How Kapil Sibal sold his soul

A Caravan cover story confirms what we already suspect: Sibal is an ambitious man who will discard scruple for success. What is interesting, however, is the notion that a young Sibal did indeed possess scruples that were available for sacrifice.

Lakshmi Chaudhry November 23, 2012 13:14:19 IST
How Kapil Sibal sold his soul

A successful politician is one who:
makes the unconscionable
sound reasonable
and the reasonable
sound unconscionable.

Thus go the lines of a Kapil Sibal poem. By his own measure, Kapil Sibal is a successful politician. Over recent years, he has come to epitomise all that is wrong with the Congress party, namely a high-handed disdain for dissent, facts, and the law. He has come to be defined by his media appearances, which often entail defending "the unconscionable" — the kind that earned him the Twitter hashtag #IdiotKapilSibal for his attempt to censor social media. We know Kapil Sibal, or so we think.

So what does a 9-page, meticulously researched, scrupulously balanced magazine profile add to the sum of our knowledge? Not very much — though not for want of effort on part of the writer Praveen Donthi. Much of the story he tells of The Argumentative Indian in Caravan magazine confirms what we already suspect: Sibal is an ambitious man who will discard scruple for success.  [Read it in its entirety here]

How Kapil Sibal sold his soul

By his own measure, Kapil Sibal is a successful politician. AFP

What is interesting, however, is the notion that a young Sibal did indeed possess scruples that were available for sacrifice. Donthi writes in the most striking part of the profile:

As a rule, the public does not always expect politicians (or lawyers, for that matter) to believe their own arguments, but the charge of insincerity has stuck to Sibal with particular tenacity, in part because he had a very different reputation in his days as a lawyer. “Of all the politician-lawyers, he was the only one to take up rights issues against the state—when the government is out of power, Chidambaram will only appear for the big corporates, he will never challenge legislation. But Sibal has conviction, credibility and competence,” one Supreme Court advocate told me. “He was unaffordable, but he would lend himself to a cause. And when Sibal stands up for a case, people take note of it.” [Emphases added]

Yup, that's right. Sibal made a reputation for himself as a lawyer who defended individual rights against the government, however unpopular the cause. For example, in 1984, he appeared in a Supreme Court case, arguing in favour of dismissing the death sentence of Maqbool Bhat, a founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, and mastermind the 1971 Indian Airlines hijacking. He lost the case, and was upset not as a lawyer but as a death penalty opponent: "I am sorry a life has slipped out of my hands."

The most vociferous and obstreperous Congress loyalist also boasted an A-list legal clientele that traversed partisan lines, with clients such as LK Advani, Mayawati, and J Jayalalithaa. That bipartisan admiration has since dissipated after his entry into politics:

Many people see his rapid rise in the party, in spite of his status as an outsider, as clear evidence that his ambitions have driven him to say and do whatever it takes to demonstrate his loyalty and effectiveness. “I think he’s lost his objectivity in his effort to please the powers that be,” a BJP central executive committee member who was once Sibal’s law client told me. “Otherwise he is an extremely sharp man, he understands what the facts are. But we think his arguments are fundamentally ridiculous. He is like Digvijay Singh, we don’t go to great lengths to defend against what he says—we take Chidambaram more seriously.”

According to Donthi, that single-mindedness has come at a high price. Sibal today stands alone, a man bereft of friends and, worse, credibility. When he declares on television, "I am deeply saddened (by the arrest of Shaheen and Renu). It is just their point of view and enforcement of these laws are not to ban people from expressing their views," it draws an instinctive snicker.

And as the profile notes, Sibal's poems reveal that he too is aware of the toll paid to follow his chosen path:

Blind faith and trust
are virtues which
will help you soon
to strike it rich.

If under siege
do not stand by
rise to defend
don’t question why.

The leadership
will look to see
and calibrate
your loyalty…

It is indeed a tragedy, but much as Sibal's poems, of the banal kind.

I have cherrypicked only the small bits of the Donthi's mammoth profile that caught my eye. There's plenty more fodder to whet a political junkie's appetite. Do check it out on the Caravan website.

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