Although the name ‘Nani Palkhivala’ (1920 – 2002) is not as popular with the present young generation of Indians as I wish it was, his name was known to one and all in the preceding generations. If he were alive now, he would have completed 100 years on 16 January 2020. Born to a laundryman by occupation, he had early aspirations to become a civil servant or a teacher, but the legal profession gained what those vocations lost. Starting practice as a tax lawyer, he rose to become one of the best lawyers India has produced.
His celebrated commentary on the Indian Income Tax Act continues to be an authoritative work on the subject. He appeared in many landmark Supreme Court cases, many of which have entered the Constitution lore of India as milestones. In 1972-73, when our fundamental rights were threatened to be destroyed, he rose to his full stature, bringing to bear his outstanding skills as an advocate before a 13-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court, in their defense. His brilliant performances in the Kesavananda Bharati case and later when there was an attempt to overrule that judgment were momentous episodes in the Constitutional history of post-independence India.
By his vigorous championing of the common man’s Constitutional rights both in and outside the courtroom, he has won an assured place in the hearts of many grateful Indians. The story of his tour de force budget speeches is well-known. They attracted enormous crowds, sometimes filling a whole cricket stadium, and he held his audiences all across the country spellbound by reeling off statistics entirely from memory, sharp phrase-making and apt quotations drawn from wide reading.
So trenchant were his observations on the then fiscal policies that there was speculation if he was the best finance minister India never had! Life had been bountiful in showering honours and accolades upon him. India gave him high appointments. He was engaged to represent India against Pakistan in the World Court in 1972. In 1977, he was appointed India’s Ambassador to the United States, an office he held until 1979. In much later years, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan.
He received honorary LL.Ds from many Universities. Despite all that, he was by nature a self-effacing man. His admirable human qualities endeared him to many contemporaries. I have met him on two occasions and the fragrance of the memories of both the meetings shall always linger in my mind. Sankara Nethralaya venerates him in its memory for his munificent donations to the institution. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan reverentially recalls him as a former Vice-President. Among his many books, We, The People, and We, The Nation were bestsellers and continue to be in print. Is Palkhivala still relevant? I assert that he will never cease to be relevant for many reasons.
To young lawyers, he will always remain a powerful source of inspiration, but he had also put “lawyers in the dock” for some reasons. Delay in disposal of cases “making eternity intelligible” and arrears of lakhs of cases pending in various courts in India were often highlighted in his writings. In the field of economics, Palkhivala was a liberal, but is he still relevant in post-liberalisation India? ‘Socialism’ was a focal point in his pre-liberalisation budget speeches. “Rich getting richer and poor getting poorer” was a trend he had disparaged.
Until that disparity is not arrested but widens and we continue to call ourselves a socialist country, his views will give us something to ponder over. His relevance will be strongly felt as long as there is a need to value and cherish our fundamental rights. Indeed, every time the liberal principles enshrined in our Constitution undergo strain, his enduring relevance will be felt like an undercurrent. Examples for denial of basic freedoms, such as stifling of peaceful protestors and misuse of sedition law, are not wanting in the present times.
Although he held ancient Indian spiritualism and such personages as Adi Shankaracharya and Kanchi Paramacharya in the highest esteem, he was a vociferous critic of the Hindutva doctrine. He will also continue to be relevant for myriad other issues which continue to perplex us. The need to simplify tax law has not become outdated. “Casteism in politics”, a recurring theme in his writings, is one of the malaises that still afflict us. We could also ask him, if he were alive today, for his views on the influence of social media and smart phones on our lives.
So wide were his interests and so perspicacious were his observations on a variety of topics that he can be called, to borrow a phrase he had used to describe Rajaji, “a man for all seasons”. It is a saddening reflection that he had spent the sunset years of his life in a state of desolation. He was taken by greater concerns than himself, but his forebodings about the country’s future, such as “This country will be balkanized”, betrayed an unwarranted fear. His emotions had allowed his indignation about the Indian political class to swamp his faith in the fortitude of our Constitution and the Supreme Court’s power and anxiety to protect India’s unity from destruction.
Ironically, India’s unity and integrity are protected by the Constitution’s “basic structure”, a doctrine which he himself had assisted the Supreme Court to formulate! The death of Nargash, his wife, in 2000, made the remainder of his life rather barren. When he died in December 2002, it was generally felt that a legendary life had ended. There was a suggestion that he must be conferred the Bharat Ratna posthumously. When, eighteen years hence, that wish remains unfulfilled, I cannot help wondering whether India will honour Nani Palkhivala, who Rajaji described as ‘God’s gift to India’, with its highest civilian award?
(The writer is an advocate and author of a few books including Eardley Norton: A Biography and Nani Palkhivala: A Miscellany)