Yesterday marked the first death anniversary of former Union Minister and eminent lawyer Mr Arun Jaitley. Indira Jaising, former Additional Solicitor General and Senior Advocate, recollects fondly memories of Arun Jaitley’s dynamic legal career and expertise as a policymaker.
Being an outsider to Delhi, I first met Arun Jaitley inside a courtroom as an opponent in a labour case. He was easy to get on as an opponent. It was a challenge to argue before Judges who knew him well and did not know me at all. I thought being a “local”, gave him an advantage over me. But, at the end of the day, it was the facts of the case that mattered. It was an interesting case and one of a kind, at that time. It worked in my favour. For the first time in Indian legal history, workers of a company had made a bid to purchase the company, revive it and run it. We won in the Delhi High Court. The scene soon shifted to the Supreme Court.
Arun was a good loser. He never took it personally and our association as professionals continued.
Another history-making case in which we argued against each other was the ban on smoking in public places. His client, the Indian Tobacco Company, challenged the constitutionality of the law banning smoking in public places. It was Arun Jaitley and Harish Salve who were representing the industry. During the hearing, I had occasion to tell the judge that two of the country’s most important lawyers were pleading for smoking in public places and they were both non-smokers! The judges had a good laugh and they refused to stay the law. It was in Court Number 2 where history was made. The court refused to stay a public health law which had benefited millions to people across the country. Today, we non-smokers can enter a hotel or a restaurant free from the fear of coughing and suffering from smoke-related respiratory problems.
Arun and I were often on opposite sides of any proposition but his doors were always open to the Lawyers Collective.
I got to know him also as a policymaker. I went to met him when he was the Law Minister to explain how and why we, at the Lawyers Collective had drafted a domestic violence law. He generously gave us all the time we needed to explain the law to him. He disagreed but engaged with us. Our disagreement was over the right to reside in the shared household. He said it should be dropped as Parliamentarians would not let it pass. I told him that this was the heart of the law, and we in the women’s’ movement would never compromise on it.
The law was ultimately passed by a UPA government. The BJP MPs voted in its favour. Sumitra Mahajan, who ultimately became the speaker of the NDA government, strongly supported it. However, they did oppose the “relationship in the nature of marriage“ stating this would corrupt the morals of the young. The law was passed with no amendment.
Arun and I were often on opposite sides of any proposition but his doors were always open to the Lawyers Collective. I often invited him to inaugurate our conferences and he readily agreed knowing full well that we were often not on the same page on the issue, that was perhaps his most enduring quality or maybe, his most sterling quality along with his ability to communicate with his opponents without breaking ranks.
His organisational skills were reflected in his mentoring a group of lawyers who were remained loyal to him after his death. Some may call this the Godfather syndrome, he built his own support network in the profession by building a group of professionals he supported.
When he came to power, he made sure that these very people occupied positions as Attorney General and Additional Solicitor Generals. At least one sitting judge has gone on record to say that he was responsible for her marriage to a successful lawyer who also went on to become an Additional Solicitor General.
Arun kept his doors open almost till his dying day to friends and acquaintances, including me.
Arun built up his own friends and they supported him through thick and thin, it was one way to build and keep a successful law practice. Law and politics have always been inseparable for him and I suspect law was his first love.
It was in his later years when he was part of a dispensation drunk with numbers that he very openly attacked the judiciary. While criticising the National Judicial Appointments Commission judgement, he brought up the “will of the people“ arguments forgetting that judicial review was a basic feature of the Constitution. He said that judges were perpetuating the tyranny of the unelected. That was ironic considering that he was nominated a member of parliament and not elected.
No matter how much I disagreed with him, he will be remembered as an able lawyer, a good friend, and a great organiser, a person who was much needed by the Prime Minister heading an NDA government.
For me too, he was one of a kind. Arun kept his doors open almost till his dying day to friends and acquaintances, including me. He agreed to attend a dinner we had set up for Justice Michal Kirby and sent his security ahead of him. For some urgent reason, he could not attend and sent an apology.
Despite all my political and ideological differences with Arun Jaitley, I will miss him.
(The author is a Senior Advocate at Supreme Court of India and former Additional Solicitor General of India.)