Contempt in Court: Notes From Jethmalani’s Face-off With Jaitley

On 6 and 7 March 2017, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was cross-examined by the veteran lawyer Ram Jethmalani. Of all the enemies Jaitley has made over his career, Jethmalani is the most unforgiving. Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg/ Getty Images
24 March, 2017

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.”

Jethmalani relented, and moved to the next point. “What is the meaning of the word ‘unquantifiable damage’ used by you in paragraph number 16 of the plaint?” he asked. It was difficult to tell whether the query was a trap. “I believe that considering my stature, background and reputation, the loss caused to me and my reputation was so enormous that it could be considered unquantifiable,” Jaitley replied.

As if waiting for such a response, Jethmalani pounced. “In other words, it was your personal feeling about your own greatness that it cannot be quantified in fiscal measure. What do you have to say?” The courtroom erupted in laughter mid-sentence at the joke masquerading as a question. I wondered whether this stung Jaitley, who is perhaps only used to people laughing at his jokes in his durbar. I couldn’t see his face, but he answered: “My view about my own reputation was based on what my friends, well-wishers and other people—both privately and in media—who had expressed opinion on this subject.”

Jethmalani hit back. “You are telling that you cannot assign any objective rational reason but it depends where you place yourself.” Jaitley responded that the Rs 10-crore value he placed on the loss of reputation is but “a small part of the enormous damage caused.” “You mean you estimated Rs 100 crore and reduced it to Rs 10 crore?” Jethmalani asked. This line of questioning continued for two more questions before the lunch break arrived, probably as a relief for Jaitley.

The post-lunch session began with Jethmalani talking about a letter Jaitley had written to the high court in December 2015, seeking an urgent hearing for his defamation suit, citing harm to his goodwill as the reason. “Are you aware about the difference between goodwill and reputation?” Jethmalani asked. Jaitley answered that the meanings of the two words overlap. He added that his counsel used it interchangeably, and asserted that it would be wrong to suggest that they are completely different words. Jethmalani contested this. He offered to show the finance minister the Webster’s Dictionary to prove otherwise, but the court disallowed this.

“I put it to you that goodwill is enjoyed even by a crook who has done some good thing to somebody. What do you have to say?” he said, to drive home his point. A smattering of laughs rang through the room. Then Jethmalani alluded to something more direct. “It is correct that men in power, who do good things for their good friends, enjoy a lot of goodwill?” he said. (Many of Jaitley’s friends, including Maninder Singh, the husband of the finance minister’s counsel Pratibha Singh, have been appointed law officers to under the current BJP government). The joint registrar noted that “no general observations of the witness are called for” and disallowed the question.

One of Jethmalani’s final questions that day was about a Central Bureau of Investigation raid conducted at the office of a bureaucrat from the Kejriwal government, on 16 December 2015. Jaitley had claimed in his complaint that Kejriwal and other AAP leaders had alleged that he was linked to the DDCA case in order to deflect attention away from the raid. Jethmalani asked, “Do you know that search in question took place because some documents relating to the DDCA were expected to be found?” Jaitley denied having any knowledge of the raid.

A few times during the cross examination, both parties indulged in some verbal jousting. The counsels of the defendant and the supporters accused the opposite team of leading the witness. “He need not be led,” said Pratibha Singh. Both parties had agreed at the start of the day that only one counsel should represent each party, but this consensus was soon forgotten, and members of both legal teams resorted to shouting at each other. During a particularly shrill exchange, Jethmalani, who was otherwise silent during the counsels’ quarrels, said to Kumar, “You take matters into your hands, sir. I am too peaceful a person to do it.” Kirti Azad, a former cricketer and BJP MP, who has been leading the battle against corruption in the DDCA and has for long levelled allegations against Jaitley—he was suspended in December 2015 for “anti-party activities”—was in attendance. He looked happy.

Earlier during the hearing, Jethmalani had requested Kumar to hold the next day’s proceedings in a bigger courtroom in order to accommodate the crowd that had come to see finance minister. The joint registrar smiled and said that many in the audience were perhaps present to watch Jethmalani. “I will be very happy if some of the crowd is because of me,” Jethmalani replied.

The big crowd was always going to be a problem for Jaitley. The entertainment value of a finance minister being grilled in court is immense in the age of social media—the session was live-tweeted, and widely retweeted. There was no glory for Jaitley in this—the story, at least on social media, leaned unsurprisingly in favour of the man who tamed the all-powerful finance minister. Newspapers and television were a different story. “What the media is not reporting is that Jethmalani is taking the mickey out of Jaitley with his withering cross examination,” Mohan Guruswamy, a former adviser to Yashwant Sinha during the latter’s tenure as finance minister, wrote on Facebook. “I have been getting feedback from a court correspondent which is very different from what will appear under tomorrow’s by-line as copy will have to run past the editor and ownerfirst. They are on call for Jaitley,”

While speaking to the news channels outside the court, the BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli said, “Many people are saying as a finance minister, Jaitley shouldn’t be spending time at court. He is also a citizen, he has a family. As a citizen and human he has every right to approach the court.” At least two journalists suggested that Jaitley looked agitated in the court, but Kohli was quick to disagree with them. “Jaitley was extremely calm and handled himself very well. In fact Jethmalani was quite agitated,” he said. The confident and beaming AAP spokesperson Raghav Chadha, who is also one of the defendants in the case, said, “It is but only a small teaser.”

How did Jaitley find himself in this uncomfortable corner? “I never complain against political criticism but it is for the first time when personal imputations questioning my integrity were made,” he said on the first day. It is largely true that, until recently, Jaitley’s image in the media was clean as a hound’s tooth—all the more a reason for him to be wary of going through with this case. He and his team certainly anticipated trouble. Jaitley’s counsels requested for a local commissioner—usually a lawyer in the court and sometimes a retired judge—who could record the evidence in private, but the court did not allow it.


On the second day, Jethmalani, who is a former BJP MP himself, alluded to a possible reason for Jaitley to approach court. The session began with Kumar, the joint registrar, asking that nobody record or live-tweet the proceedings. Jethmalani asked Jaitley about the former cricketer Bishen Singh Bedi, who had written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi against Jaitley in January 2015. In his reply, Jaitley mentioned that Bedi had actively campaigned against him during the Lok Sabha election from Amritsar in 2014. “Are you aware that I advised Mr Narendra Modi not to set you up as a candidate from the Amritsar seat?” Jethmalani asked. Before Jaitley could respond, Kumar noted that the query was irrelevant.

In response to a separate question, Jaitley admitted that the 2014 election was his first since his student days, when he was a leader with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad, or ABVP. This admission led Jethmalani to ask whether it was also the first time he was putting his reputation to test in a public manner. “An election result is the outcome of several factors prevailing in the constituency and not merely a test of a candidate’s reputation considering that the defendant number one”—Kejriwal—“lost the same election by 3.5 lakh votes,” the finance minister said. His joy at taking the dig was fleeting.

Jethmalani shot back, in a mocking tone. “I asked him about his reputation and he is talking about somebody else’s reputation.” Laughter filled the court again. Though Jethmalani did not gain a legal upper-hand by playing to the gallery, it bruised Jaitley nonetheless. After all, this was all taking place at the Delhi High Court where, according to some lawyers, the finance minister enjoys great influence.

Jaitley said that Bedi may have written to the prime minister because the latter was not allowed to continue as the coach of Delhi’s Ranji cricket team after having held the post for three years. “I do not recollect if the prime minister had shown me the letter addressed to him by Mr Bishen Singh Bedi against me. In any case, by the time the present prime minister was sworn in office, I had already severed my links both with the DDCA and BCCI,” Jaitley said, at his evasive best.

Jaitley repeatedly reminded the room that he had quit the DDCA in 2013, and that the allegations of corruption were made later, in 2014 and 2015. But as I noted in my profile of Jaitley, “Talk of the Town,” published in the May 2015 issue of this publication, there have been many incidents that expose a long history of mismanagement in the cricket association:

The first clear sign of rot in the DDCA appeared in August 2009, when Virender Sehwag, then a star opener on the Indian team, and other cricketers including Gautam Gambhir, Ashish Nehra and Ishant Sharma, threatened to quit the Delhi team over rampant nepotism and corruption. This portended a major embarrassment that December, during the final match of the India–Sri Lanka one-day series at Ferozeshah Kotla stadium. The match was abandoned midway after the visiting team complained of dangerously poor pitch conditions leading to injuries. The DDCA apologised to irate fans and promised to refund their ticket money. The International Cricket Council banned the venue for one year, and the Congress demanded Jaitley’s resignation from his post. Jaitley’s response to the media was to play for time, saying, “We have to analyse in a cooler environment.”

In May 2012, Azad wrote a letter of complaint about the “accounting mess” in the DDCA to RPN Singh, then minister of state for corporate affairs. “The accounts are blatantly falsified and false bills are shown to account for Rs 30 crore every year,” he wrote. He alleged financial fraud, illegal payments to members without proper clearances and illegal procurement without tenders. He followed this up with a letter to Jaitley that July, in which he wrote, “I wish to request you not to make snide remarks about me or wife in the manipulated leaks.”

I noted in the profile that, according to the journalist James Astill’s 2013 book, The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India, “No Indian cricket administration is so notorious for nepotism and misrule” as the association that governs Delhi cricket, “also known as the Delhi Daddies Cricket Association, or the Delhi District Crooks Association.” Jaitley saw the DDCA as a vehicle to power and influence. Less than two years after he became the member of the DDCA, and a couple of months after he became the union minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Jaitley became the association’s president. He held the post for 13 years, but did little to improve its functioning during his tenure.

Excepting a few, most cricket journalists avoided mentioning Jaitley while writing about the muck in the DDCA. In 2013, rumours were abound that Jaitley was aiming to become the head of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, or BCCI. The senior cricket journalist Prem Panicker wrote in a 2013 blog post titled “The Talented Mr Jaitley”:

Mr Jaitley… has been administering cricket in the national capital since around the time Sachin Tendulkar made his debut (or so it seems). And doing such a bang up job of it that as far back as 2006, Virender Sehwag, other senior team mates, and even the Delhi coach were talking of running away…A Sehwag could once —no, twice — threaten to run away from Delhi rather than suffer Jaitley’s mismanagement. If Jaitley becomes BCCI boss, just where the heck is there to run to? Pakistan?

(When the AAP began making allegations against Jaitley, Sehwag, who had retired by then, promptly tweeted in support of the finance minister.)

It is very clear that Jaitley was busy plotting to be the head of the BCCI all along. An amendment to the BCCI constitution in September 2012 “had paved the way for Jaitley ... to become president in 2014, by removing the rotation system that demanded the next board chief should come from the east zone,” India Today reported in May 2013. The journalist Ashok Malik, who is the finance minister’s friend, told me while I was reporting for the 2015 profile that Jaitley was all set to become the president of the BCCI, had the BJP not formed the government in 2014.

Jaitley’s critics have oft cited his ambition to become the BCCI head as the reason for him turning a blind eye to the corruption in the DDCA for so long—effectively protecting his position as its president. A video recording of the DDCA’s Annual General Meeting in 2012, that I watched, illustrated his brazen, mendacious approach to administration. Kirti Azad had a heated exchange with Jaitley. “You have sent in forged proxies here,” he said, referring to procedures Jaitley had followed at the DDCA. “You file a defamation case against me,” Azad challenged. Jaitley simply responded: “There are a lot of things I have been choosing to ignore. I will ignore this too.”


At one point during the second day’s proceedings, Jethmalani showed Jaitley the letter Bedi had written to the prime minister. The lawyer asked the finance minister if the letter contained any statement that would make him angry enough to sue. Kumar disallowed the question. But Jethmalani ploughed on. “I suggest it to you that the prime minister drew attention to this letter, you had discussion with him and finally you told the prime minister that I”—Jaitley—“will establish my reputation in the court against these allegations made by against me in the letter,” the lawyer said, before adding, “What do you have to say?”

Jaitley’s counsels shouted in unison, claiming that Jethmalani’s suggestion was scandalous. The AAP’s counsels began shouting back. Jaitley denied the suggestion, but Jethmalani followed it up with a similar question. “I put it to you that you are allowed to continue as finance minister by the prime minister because of your promise to seek a judicial decision in your favour of the allegations made by Mr Bishan Singh Bedi. What do you have to say?” the lawyer asked. “The suggestion is denied in its entirety,” Jaitley promptly responded. His counsels repeated their expressions of shock.

Though they were disallowed, the two questions left the impression of being plausible reasons for Jaitley to have approached the court and risk going through the painful process of cross-questioning. The prospect would not be cross-examination by just one defendant either: technically, the finance minister can be questioned by all the six defendants listed in the case—Jethmalani is only appearing on behalf of Kejriwal—resulting in a tremendous amount of time spent appearing in court.

Following the two questions, Jethmalani showed Jaitley a tweet by the academic Madhu Kishwar, in which she alleged corruption in the DDCA under Jaitley, and claimed that his wife and daughter were complicit as well. Kejriwal had commented on the tweet, terming it “serious allegations.” Jethmalani pointed out that Jaitley had sued Kejriwal for commenting on the allegation, but that he didn’t dare sue Kishwar. Jaitley responded: “Many people on social media make irresponsible statements about people in public life, but when a chief minister endorses them, it becomes a grave and serious matter. Even false allegations gain credibility. Repetition of libellous statement gives me a cause of action against the person, particularly if he has stature, to take action against that person.”

Jethmalani then asked Jaitley about a tweet posted by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and MP Sitaram Yechury, as well as a press release by the Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge and Ajay Maken, regarding the same allegations against Jaitley. The finance minister said he was seeing the press release for the first time.

Here, the cross examination came to an end. Kumar asked the counsels what would be a convenient day for the next hearing. Pratibha Singh suggested it be scheduled for a Saturday when there would be fewer lawyers in the court room—perhaps the first overt admission of discomfort about a public hearing. The counsels for AAP rejected her suggestion, and 15 May 2017 was agreed upon.


On 23 December 2015, two days after Jaitley filed the defamation suit against Kejriwal and five other AAP leaders, Modi reportedly referred to the allegations in a party meeting. “When Advaniji’s name was dragged into the Hawala scam by the Congress, the entire nation stood by him. Advaniji jitna pavitra hain, Jaitleyji utna hi hain”—Jaitley is every bit as pure as Advani, news reports quoted Modi as saying. Yechury, in response, reportedly said, “If the Prime Minister is drawing a parallel between Jaitley and Advani in the Hawala case, I do not know whether the Prime Minister is giving a hint to Jaitley that he should also resign, get cleared like Advani and come back. I read the Prime Minister’s statement in this manner. That this is the Prime Minister’s signal to Jaitley.” Yechury added: “Unfortunately…I am sure Jaitley may be missing the point.”

After Jethmalani agreed to represent Kejriwal, media persons approached him for comment. “Mr LK Advani had Ram Jethamalani (as his lawyer). Now Arun Jaitley is to be prosecuted by me. You take it,” Jethmalani reportedly said. “Narendra Modi thinks himself to be very clever that he is comparing Advani with Jaitley. Jaitley is a shameless man. There are hundred allegations against him,” the lawyer said. In response to a question regarding his opinion of Jaitley, he said, “What has Jaitley done? I can’t remember a big case in which he has appeared, but he perhaps has a bank balance ten times of mine. You can draw your inferences.”

Politicians have for long used the defamation law to settle scores, to intimidate critics and score political points. But Jethmalani views it differently. “I never, never, never advise people to go to court, particularly so when there exist some questionable aspects of their public life. Even Kejriwal might not know about it, but which his lawyer perhaps would know better. That is why it was so ill-advised of Jaitley to have taken the step of going to court. He should have handled it politically. Ultimately, the people of India have to judge you,” he said in the December 2015 Scroll interview.

Jaitley’s relationship with Jethmalani goes back a long way. Jaitley had played a supporting role as a lawyer to Jethmalani in the 1980s, when the larger political and business war between Nusli Wadia, the owner of Bombay Dyeing, and Dhirubhai Ambani, the head of the Reliance Industries, was playing out in the courts and in the media. When they were suitably rewarded during the Vajpayee government as ministers, the two clashed, leading to a lifelong rivalry. Of all the enemies Jaitley has made, Jethmalani, who believes that Jaitley conspired to seize the law ministry from him, is the most unforgiving. Jethmalani didn’t get along with Soli Sorabjee, the attorney general of India between 1998 and 2004, and the two butted heads on various issues. What made the situation worse was Jethmalani’s public tussle with the former Chief Justice AS Anand, over a case against Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s arrest for an old hate speech. Vajpayee had asked Jethmalani to help Thackeray, an NDA ally, out of the situation. The magazine Frontlinereported in August 2000 that Sorabjee and Jaitley met Vajpayee “to drive home the point that Jethmalani’s ouster seemed essential in the interests of maintaining cordial relations between executive and judiciary.”

The veteran lawyer confirmed his aversion to Jaitley in two of his authorised biographies. In Nalini Gera’s biography of him, Jethmalani recalls Jaitley telling him that the meeting had nothing to do with him. As the writer Susan Adelman noted in The Rebel, another Jethmalani biography, “The ultimate beneficiary of this battle was the man who succeeded Ram as Law Minister, Arun Jaitley. One wonders if Sorabjee and Anand were helping him achieve this position all along. That was the view Ram espoused in his book Big Egos, Small Men.”

Jethmalani also insinuated that Jaitley had previously attempted to hinder the lawyer’s re-election as a Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra in March 2000, and failed. If he had lost, Jethmalani would not have been able to continue as law minister.

“I am living in the departure lounge of god and he’s the only one I don’t like,” Jethmalani told me when I met him in 2015. I asked him why. “See, he has always plotted against me for no rhyme or reason. Though I treated him like a younger brother. Now I am out of control, and he realises he has no method of harming me,” he had said. This cross examination, it appears, is an opportunity that he is going to use to the hilt.

According to an advocate watching the proceedings, though Jaitley appeared to be calm, the finance minister was nervous about the volume of the material that could be brought in front of the court to question him. “Jethmalani’s style is not legally very relevant, but I don’t reckon as the sitting finance minister, he likes being pushed around like that. This is only the beginning,” the lawyer said. “They also don’t want a public spectacle of this,” he added, “because he usually likes to control the narrative.”