Ram Jethmalani is in many ways a crotchety old man who has an unerring instinct for landing himself in controversies. His keen legal mind has been deployed on countless occasions to defend the seemingly indefensible and the politically incorrect in high-profile cases, and some of his clients – from Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins to smuggler Haji Mastan to stock market scamsters Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh to Jessica Lall’s murderer Manu Sharma - would make for a virtual Rogues’ Gallery by themselves.
And although Jethmalani commands a well-earned reputation as inarguably one of India’s best – and best-paid! – lawyers with equal felicity in civil, criminal and constitutional cases, it is at the cusp of power politics that he is in his natural elements. There too, he brings a feisty, combative spirit that doesn’t readily abide by the rules of the game: and,of course, the cardinal rule of that power game is that you don’t go after your own team leader. “My party, right or wrong,” is the motto of politics, but it is one that Jethmalani has chosen pointedly to ignore.
In that sense, it was entirely in character for Jethmalani to speak out against his own party, the BJP, for its feckless defence of its president Nitin Gadkari for clinging on to his post despite overwhelming evidence that his business empire, which passes for a social entrepreneurship venture, profited unduly from his political connections. In particular, the charges against Gadkari have forced the BJP on the political defensive at precisely the moment when the party was well-positioned to take on the Congress following damning evidence that Sonia Gandhi‘s son-in-law Robert Vadra built his real estate business by leveraging his political clout, such as it is.
Jethmalani may not be a political heavyweight – far from it, in fact – but on this issue, his political instinct is absolutely on the money. The BJP has severely compromised itself on the anti-corruption campaign it was looking to lead with its inexplicable defence of Gadkari; as anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal pointed out when he first raised other, unrelated charges against Gadkari, it reinforces the impression that the BJP is not serious about taking on the Congress on the issue of corruption because some of its leaders are fellow-travellers on the gravy train that the Congress runs.
Coming so soon after Jethmalani’s other controversial comments that embarrassed the BJP – his statement that the mythological warrior-king Rama was a bad husband” because he subjected his wife Sita to purification rituals merely because her chastity had been called into question, and his criticism of the BJP’s stand on the government’s appointment of the CBI director (more on that here) - his virtual dare to his party to take disciplinary action him has prompted the BJP to suspend him as a first step towards likely expulsion from the party.
In the larger scheme of things, the suspension (and perhaps even expulsion) of one lightweight leader may not count for much. But the move shows up that the BJP’s political instincts have been dulled to the point where it is blind to the optics of politics.
Precisely why the BJP clings on to Gadkari (who, for all his earlier calorific excesses, too is something of a political lightweight) despite the fact that he has so severely dented the BJP’s case to being serious about taking on corruption isn’t immediately clear. But just the fact that the party has chosen to stand by him – and has suspended Jethmalani conveys a message that isn’t entirely lost on observers.
Then again, Jethmalani is not the only one in the BJP who has demanded that Gadkari should step down. His principled stand has the backing of, among others, Yashwant Sinha, Shatrughan Sinha and, now, even Shanta Kumar. To that extent, the disciplinary action against Jethmalani, perhaps intended to quell the growing rebellion in its ranks, may end up accentuating it even further.
More critically, by taking action against Jethmalani, the BJP is effectively looking to still the stray voice of conscience within its ranks. There’s a case to be made that leaders who unfailingly abide by the official party line on all matters aren’t in fact doing the party any good. Such leaders represent the worst kind of status-quoism, with their readiness to look the other way, even if they sense their party is in the wrong. Every party needs leaders who will call it to account when they perceive that it has strayed from the path of righteous politics. Every party needs leaders who will speak truth to power, regardless of the consequence.
That, in fact, was Jethmalani’s true utility for the BJP, which more than made up for the lightweight nature of his political contributions. And by suspending him – and perhaps expelling him, as it plans to do – the BJP has effectively shot itself in the foot. It’s a decision it will live to regret in the short term. As India Today observed in 2010, when it named Jethmalani one of the Top 50 ‘power people’ in India, age hasn’t dimmed this Methuselah-esque titan’s appetite for controversy.
This crotchety old man has a long memory – and perhaps an explosive dossier on BJP leaders – and he doesn’t tolerate slights gladly. Surely, he won’t let the prospect of his expulsion from the BJP silence him from saying what’s on his mind. He was characteristically dismissive of his suspension order; he is believed to have responded to the news of the disciplinary action by saying: “I’m an MP. Who is this Shahnawaz Hussein?” – and then rolling over to go to sleep. But by slighting him, the BJP may have awoken a sleeping giant, and one with a razor-sharp legal mind.