I have stopped wondering

THERE was a time when I used to wonder, “What is the big deal about contesting elections not just for Bar councils but also for the various Bar associations in every court and tribunal?” Expensive campaigns were periodically conducted by senior and not-so-senior learned friends simply to be part of some committee, even if it was a library committee or a canteen committee. After more than three decades in practice, having voted for numerous learned friends in several such elections, I have stopped wondering.

But I have fond memories of some wonderful ‘election campaigns’ of the past which I shall recount. In all such elections, the ‘worth’ of candidates was measured by the consideration they show for their potential voters. Organising booze parties in hotels used to be the minimum eligibility criteria for winners.

How many stars the hotel had in ranking was immaterial, how many bottles it stocked in its bar for our Bar members was important. Food, of course, had to be non-veg and unlimited. I don’t recollect anyone winning only with Jain Pav Bhaji.

Once, a well-known criminal lawyer hosted such a pre-election bash on a floatel off the Gateway of India. As everyone was literally at sea, the candidate was assured of a nice, captive audience on a Friday evening. The caterers knew from experience that drunks don’t make too much fuss about the quality of food served as long as the quality of booze is passable. So stale fish and prawns had been deep fried and made very spicy and crispy. These ‘starters’ were being served in good measure; and they were being devoured with much zest and fervour as ‘Mehbooba O Mehbooba’ blared on the stereo.

Perhaps freebies have a special flavour of their own which can only be tasted, never really described. One half-drunk connoisseur, however, realised that consuming this questionable stuff on a Friday night may entail being condemned to the purgatory over the weekend for atonement of sins. But he did not want to spoil the tipplers party. So he quietly tipped the stale fish and prawn stuff overboard into the sea when no one was paying attention. No sooner had he accomplished this mission than a waiter, noticing his empty plate quickly filled it up with more of the same stale stuff! He recounted to us later that he had released many fish and prawns into the sea that night albeit in an altered state incapable of resuscitation and unsure of reincarnation.

As for those who consumed the stale food, some with tummys used to consistent abuse managed to digest it but many suffered the consequences and remained absent even on Monday. It seems they were rushing to answer urgent calls throughout the weekend without being served any notices of motion by nature.

The biggest benefit of being on the committees of such associations (and especially being office bearers) were the perks that came with such offices. Getting to sit next to the milords they felicitated, getting themselves photographed with visiting dignitaries, using association staff for personal errands, bullying juniors hankering for new memberships, changing old suppliers and vendors if they were not ‘cooperative’ enough, bringing out souvenirs and glossy new Bar directories and raking in good profits thereby… these were some of the standard perks in those days.

All for the greatest good of the greatest number… of office bearers, of course.

The felicitations of incoming and outgoing milords were usually damp squibs as most milords in those days were not good public speakers and if compelled to say ‘two words’ usually said ‘thank you’ and sat down. But the office bearers loved the mike and the sound of their own voices. The programme traditionally ended with a tea-party in the bar room where the chutney sandwiches had already gone dry and the batata vadas had gone cold just waiting for the Vote of Thanks to get over.

Association office bearers used to act too pricey if there was a long wait-list for something like locker allotments in the bar rooms. On such occasions the inherent nepotism of these bearers of office and trust demonstrably came to the fore. Those applicants who had followed all paper-rules and waited patiently for years in the queue could remain waiting in that queue forever, but those who had given some donations to some “funds” set up to generate income for the Association could jump the queue and get into the lockers!

If you were related to or connected with the office bearers in charge of locker allotments by caste or creed or just having done some pleasing deed, you could be blessed with a locker… your own little private space in the hallowed portals of the temple of justice.

The injustice and unfairness of locker allotments did not stir any controversy because the lady of justice remained blindfolded and the ladies in charge of allotments kept all options open. I am told that this tradition still continues.

In the library committees too, if some booksellers are to be believed, kickbacks and ‘commission culture’ was pervasive. Purchases of expensive legal tomes were sanctioned by committees if complimentary copies of law books (or software) were supplied to those who placed the orders and cleared the bills. Such behavior often travelled like the proverbial bug from the Bar to the Bench.

Once, a dubious publisher of a mediocre law-report which was being consistently rejected by milords as sub-standard and unfit for the milords library devised a devious method of getting his publication ‘passed’. He appointed the struggling son of the senior milord who was the ‘library judge’ at that time on the editorial board of his struggling rag. Soon,the milords library placed an order for a dozen copies of that rag to be supplied for milords library every week. It just added to the wastepaper, but even in the sale of wastepaper there used to be a commission for someone!

I used to wonder why despite so much ‘commission’ travelling all around there never was any commission to inquire into such commissions?

Progressing from the Bar associations to the level of state Bar councils, the electoral contests were considerably more intense, the amounts spent were humongous and notoriety seemed to be a definite asset for candidates. This is because the power to discipline errant lawyers includes the power to suspend, debar or forgive them. It is a formidable power conferred by law. Hence aspirants were willing to spend big amounts for a chance to wield that power. And the fact that hardly anyone got disciplined demonstrated how well such powers were wielded. Res ipsa loquitur.

Bar council buddies are an asset to milords too. I know of some learned friends who graced posts in the Bar councils and obliged milords in ways that made the milords remain perennially grateful to them.

Most milords always remembered such favours. They repaid the helpful councillors well. Sometimes with elevation’s crown, sometimes with a senior’s gown.

One common way of obliging milords was to spread the enrollment meetings every year into several ones. The first meeting was unofficially ‘reserved’ for the privileged few while the subsequent ones were earmarked for the uninfluential many.

So, if 500 new entrants passed the same final LLB exam on the same day and applied within the same timeframe, the Bar councillors could, at their discretion, decide that they will clear those applications in two meetings instead of one.

The children of past and present milords, senior advocates, politicians and others having contacts or influence were cleared in the first meeting, thereby making them forever senior to their similarly-placed colleagues and classfellows.

The children of ordinary mortals without power or pelf were enrolled a bit later in the next meeting. They remained junior to the privileged ones for the rest of their lives at the Bar.

Decades later, even if two batchmates were to be elevated to the Bench on the same day, the one enrolled even a week earlier would be sworn in earlier and remained senior till retirement. And that was a great advantage.

Office bearers of Bar councils who facilitated such arrangements for milords deserved to be rewarded. And word soon spread that a particular face will win you your important case. I realised over the years that this was just one of the many reasons why Bar council elections everywhere were such big-spending, hotly contested, prestigious affairs.

This was also the reason why the ‘tried and tested’ managed to retain their seats time and again. Who would want to disturb the status quo of such inequity? Or rather, who would dare?

Therefore, I do not wonder about all the hype around the periodic elections to councils, associations and various committees anymore. I have not forgotten what a seasoned veteran of many such games once told me: “I don’t find anything wrong with bar parties. We all know the outcomes of elections even before they are held. Such get-togethers are good. I attend everyone’s dinners and promise to vote for everyone. No partiality at all.”

“How can you vote for everyone when the seats are limited?” I queried.

“Arrey, I cannot break my promise. At this age, why should I lie? I enjoy the parties, the drinks and the non-veg food offered by all contestants. Some candidates even pay off the arrears of my library and association dues to make me eligible and get my vote. I must repay their kindness. How can I let them down?”

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“I vote for all of them, every time! On election day I tick against every name which has given me a treat… big or small” he announced with great sincerity and conviction.

“I get such a great feeling of satisfaction as I come out smiling after casting my votes, walk up to every hopeful candidate and truthfully tell them: ‘I have voted for you.'”

“But if you have ticked against all the names, your vote will in all probability be rejected,” I protested.

“That, my friend, should not really be our concern,” he replied. “Our job is to just perform our duty to perfection. Results and rewards are never in our hands,” he had quoted Lord Krishna and walked away.

As I said earlier, I have stopped wondering.

So I too picked up my bag of briefs imagining it to be a quiver full of arrows and walked out of the Kurukshetra of the bar room towards the Dharmakshetra of the courtrooms.