Ram Jethmalani by Mayank Chhaya (All my caricatures look alike)
A nearly 90-year-old man, one of India’s most eminent jurists and compelling public contrarians to boot, faces the prospect of being expelled by a political party that often boasts about its traditional values such as respecting elders.
The 89-year-old Ram Jethmalani was a crusty old man before it was fashionable to be crusty and before he was actually old. He has just been served a “show cause notice” by the leadership of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and could well face expulsion from its ranks. Show cause as in show cause why he should not be expelled for taking a position against the party’s opposition to the appointment of a new director of India’s premier federal investigators Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
The dynamic here is complicated because lately Jethmalani has been intractably opposed to the BJP president Nitin Gadkari, who is facing allegations of corruption and land grab. He has maintained that the allegations have “irretrievably and irremediably” damaged the party’s image and Gadkari should step down. To compound his stand, Jethmalani has even complimented Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “for once” doing the right thing in appointing Ranjit Sinha as the CBI director. Taken together Jethmalani’s positions constitute an expulsion-worthy felony in a political party, which like most political parties in India, do not happily suffer dissidence. At worst it is an infraction perhaps deserving of a disapproving look by its president.
There is nothing particularly wrong with what Jethmalani has said in this case. In any case he is at an age where his age is an impregnable shield against censure or punishment for whatever pronouncements he chooses to make. Petulance has always been his default temperament. Having interacted with him frequently in his younger days in Bombay in the 1980s I know that Jethmalani wears few filters. He is the kind of man who always seems on the verge of reprimanding the world. More often than not he does.
I have always found him to be very compelling and very entertaining at once. I once told him that I could picture him as a very cheeky and precocious child. He laughed. India has produced many great jurists but perhaps none who so perpetually harbors peeves and political incorrectness as him. He enhances that personality by being particularly short with the media. In my book that wins the day. “I am not here to satisfy your curiosity” is precisely the kind of line Jethmalani has used many times while dealing with the media.
I have always noticed that Jethmalani’s biggest antagonist is Jethmalani himself. It is as if all his media or public interactions have happened after having very vigorously argued the pros and cons in his mind with himself. The way he presents his case one gets the sense that either there are only pros in whatever position he takes or, at the very least, he could not care less about the cons. Personalities like Jethmalani are essential in a democratic discourse often because they are beneficial for the overall health of a nation’s polity but, at a much superficial level, also because they offer a great deal of entertainment. I mean entertainment in the best possible sense.
There is something unseemly about a political party displaying such fragile self-esteem that it feels compelled to expel a dissenting member. On the scale of anti-party subversiveness what Jethmalani has said does not even remotely meet the standard. In any case the bar for expulsion in any democratic party should be extremely high, if at all it should be there. At its core a political party should be like a popular movement. While some measure of structural discipline is necessary, it cannot be so regimental that its members talk and walk like automatons.
It is amusing that the BJP leadership believes that expelling a nearly 90-year-old man would somehow fortify itself against dissent and make it more complete and cohesive. Apart from the sheer undemocratic nature of their action, even as a strategy it is smarter to have Jethmalani on your side rather than against you. Watching his media interaction here this morning it was reassuring to know that Jethmalani has not lost any of his crustiness. If anything it is even more distilled and sharp.