It is fair to imagine that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who has elevated networking in Lutyens’ Delhi to an exalted art, lives in a world where people exist only as props to boost and massage his ego. His hangers-on, many of them well-known lawyers, journalists and politicians, play this role sincerely. Several of them were present, for instance, at the Delhi High Court on Sher Shah Suri Road on 6 and 7 March 2017, when the finance minister had to sit for his cross examination in a Rs 10-crore civil-defamation suit he had filed against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and five others of the Aam Aadmi Party for alleging that he was involved in corruption during his tenure as the president of the Delhi and District Cricket Association, or DDCA. But all the votaries could do little to halt the nonagenarian Ram Jethmalani in his line of questioning—as Kejriwal’s counsel, the maverick lawyer put on display not only his courtroom craft, but also the pleasure he derived from embarrassing the plaintiff, Jaitley.
Such was the effect of Jethmalani’s flamboyance that after the conclusion of three sessions over two days, a Twitter user cheekily commented: “@ArunJaitley please sue Ram Jethmalani as he has defamed you in the courtroom more than @ArvindKejriwal did.” Jethmalani appears to have had a sense of this when he accepted the case for Re 1 in December 2015. “In a defamation case, the complainant turns into an accused,” he said in an interview he gave that month to the news website Scroll.
On the first day, the joint registrar Amit Kumar’s court, that could otherwise hold barely twenty people, ended up accommodating—apart from Jaitley and Jethmalani’s inflated egos—three times more. The spring weather of Delhi, however, made the room’s atmosphere bearable. Just before Jaitley entered, I counted at least 15 policemen dressed in grey safari suits, with Delhi Police identity cards stuck to their pockets. (The irony of their presence in the courtroom was not lost on me—the defendant Kejriwal is in a long-standing feud with the centre to bring the Delhi police under the control of his government instead of the union home ministry). I stood at the back of the room. For the duration of the session, Jethmalani’s booming voice would hover above everybody else—the veteran lawyer was the shortest in the crowd, and insisted on standing. Jaitley was seated at the front of the courtroom. His voice was crisp, but it rarely managed to rise above the din. The serious-browed Kumar, who had heard at least a few cases before Jaitley’s, would smile for the first time that morning at the lawyer’s comments.
Jethmalani began with a few mundane technical questions, some of which the joint registrar disallowed. Then, Jethmalani asked Jaitley whether, since the latter had described the damage to his reputation as “irreversible,” he had made any effort to counter the allegations of the defendants. “I contradicted the allegations in the media and also in the parliament where echoes of these allegations were raised,” Jaitley said.
After probing some more regarding Jaitley’s failed efforts, Jethmalani said: “It means you tried to retrieve it but you didn’t succeed. Is it true?” “I have already answered it,” Jaitley responded. “It is wrong to suggest that I am not telling that I made efforts but nobody believed me. It is wrong to suggest that it compelled me to make the statement that the damage is irreversible.”