Debating India


"I Wish Vajpayee Had Been More Decisive"

Sheela REDDY

Monday 7 June 2004, by REDDY*Sheela

The man famously called the ’firefighter’ of the Vajpayee regime speaks about his eventful six-year tenure

He has been India’s most outspoken and undoubtedly competent attorney-general. The man famously called the ’firefighter’ of the Vajpayee regime, Soli Sorabjee managed, incredibly, to raise the hackles of everyone-from BJP ministers to the Sangh parivar to Jains and Muslims, even human rights activists. In an interview, he speaks about his eventful six-year tenure. Excerpts:

Why did you decide to resign in March itself?

On March 9, I turned 74 and said, look, I have already done six years, that’s enough of a stint. Then I am interested in many other things-music, literature, academics. And then, Butterworths India asked me to do a book on administrative law in India. What would you say was the most important aspect of your tenure as A-G? Apart from dealing with many important cases, I think I was the only A-G who was openly critical of the government. I criticised the attack on Christians and I’ve been severely critical of what happened in Gujarat. Naturally, some people in the cabinet did not like it. The PM himself never objected, but some people in the cabinet were not happy-why name them, we all know who are the persons who are a little hardcore.

How did they express their displeasure?

They didn’t say anything. But I knew they were displeased. They didn’t like my saying that what was going on was nonsensical; that in Gujarat these people must be punished, that they can’t just roam around with impunity. Even before Gujarat, I was very angry, the way they targeted Christians and disrupted their services, and talked of conversions. They cold-shouldered me in certain quarters, of course, but I didn’t care. What could they do to me anyway? If they did anything, I’d resign the next day and they knew that would be very bad publicity for them.

Couldn’t you have used your influence with the government to stop this?

In my personal conversations, I did do that. The prime minister was actually very anguished. He was very upset about it. But unfortunately he did not take any decisive action. Because, I suppose, of his own political compulsions. Gujarat was a BJP government, Modi was the chief minister, there may have been other reasons.

What were the kind of pressures you faced as A-G?

In truth, there was no pressure at all on me. Except when I was appearing as amicus curiae in the minorities educational institutions case. Even then there was no pressure, but they were worried that the media would misrepresent my arguments and say Sorabjee is at war with the Government of India. So all they said was, ’Please see that your arguments do not go very much counter to our submission.’ I must say in all fairness, no one has ever told me (what to do). Of course, I got hate mail from Bajrang Dal and others because I once said that people who make statements like Christians are greater enemies than Muslims should be locked up either in lunatic asylums or (in) jails.... Frankly, they know me. In fact, when they appointed me, I told Atalji, ’You know my philosophy, I have been critical of you even when you were in the Opposition.’ He said, ’Now don’t make excuses for not accepting the post. We know everything about you, but we want you.’ I always used to tell him, I don’t think you should do this or that. And he always responded positively. I remember when they (VHP) were burning the Pope’s effigy at one time, he slapped his forehead in disgust and said: ’Pagal hain! What sort of behaviour.’ He never disagreed even on Gujarat. I used to tell him that when I go to Geneva-you see, I am a member of the UN’s sub-commission on human rights-India suffers very badly with this sort of thing. But you know how Vajpayee is, he listens, he agrees when you ask him kya ho raha hai, but.

... There were other things I used to tell him-about single directive, that you cannot initiate any action against any high-level government officer unless it is cleared by bureaucrats.

So you never had arguments with the PM?

No arguments. Sometimes I’d meet the PM and express my feelings. It was more Soli Sorabjee meeting A.B. Vajpayee, not A-G meeting PM. On Gujarat A-G ka kya role hai? This is a State of Gujarat issue. But sometimes, yes. For example, on imposing President’s rule on Bihar. Or in Tamil Nadu when the DMK was in power. Jayalalitha was badgering the PM. I said, Atalji, yeh nahin ho sakta hai. It’s not constitutionally permissible. Then on Bihar, I said, well, it may be okay, but it won’t get through the Rajya Sabha, so what’s the point? Then once Atalji phoned me when I was holidaying in London-they’d dragged poor Karunanidhi into jail in the night. I spoilt my vacation and came back. Atalji wanted to know what could be done, whether we could impose President’s rule. Of course, what he said was fair enough, the DMK people must be placated but I took the view that even if it is legally justified, you don’t have the majority in the Rajya Sabha. Kya fayda-you just end up with egg on your face. He sat quietly and listened, that’s his way. I liked him very much, a very quiet man with basic decency, no confrontations. On hindsight, maybe he should have been more decisive, but I don’t know. I’m a law officer, what do I know of political compulsions? But yes, his stature would have gone up if he’d taken firm action instead of only verbal condemnation of what had happened in Gujarat.

You had no confrontations even with the law minister?

Law minister Arun Jaitley was top class. Because he understood the problems, he was in (legal) practice, he was quick, he agreed with me about appointing ad hoc judges, clearing up arrears in courts. I found him very sensitive to the importance of the judiciary. Any suggestion that he would encroach on its freedom and I’d tell him, he’d say, yes, yes.

What about your relations with former law minister Ram Jethmalani?

With Jethmalani my relations became very sour because I opposed his appointment of Jaisinghania as solicitor-general. Unfortunately, he got it in his mind that I was responsible for his ouster from the cabinet. It was totally unfounded. He had already irked the PM and the last straw was when he held a press conference and said he knows the law of contempt better than the Chief Justice of India. At that point the PM was fed up and said he must go. Before that, I did say, bhai, change his ministry, give him some other ministry so that it doesn’t look bad with all this friction with the Chief Justice. When the PM asked change him to which ministry, I joked, ’Which ministry do beauty contests fall under? Give him that-he’d be very happy.’ Then, during the elections, it was he who drafted the letter issued by the prime minister requesting him to withdraw from the contest. He even made some corrections to it. To save his face in getting out of the elections, he suggested that the letter be written this way. And the PM, in good faith, did it and put himself in an awkward position. And then he (Jethmalani) went back on it.

Was the question of barring someone of foreign origin from becoming prime minister ever raised in the Constitution review commission?

The matter was before the commission, but there was a splitvote. Some people said yeh hona chahiye. I was among those who said yeh nahin hona chahiye. The chairman decided no, this is not a matter we should get into. So this is not in our recommendations, that the Constitution be amended to debar people of foreign origin.


in Outlook India, Monday, June 7, 2004.

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