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Controversy should have been Ram Jethmalani's middle name. Or maverick, as he is fond of describing himself. This 89-yearold lawyer-politician is once again on a collision course with the BJP, the party he loves to hate but cannot do without. Suspended for lashing out at party president Nitin Gadkari for corruption and then at parliamentary party leaders Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj for questioning the appointment of the new CBI director, Ranjit Sinha, Jethmalani has dared the party he helped to found in 1980 to do its worst.
"I am totally indifferent. Whatever they do doesn't bother me. Nobody can take away my seat in Parliament, " he declared as the BJP threatened to expel him. As if that wasn't defiant enough, he said in an interview elsewhere as the controversy snowballed, "I have told them that I have the right to change them but they should not try to change me. "
Indeed, the BJP doesn't seem to have learnt how to solve a problem like Jethmalani despite frequent clashes over four decades. It has feted him and sent him to Parliament, then thrown him out on his ear only to take him back. He defended Indira Gandhi's assassins in 1985 for which he was expelled. Yet, he was appointed law minister in the BJP-led governments of 1996 and 1998.
He thumbed his nose at its tallest leader, former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and challenged him on his home turf of Lucknow in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. Six years later, the party welcomed him back into its fold and had him elected to the Rajya Sabha on a party ticket from Rajasthan.
Jethmalani has a point when he says that no one can take away his seat in Parliament. Whether in the BJP or out of it, he has managed to find his way into this august seat of democracy with a little help from his friends, all of who happen to have been his clients as well. It's not mere coincidence. Few have perfected the art as well as Jethmalani of using legal brilliance as a ticket to ride in politics. As one leader who did not want to be named remarked, "Ram has managed to remain in and around Parliament for the past 35 years. "
It has truly been an amazing ride. He has flirted with virtually every political party, with the notable exception of the Left, to remain an MP. Neither his past record, nor ideology, were obstacles as Jethmalani wove his way from the BJP to the Janata Dal, then to the Shiv Sena and on to Lalu Yadav's RJD and the Congress and finally back to the BJP. He endeared himself to Janata Dal leader R K Hegde for defending his son in a bribery case, to Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray for winning a landmark order from the Supreme Court on Hindutva as a way of life rather than a religion and to Lalu Yadav for defending him in the infamous fodder scam case.
It is a testimony to Jethmalani's skills as a lawyer that Lalu felt indebted enough to arm twist the Congress to part with a Rajya Sabha seat in the nominated category in 2006 for someone with a history of anti-Gandhi family activities. Jethmalani not only fought Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, he harangued Rajiv Gandhi on the Bofors scandal for many months, asking him ten questions a day. He has also defended the assassins of both, even managing to get one of Indira Gandhi's killers, Balbir Singh, acquitted. Although it cost him his membership of the BJP at that time, he was to say later in an interview, "I consider it one of my best forensic cases. I have never been sorry that I took up that case. " It must be the maverick in him that prompts him to switch sides and positions so easily. His critics disagree.
They maintain that maverick is too kind a word to use for someone they see as self-seeking and selfserving. Jethmalani has a colourful record of volte faces and contradictions. He slugged it out with Rajiv on Bofors only to describe it as his "biggest mistake" after the Congress-led UPA government nominated him to the Rajya Sabha. He was one of the initiators of the PIL that led to the hawala case investigations and then turned around and defended Advani when the BJP leader became an accused in the case. He raised a stink over the 2G spectrum allocation scam but proceeded to defended DMK chief M Karunanidhi's daughter, Kanimozhi, in court. His bitterest critics admit that Jethmalani manages to land on feet each time because he can out-argue any one and has no qualms about taking on the world. His fiery spirit was on full display when he rose to take oath as a Rajya Sabha member in 1988, soon after arguing the Indira Gandhi assassination case.
As Congress benches shouted, "Indira Gandhi ke hathyaron ka vakil ...", Jethmalani retorted, "Would the soul of Indira Gandhi be happy if an innocent man is hanged for her murder?" Flamboyant and brilliant though he is, Jethmalani is neither a true-blooded politician nor a party man. He has just two backers in the BJP. One is L K Advani who he has helped with several legal tangles. The other is S Gurumurthy who is now trying to help Jethmalani build bridges with rising star Narendra Modi by persuading him to defend the Gujarat chief minister's controversial henchman, Amit Shah, in the Sohrabuddin murder case. Both over-ruled objections from younger leaders including Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj to get Jethmalani back in the BJP with a Rajya Sabha ticket from Rajasthan in 2010. But by rushing into a headlong confrontation with Jaitley and Swaraj, Jethmalani may find that this time he has bitten off more than he can chew. A younger generation of political leaders in moving in and he is now a lion in winter. He may soon find that his roar no longer packs a punch.
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