The passing of veteran lawyer Ram Jethmalani has been met with a flood of tributes from lawyers and politicians across the spectrum in India.
The 95-year-old senior advocate was a doyen of the Bar, and also someone well-known to the public, thanks to his involvement in several high-profile cases – representing the assassins of both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, as well as an incredibly diverse set of clients including Afzal Guru, LK Advani, Kanimozhi and Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of those who paid his respects to Jethmalani when the news broke.
The PM specifically noted Jethmalani's contributions during the Emergency, writing:
“One of the best aspects of Shri Ram Jethmalani Ji was the ability to speak his mind. And, he did so without any fear. During the dark days of the Emergency, his fortitude and fight for public liberties will be remembered.”
Home Minister Amit Shah also tweeted about Jethmalani, who had represented him in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case.
A Friendship Turned Bitter
These glowing statements should not come as a surprise – after all, Jethmalani had a long association with the BJP, joining many of its founders in the Janata Party government in 1977 after having been an outspoken critic of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. He was the founding vice president of the BJP, had been an NDA Cabinet minister and had also supported Modi's bid for power in 2014.
Fast forward to November 2018, however, and things were very different. It had been five years since Jethmalani had been expelled from the BJP (following several months of suspension) for "breach of discipline", and this was just the tip of the iceberg.
It had begun with Jethmalani's bitter feud with former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
After being law minister in 1996 during Vajpayee's first stint as PM, he'd been given the portfolio of Urban Affairs and Employment in 1998.
However, while he again got the law minister portfolio in the NDA government in 1999, he was reportedly asked to resign by Vajpayee in 2000 following a dispute with the attorney general and the Chief Justice of India. This led to Jethmalani standing against Vajpayee as an independent candidate in the 2004 elections.
Things had remained uneasy with the party since then and when the expulsion order came through in May 2013, it appeared that Jethmalani's ties with the BJP, a party in whose rise to prominence and then power he'd played a key role, had been severed.
LK Advani, who had been a staunch ally of his, no longer had any power in the party. Jethmalani had attacked then party president Nitin Gadkari, saying he should have stepped down in light of corruption allegations against him. He'd publicly criticised party stalwarts Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, which was reportedly the last straw for the BJP parliamentary board.
But Jethmalani was Jethmalani and would not go gently into that good night. He filed a civil defamation suit against the BJP parliamentary board, demanded Rs 50 lakh, and challenged his expulsion, claiming it was null and void.
In the years that followed, he publicly criticised PM Narendra Modi several times including in the run-up to the 2015 Bihar elections, claimed he’d been been a ‘victim of fraud’ for supporting Modi in 2014, and had even gone off-piste to call Arun Jaitley a “crook” while cross-examining him in Jaitley’s defamation case against Arvind Kejriwal.
Jethmalani's vocal support for Modi in 2014 had itself been a surprise, given his trenchant criticisms of the BJP in the preceding years, though this was not necessarily inconsistent.
His disputes with the party's high command had been over their alleged failure to take the UPA to task over corruption allegations and corruption allegations against them, while the former Gujarat chief minister had made corruption the key plank of his campaign.
But by November 2018, even this one bridge with the party appeared to have been lost, with Jethmalani going public multiple times with his disappointment over the Modi government's actual record of tackling corruption and black money. His suit against the BJP over his expulsion, which continued to drag on, was the perfect embodiment of this divide between former friends.
Arun Jaitley's Intervention
And then, on 6 December 2018, Jethmalani filed a joint application along with the BJP, to withdraw the case. The application noted that then BJP president Amit Shah and general secretary Bhupender Yadav had visited him and expressed their regret over Jethmalani's expulsion, noting his contributions to the party over the years.
Jethmalani acknowledged the "gracious conduct" of Shah and Yadav, and the letter they'd issued in November 2018 on these issues, and agreed to settle the case, allowing the fractious public saga to be laid to rest.
What was hitherto unknown, however, was that the credit for this goes to the late Arun Jaitley, despite all the (often unparliamentary) barbs that had come his way from Jethmalani.
Speaking to The Quint, senior advocate and former Attorney General of India Mukul Rohatgi said:
“Things ended on a good note. In fact if I may tell you, I’m aware of that case and I’m also aware that the late Mr Arun Jaitley played a big role in settling that case. Because Mr Jethmalani was at the end of his life and whatever it was, he was part of the Janata government in 1977. So Mr Jaitley emphasised to the leadership that it was better to bring an amicable end to the end of one’s life, and that is how it ended.”
Rohatgi emphasised how Jaitley put aside his own difficulties with Jethmalani so that this was possible.
“In fact Mr Jethmalani had called Mr Jaitley a crook and there was no love lost between them. And yet Mr Jaitley was completely magnanimous. When this offer came from Mr Jethmalani to finish off the suit, Mr Jaitley kept aside all these personal insults and did it in favour of resolving this bitter issue.”
The former AG confirmed that Jethmalani was "not on good terms at all" with Modi and Shah, but Jaitley ensured they were able to put aside their differences and bury the hatchet.
BJP spokesperson and senior advocate Nalin Kohli expressed his happiness that there was a rapprochement between them before the end.
"Even though he had chosen to challenge the BJP's decision with regards to his expulsion, somewhere I believe the final resolution between the parties indicated that neither side had any animosity or negativity against each other," he said. "It was merely a disagreement, and it is good that the matter was resolved, forgiven and forgotten before he left for his heavenly abode."