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Sunday Sentiments

  • Why I respect Ram

    Posted On July 31, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    Although I can’t be certain I think I first met Ram Jethmalani in 1992. It was the run-up to the presidential elections and he was a candidate. S.D. Sharma and G.G. Swell were the other two. No one took him seriously but then Sharma and Swell were not willing to give interviews. That was Jethmalani’s big advantage. He was accessible, likeable and whatever he said made news.

    In those days I was Executive Producer of Eyewitness. It was a video magazine although we pretended it was the same as TV. We were better than Newstrack but, sadly, not as well known.

    I invited Ram to be interviewed and he accepted. It was a wild monsoon morning when he drove into Kamani for the recording. Our set was on the auditorium stage and although we occupied only a small portion of the theatre the ambience lent the event a sense of occasion.

    Ram came in a Tata Sierra with a big burly sardar driver for companion. The man’s loyalty to Ram was as striking as it was surprising. I had not realised that Ram’s defence of Kehar Singh had so deeply affected the Sikh community. I was soon to discover that there was a lot more about Ram I did not know.

    “Tell me Mr. Jethmalani” I began the interview in my best inquisitorial style. “Why do you think you would make a good president?”

    I don’t remember his answer at least partly because I wasn’t listening. I was preparing myself for the follow up question. It was supposed to be the coup de grace.

    “Why should the country want a bigamist as head of state?”

    I was 36 and far from being embarrassed by my lack of finesse I was perversely proud of it. I mistook bluntness for boldness, rudeness for vigour and courage.

    I’ll never forget his reply. It was unhesitating, honest and brilliantly focussed.

    “That’s a smart question but not a clever one” he said. “It’s true I have two wives but both my marriages happened before the Hindu Code Bill was passed.”

    “So?” I said but only because I had to say something. In all honestly I had not thought beyond my question. Smart alecs never do. Ram’s quick-witted candour had floored me.

    “I treat both my wives better than most men treat their only wife” Ram added. “So what’s the point you’re trying to make?”

    I did not know. I had approached the interview as a five-minute interlude of fun. Ram turned out to be one of the most impressive interviewees I had encountered. Instead of showing him up he had knocked the bottom from under my feet.

    That first meeting epitomised the best qualities of Ram Jethmalani. No matter what you ask him he’s candid and outspoken in reply. Despite their tactlessness – and sometimes their rudeness – Ram seeks out journalists and never runs away from them. And, perhaps most importantly of all, when the situation starts to become uncomfortable Ram is undeterred. He has enough confidence in his self-belief and in his principles (in that order) to carry on. Faced with the good fight Ram is happy to fight on and on. I think it brings out the best in him even if many disagree.

    I have noticed these qualities on numerous occasions. From an interviewer’s point of view they make Ram a remarkable, literally an unbeatable, interviewee. But they are also endearing traits. We all warm to men who don’t hesitate to accept, acknowledge and even embrace uncomfortable truths.

    Ironically these were also the qualities responsible for Ram’s downfall last month. Let me analyse the ‘story’ as I see it and then you can judge if I am wrong.

    Ram believed – no, he was convinced – that Chief Justice Anand’s insistence on consultation over the appointment of the new chairman of the Monopolies Commission was an attempt by the judiciary to further encroach upon the territory of the executive. He had not become law minister to simply lie back and

    permit such trespass. He fought back and valiantly. If you look at the correspondence they exchanged Ram – in my layman’s opinion – won the argument hands down. And he knew it.

    The problem was Ram wasn’t gracious in victory. He wasn’t ungracious either. But his letters to the Chief Justice made it clear that he was right and the other man wrong. The language may not have been intended to offend – as Ram’s critics aver – but it certainly wasn’t designed to mollify and soothe. Perhaps understandably the Chief Justice – or so I’m told – complained to the Prime Minister and the clock of Ram’s dismissal started ticking.

    Now throw into this simmering cauldron Ram’s outspoken opinions on the new TADA bill, on autonomy for Jammu & Kashmir and, finally, on the unsustainability of the case against Bal Thackeray and it started to boil over. But that’s only because all this happened within three or four weeks of each other. Had fate spread out these events Ram would not have been submerged by them.

    I have four personal conclusions to offer. Bad luck as much as bad judgement is to blame for Ram’s debacle. His attraction to journalists as much as his blindness to the perils of politics misled him. His belief that the truth will convince his critics betrayed him. And, finally, his refusal to accept that sometimes it’s best not to answer – to be silent even if that means you are being evasive – lured him towards waiting traps.

    And yet, and yet, and yet ….. the if-onlys of politics are the stuff dreams are made of. But then Ram in politics was a dream and it was too good to last. For all his failings – if you want to call them that – we need men like him. Men who have beliefs and convictions, the courage to voice them, the fearlessness to be trapped in pursuit of them, the strength to survive their critics and the good humour to keep smiling all the while.

    If only Mr. Advani had been able to persuade the Prime Minister to retain Ram and – if I am going to be completely honest – if only Ram had not been so upset by his dismissal to hit out at others. But then who knows how I would behave if I was sacked from government?


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