still in the state of giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Is it unusual for a person to file both civil and criminal defamation cases?
Yes, first of all, I believe his game is that he will try to get an injunction against the repetition of the statements of which he is complaining. For this, he will use the civil suit. He, anyway, has no intention of going ahead with that suit.
Why do you say that?
I know the tricks of the trade. Jaitley thinks through the criminal case he will strike fear in his opponents. I hope, by now, he has been disillusioned on this count. As it is, in a defamation case, the complainant turns into an accused.
If the court comes to the conclusion that the defamation case is not sustainable, what is the next step? Would Jaitley be deemed guilty of corruption charges? Or would it be all right to conclude that prima facie a case of corruption against him exists?
Well, of course, the least Jaitley will have to do is to resign. I don’t want to see him in jail anyhow. The public life should be cleaned of people who can’t claim to have a completely pure character.
The BJP has demanded that Kejriwal should apologise for his accusations against Jaitley as neither he nor anyone has been named in the report of the three-member panel of inquiry that was appointed by the Delhi government into corruption in DDCA.
Even panels which are appointed don’t wish to get into trouble with politicians, particularly those who are influential. Merely because the panel doesn’t name him means nothing at all. Besides, if a person does not do anything about the wrongs going on around him, then the reasonable inference is that he is colluding in them.
In the court of the people of India, it is not required that proof of guilt be proved beyond reasonable doubt. The common man has a greater understanding of the rules of evidence than a lawyer has. I, personally, think Jaitley has taken a very ill-advised step.
That is of…
He shouldn’t have gone to the court. These are matters you must fight in the court of the people.
So if Jaitley would have sought your advice…
I never, never, never advise people to go to court, particularly so when there exist some questionable aspects of their public life. Even Kejriwal might not know about it, but which his lawyer perhaps would know better. That is why it was so ill-advised of Jaitley to have taken the step of going to court. He should have handled it politically. Ultimately, the people of India have to judge you.
Have you met Kejriwal on this issue?
His friends came over. He, too, came here (to Jethmalani’s home) once and I told him, "Do not worry, I will certainly appear for you." [But] even the copy of complaint is not available still.
When Jaitley went to file the defamation complaints, he was accompanied by BJP foot-soldiers and leaders. It was precisely what happened when Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi appeared in court in the National Herald case. What does the similarity between the two scenes tell you?
These are some kind of shows for the people. This does not mean anything to an honest judge. A good judge may even suspect that this is aimed to influence him.
You have gone on record saying you don’t like Jaitley. What lies underneath the differences between the two of you?
I have very strong opinions about Jaitley. These are not good opinions about him.
Wait till he is cross-examined. I don’t want to spell it out because I don’t want him to be ready (in the court) with anything. But he surely does know that I know many things about him.
Again, like what?
Okay, let me give you one instance. Throughout the 2014 election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a very strong and appealing argument against black money. There is a report of a task force of the BJP itself that $ 1,500 billion, or Rs 90 lakh crore, are stashed abroad. Now, Germany is a richer country than us. I don’t believe people in Germany are more corrupt than Indians, yet they paid $475 million to an employee of the Liechtenstein Bank and got 1,400 names. The Swiss Bankers Association declared that the majority of the names were of Indians. The German government officially declared that it was willing to share the names with any friendly government, without cost, without condition. I want to know whether the then government was prepared to end corruption and…
That was under the United Progressive Alliance government, right?
Yes, the UPA government did nothing, which was the reason why the people threw them out. But what were the Opposition leaders doing? Were they not interested? Even after coming to power, they haven’t gone to the Germans asking for the names, even though Modi visited Germany and the German chancellor came here. The very fact that they did not ask for the names is an almost conclusive evidence that they know the names and they don’t want them to be made public. It also means both are on the list.
Both meaning leaders from the Congress and the BJP?
[Laughs] On top of it, after having won the election on the major plank of the UPA corruption, the party president [Amit Shah], who has been appointed by Modi, makes a public statement that all this talk of corruption, of getting back the black money from abroad, was an election jumla, a joke. It amounts to them accepting that they cheated the people. It is a confession to the grand larceny on the people of this country, that is, the BJP stole the votes of the people by making false representations.
Mr Modi doesn’t say anything. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley doesn’t say anything. What does it show? It shows that all three – Modi, Jaitley, Shah – are in conspiracy. That is why from being the greatest supporter of Modi I have now turned into his greatest critic.
And that is because you feel he has betrayed the people?
I went to Bihar. Nitish Kumar invited me to campaign for him. I told him I didn’t have enough time to go around canvassing. But I asked Nitish to organise two meetings. I also told him, "Believe you me, I will not speak for more than 20 minutes."
So I addressed two meetings in Bihar. I told the audience that it needed to support Nitish and Lalu, that the NDA had betrayed the people and did not deserve their support. But I also told them that I had come to them for a different reason. I said I had come to seek their forgiveness. I said that this was because I am an educated person who has 75 years of experience as a criminal lawyer, and how it was that Modi made a fool of me. I said that even though I had been expelled from the BJP, I worked for him during the 2014 election campaign.
So did Modi or BJP reach out to you to campaign for him?
Let me complete the story. I used to write a weekly column for the Sunday Guardian. You should read the piece I wrote immediately after the 2014 election results were announced. "Mr Modi, congratulations on your spectacular success and I am pleased I made a small contribution to your success. But I am writing this only to tell you that as far as I am concerned, I am in the departure lounge of God’s airport. I want nothing from you; nothing means nothing. Now fulfil your promises to people."
Do you know Modi did not have the courtesy to pick up the phone to thank me even once? What does it show? To me, it shows he is non-human, to say the least. Till today, the man hasn’t spoken to me.
So I told the people of Bihar that I had come to seek their forgiveness, that even I, who is supposed to be a great criminal lawyer of this country, had been swindled.
This went viral. Nitish used this in every speech of his. See, what happened to Modi’s campaign in Bihar? He campaigned intensively, yet suffered the most spectacular defeat of his life. Modi doesn’t realise it.
Why do you think he doesn’t realise it? Have you met Modi?
He used to come here [Jethmalani’s home.]
During the 2014 campaign?
Yes, and before it too. On my birthday in September 2013, both Modi and Advani were present when I tried to bring some sort of understanding between them. Modi has come to my residence more than once. I got lawyers from all political parties to participate in his campaign. Between 15,000-20,000 lawyers assembled in Talkatora stadium, from every part of the country.
Nothing could be worked out between Advani and Modi?
Nothing. On the contrary, Modi has disabled all of them. (Laughs.)
Had Jaitley been in touch with you? What do you think of him?
What has Jaitley done? I can’t remember a big case in which he has appeared, but he perhaps has a bank balance ten times of mine. You can draw your inferences.
Ever since you went public with your decision to represent Kejriwal, the media has been furiously speculating that you have done this because it was Jaitley who was responsible for your removal as law minister under the NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Is this true?
Well, he certainly misguided Vajpayee. At that time, the Congress-led government was in Maharashtra. Bal Thackeray had done something seven years ago – I forget what it was precisely – and the Maharashtra government wanted to arrest him. He was a BJP ally. So Prime Minister Vajpayee called me and said, "Ram, he is our ally and you have to defend him."
I told Vajpayee, "He is a friend. You don’t worry, nothing will happen." I was the law minister then and I made a strong public statement defending Thackeray.
By some curious incident, Chief Justice [Adarsh Sein] Anand made an attack on me. He said, "What did the Law Minister mean by issuing statements to defend Thackeray?" These statements were made in the presence of [former Attorney General] Soli Sorabjee and Arun Jaitley. Once Chief Justice Anand made the statement, I called the press and asked them to convey to the Chief Justice that I knew my job and I certainly knew more law than the Chief Justice did. In the first place, it was wrong of him to make that statement in my absence. Second, the statement was absolutely scandalous and unworthy of Chief Justice.
I believe Sorabjee and Jaitley went to Vajpayee and told him the Supreme Court had become the enemy of the government. They said they [NDA] would be in great trouble with the Supreme Court until I was dropped. Vajpayee didn’t have the courage to call me up. So he asked poor Jaswant Singh to do the job.
I remember I was travelling by car from Mumbai to Pune. Jaswant called. So I remarked, "Jaswant, what calls for this urgent call to me?" He said that the Prime Minister wanted me to resign. I didn’t bat an eyelid. I said, "Jaswant, tell the Prime Minister he will get my resignation letter from the nearest fax machine that I can get on the Bombay-Pune road." (Laughs.) I did it.
Didn’t you ask Jaswant Singh what the reason was?
No. Believe you me, I haven’t seen Vajpayee’s face since then. How many years have gone by? These days, sometimes, I wonder whether I should go to meet him. I am told he is in bad shape. But I simply can’t make up my mind to see him.
Are you suggesting Jaitley has a complex vis-à-vis you?
Naturally. You see, all these creatures don’t want anyone who is intellectually superior to them. They managed my expulsion from the BJP [in 2013].
Didn’t you file a defamation suit against the BJP then?
No, I filed a suit for declaring that the order of expulsion is void.
What has happened to the case?
They are seeking adjournments all the time.
Jaitley is supposed to have a lot of clout. Where does his clout come from?
Well, he certainly controls the media, which is not so much a reflection on Jaitley as much as it is on the media itself, on the media bosses. You see, I hardly appear for TV interviews. I have told them that their bosses will not permit them to carry any of the things I say.
In April [this year], I wrote a very strong article against Jaitley. In the article I asked him some questions and sought his replies. For five years till then, I used to write my weekly piece for the Sunday Guardian. I would send my piece on Friday, they would look at it on Saturday, and it would appear Sunday morning.
When I opened the newspaper on Sunday morning, I found my article (the one asking questions) had been blanked out. There was an advertisement inserted in the slot where the article should have been. I was the chairman of the Board (of the Sunday Guardian) at that time. I resigned that day. Of course, I put the piece on my twitter and Facebook accounts.
But what I also did was to call the Indian Express. I told the Express that I wanted them to publish my article and that they could do so as a paid advertisement. I said I would pay for it. Do you know I was charged Rs 13 lakh for it?
Rs 13 lakh for the piece!
Yes, but the article did appear in full [as an advertisement]. The article was on why the government wasn’t doing anything to bring back black money from abroad.
This is shocking.
(Laughs) I don’t know whether it went into the pockets of the Indian Express or to their agents.
Perhaps the highest amount a writer paid to have his piece published.
(Laughs) Ya, ya, I paid for it.
The Finance Minister wouldn’t have liked that, would he?
Jaitley knows he has no answer. If he has an honest answer to give, he should. Why is he in the public life? To give answers.
When I was driving to your place, a friend who knew I was to interview you wanted me to find out whether it was indeed true, as is the talk in the legal fraternity, that Jaitley used to carry your coat in his younger days.
(Silent for a few seconds) No doubt about it. Well, now look when Advani…
Why do you think Modi dragged LK Advani into the DDCA controversy by saying that Jaitley’s innocence would be proved in the hawala case as Advani’s was in the hawala case? (It was a scandal that broke out in 1991. Several politicians were accused of accepting money through hawala brokers)
Modi’s statement is extremely ambiguous. You see, Advani had resigned when the case was on. I must tell you that he approached me…
Yes, he and Jaitley approached me on the hawala case. Jaitley was Advani’s lawyer then. He had charges framed against Advani in the judgement written by the Session Court over 200 pages. [Meaning Jaitley couldn’t convince the Sessions Court that no charges were made out against Advani.] I said I was sorry, I refused point-blank to appear for Advani.
After a week, they again came, including Jaitley. Advani said he would resign from politics altogether if I were not to take up his case. He said I would be responsible for it. He did a kind of satyagraha in my house. Advani’s wife is my rakhi sister. Ultimately, I took up the case. I fought it free. I got the charges against him quashed by the High Court. The government went in appeal to the Supreme Court. I fought the appeal in the Supreme Court and got the judgement of the High Court sustained.
LK Advani has written, I think, a 600-page book [My Life, My Country actually has 1,000 pages] in which there is just one reference to me, and that is, "Ram Jethmalani is born in Shikarpur [in Sindh, Pakistan]." (Laughs). He is party to my expulsion.
Yes, he is. Along with Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Nitin Gadkari. At least Gadkari is appreciative of the fact that he did a wrong thing against me.
Why did Gadkari move against you?
I called Gadkari. This was at the time the BJP was amending the Constitution to give him the second term. I was opposed to it. I explained to Gadkari, "Please, try to understand that I am not your enemy. I am not coveting your office. But I will tell you why I am opposed to the party’s move to give you a second term."
I reminded him about the ugly incident in his life, for which he was personally not responsible. But the government knew about it, I said to him, and it would therefore always blackmail you. Even today, he is appreciative of the advice I gave him, unlike other rascals. He is more friendly to me than them, despite the fact that he did sign my expulsion order.
What is the ugly incident are you referring to?
The ugly incident was, well… he had a car in his garage. A girl was found dead in the car. What was the defence? The garage door was open, the car door was open, and the girl walked into the garage, then into the car, and the door of the car shut behind her, and she couldn’t open it. Will you believe the story that she died of suffocation?
I told Gadkari that he would always be blackmailed on this count. This was why he shouldn’t become the president. So he too joined the clique.
Do you agree with the BJP that says the Delhi government isn’t entitled to institute a commission of inquiry into the DDCA?
I think the BJP is wrong. Let them fight it out in the court. Apart from the three things (land, police and public order) spelt out, it is in charge of everything else.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.