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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Amazing Grace

Atalji made friends and disarmed his opponents

Written by Soli J. Sorabjee |
August 22, 2018 12:03:46 am
Atal Bihari Vajpayee's record is a valuable reminder that India needs a measured debate on the nature of India’s interests and on the means to secure them at a moment of great political and economic churn in the world. (Express archive photo) Atal Bihari Vajpayee had a habit of surprising his critics.

Rich tributes have been paid, and rightly so, to the departed soul of dear Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The best tribute paid to Atalji was when he was hailed as a man of vision. What is significant is that these tributes have been paid by premiers and leaders of foreign countries, including Pakistan. Atalji’s personality and popularity transcended borders. As Attorney General of India, I had occasion to interact with Atalji often. One such occasion was when he wanted my view about J Jayalalithaa pressing him to impose President’s Rule in Tamil Nadu or issue directions against M Karunanidhi, who was her political foe. I said such action would be legally untenable.

Atalji said that Jayalalithaa did not understand the legal implications of her persistent demands. As a gallant attorney general, I came to Atalji’s rescue. I told him that if Jayalalithaa persists with her demands, tell her that the attorney general has advised against the action. Happily, Atalji did not accede to Jayalalithaa’s repeated entreaties and thus averted a legal challenge and unnecessary confrontation with the judiciary.

Another occasion I remember concerns Sonia Gandhi. The issue was whether Sonia Gandhi was entitled to continue in a post in some organisation. Atalji asked me whether any serious legal problem would arise if the government did not object to her continuance. I said there could possibly be a legal controversy and that some BJP leaders were dead against it. I further stated that in any event, an undertaking should be given by Sonia Gandhi that she will not claim any right for a further continuance because of the government’s non-objection to her continuance. Atalji did not subscribe to the views of some BJP stalwarts. The thought uppermost in his mind was not to hurt or humiliate Sonia Gandhi if there is no serious legal hurdle in the event of her continuance.

If there was none according to the attorney general, Atalji as the PM would not object. This incident showed that there was no bitterness or anger in Atalji’s heart and mind. He believed in dealing with his opponents in an amiable and amicable manner. I wish leaders in the cabinet follow the example of Atalji and also that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Another incident strongly ingrained in my memory is regarding the famous Balco case, which involved an important question of judicial intervention in executive decisions or action. The case was argued for about two weeks and there was a battery of senior counsel challenging the government’s action. I represented the Government of India in the Supreme Court and successfully repelled the legal challenge. The Supreme Court, after referring to several judgments of the high courts and the Supreme Court, set at rest the question about the extent and scope of judicial intervention in the action and decision of the executive which have a commercial flavour. The Court did not subscribe to the “hands-off” approach but restricted its intervention in cases of patent discrimination or mala fides. The Court held that an erroneous decision is per se not discriminatory and the government must have “full play in the joints” in its commercial activities.

One morning, I received a frantic call from my PA that the prime minister, who was in Japan, wanted to speak to me. I hurriedly took the call and asked Atalji what he wanted to know about the Balco case, of which he was aware. Atalji laughed and said he did not want to know the details of the Supreme Court judgment and that he had phoned me to congratulate me on winning the Balco case for the government. I thanked him and said I would always remember his call to me from Japan.

I am not aware of any prime minister phoning his law officer from abroad to congratulate him for winning a case for the government. This quality of Atalji endeared him to many people who came in contact with him.

I could go on and on. But the incidents which I have mentioned clearly establish that Atalji was a man of vision, had a heart of gold and magnanimity flowed in his veins. Goodbye, dear Atalji, you will always be enshrined in my heart and mind.

The writer is former Attorney General of India

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