The charmed life of a select group of Delhi’s best-paid lawyers who swing between courts and the corridors of power with equal ease
If Sardar Patel, Jawaharal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were alive today, would they be media celebs pontificating on prime time TV every evening and appearing in the next morning’s society pages? Thankfully, they escaped the trivialisation of the modern celebrity, but their successors are a different breed. They jostle for space with MTV veejays in the tabloid press when they’re not trading accusations and insults with each other on the national news.
While gravitas may be a casualty in our 24/7 world, there is no trivialising the powerful clique of Delhi lawyers who play a niche role in national politics even as they swallow the cream of litigation in the country. These men, about a dozen or so, earn astronomical fees far in excess of anything other Indian professionals can even dream of, and their grasp on the levers of power—media, legislature, judiciary—is awesome. The flip side of course is that some who are less deserving achieve unwarranted celebrity merely through their proximity to power.
Not necessarily grass-roots politicians like erstwhile lawyers Laloo Prasad Yadav or L K Advani, these men are more in the mould of a Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Singhvi, former finance minister P Chidambaram and former law minister Arun Jaitley: sophisticated and sharp Supreme Court lawyers who also play an active role in formulating and articulating policy of the political parties they are actively part of. When not making their millions they are the media faces of their parties, having perfected the art of the blameless soundbyte and the devastating aside. Be it Ayodhya’s temple or Gujarat’s riots, it is this elite club of arguing counsel, sometimes headed by attorney-general Soli Sorabjee, who navigate the complexities of the interface between government and courts, the people and their representatives. Is it any wonder then that the glamour of being attorney-or solicitor-general is causing the more ambitious to turn their backs on regional High Court practices to find their place in the New Delhi sun?
“I came here as a young man because my wife, who was with the foreign service, was posted here. I didn’t come here to become a ‘celebrity lawyer!”
While lawyers have been in the forefront of national politics since Independence, the information age has given them a new edge in public life. Says Abhishek Singhvi, a top Supreme Court lawyer and Congress Party spokesman, “If top lawyers wield power without holding any official post in government, you have to concede it is because of their individual talent, professional competence and personal standing.”
Apart from being media imagists, senior counsel like R K Anand, Venugopal, Shanti Bhushan, Kapil Sibal, Arun Jaitley and Rajya Sabha MP Fali Nariman handle sensitive, high-profile political cases with the power to make or break governments and Prime Ministers. This elite corps of spin doctors, policy makers and legal eagles handle issues of far-reaching consequence for the lives of countless Indians everyday as they network continuously between courts and politicians. “Their power to influence policy is huge,” says lawyer and Congress Party spokesman Anand Sharma, adding, “We network purely on issues of legislation…if there are contentious issues we may come to an earlier understanding given our common legal background. However, once we have given our inputs and the party line is decided, we have to adopt it.” The corridors of power are buzzing with the linkages of business, legislature, media and judiciary. Straddling them all is the Delhi-based lawyer-politician.
“It’s axiomatic. You have to be physically located in Delhi to get the higher plums of office,” says Singhvi, conceding, “There is brilliant talent in our high courts, but it will never show up in political or legal terms thanks to over-centralisation.” A former additional solicitor-general and vice-president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Singhvi has appeared successfully for politicians like A R Antulay and Ajit Jogi, blue chip corporate groups like Tata and Reliance, as well as public interest litigation ranging from mental asylums to genetic engineering and the use of the national flag. He says the lure of the capital goes beyond the apex court to include the Delhi High Court which deals with the biggest corporate cases in the country, as a result of which earnings here are twice as high as in other metros. There was a time when the Mumbai High Court had the most high-value corporate litigation, but things began to change with the establishment of the Delhi High Court in 1966, after which an explosion of corporate litigation followed. “Even if you are a top-notch lawyer in Mumbai, you are not one per se unless you are practising in Delhi. That’s why Soli Sorabjee, Fali Nariman and Ashok Desai all moved here,” Singhvi explains.
“There is brilliant talent in our high courts, but it will never show up in political or legal terms thanks to over- centralisation”
While Singhvi’s decision to follow in his illustrious father’s (L M Singhvi’s) footsteps made Delhi a natural choice for him, another top lawyer Raian Karanjawala decided to move here (despite having studied in Mumbai) for many reasons. “First, the cream of litigation finds its way to the Supreme Court from the states. Second, the Delhi High Court has large jurisdiction because all the ministries of the Government of India are here, and much of the heavy-duty litigation is ultimately against the Government…in the 80s all the excise cases shifted here. Third, Delhi is where many of the regulatory bodies and quasi-judicial organisations like MRTP, TRAI, IRDA CEGAT and the National Consumer Court are based, so influential and savvy lawyers are constantly in demand. And fourth, the rule that high court judges cannot practice in their own state after retirement encourages them to shift to Delhi and set up practice in the Supreme Court or Delhi High Court. Rather than become arbitrators or retire, they come here because the chances of building on previous interactions are much higher in Delhi than in other states.”
A high profile lawyer who has represented V P Singh before the Jain and Fairfax Commissions, the Nizam of Hyderabad in his jewels case, Air-India and Telco, Karanjawala has never been tempted to use his close political connections to join party politics. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable as a member of a political party,” he says, “although the benefits of being high-profile means your practice won’t suffer. Still, you must have the ideological bend to move to a larger, political forum.” Known for his competence and impeccable sense of style, his Parsi lineage makes him a potentially attractive representative for a minority community. But he doesn’t rule out politics altogether. “In Delhi you are far more likely to rub shoulders with politicians than in Mumbai or Chennai, so you have a greater opportunity to join politics,” he points out.
For those not interested in active politics, Delhi is still the place to network for political patronage. Karanjawala has been legal advisor to Indian Airlines, ITDC and a host of PSUs including Rashtriya Chemical, CIDCO, State Bank of Mysore, and the Coffee Board. And while he insists that “there’s no great patronage in appearing for the Union of India, which pays a pittance,” the fact remains that it does keep the wheels of business turning and offers intangible benefits in a system where cronyism ensures plum cases and sympathetic courts.
“There is a clique within the legal fraternity and many things happen behind the scenes,” says a top corporate lawyer. “The government may pay peanuts, but there is no dearth of less-successful lawyers who scramble to be retainers for public enterprises and standing counsel for state governments.” “All parties patronise lawyers,” adds Anand Sharma. “[Recently,] Arun Jaitley was very proudly saying that he had accommodated many BJP lawyers within the first three months of taking office; he had revamped the standing counsel for the Union in all states. In my state, Himachal, it was his junior who was sent as advocate-general. [Altogether] more than 10,000 lawyers benefit from political patronage.”
“In Delhi you are far more likely to rub shoulders with politicians than in Mumbai or Chennai so you have a greater opportunity to join politics”
The more astute however realise that politics is a double-edged sword and prefer to remain on the fringes while securing their place in the legal profession to bankroll their future plans. Talented lawyers like the late R Kumaramangalam, P Chidambaram and Bihar Minister for Coal and Mines Ravi Shankar Prasad waited to rise to the top of their professions and make their millions before taking the plunge. Arun Jaitley was a Janata Party political activist in 1977, and was offered a seat on the national executive, but chose to remain a full-time lawyer until the 90s. “The paradigm of politics is changing, and there is a niche today for the professional politician who has status in his own profession, and for whom politics is not the last resort,” says Singhvi. Men like him may not be grass-roots politicians, but they leverage their professional success to political advantage by performing niche roles at the centre. The moment of reckoning comes, however, when one has to decide whether to remain a backroom boy or reach for the stars. “Politics and law are two jealous mistresses; you can’t serve both,” says Sharma, who was seduced early by the glamour of politics.
Rajya Sabha MP Kapil Sibal, who straddles both worlds, is also coming to the same conclusion. “If you are not a committed politician you are taking up a valuable seat that would be better represented by somebody else,” he says. “I devote seventy per cent of my time to politics, the rest to law; it’s well-paying, so I can afford to be in politics.” One of the highest-paid lawyers in the country, Sibal was practising on Wall Street but his political ambitions have kept him anchored in Delhi. “I came here as a young man because my wife, who was with the foreign service, was posted here. I didn’t come here to become a ‘celebrity lawyer!’ No one knows they are going to become a celebrity,” he scoffs. “You come to Delhi to compete with the best in the best environment. Shanti Bhushan was catapulted here—after the famous Indira Gandhi judgement—for the same reason.”
The man who is remembered for his historic address to both houses of Parliament in the Justice Venkataswamy impeachment case, Sibal sees politics as a natural move for a successful lawyer given that the entire freedom movement was spearheaded by lawyers, and that Parliament has always been full of those who practised at the mofussil level. He got his first taste of politics when he stood against Sushma Swaraj in 1994, and lost, “But God and luck were with me.” Today, Sibal is the most visible, articulate face of the Congress Party, and is often pitted against the man he took on politically during the 1998 elections, Arun Jaitley. “It’s never happened in a court of law,” he jokes.
Did you know that the man who claims to be the first to own a Mercedes in India is not a Tata or a Birla—but ace criminal lawyer R K Anand? While that was in the 70s, the 90s have seen a quantum leap in top lawyers’ fees, creating an income disparity that is truly dizzying. “The money is enormous,” admits Singhvi; “the best lawyers in the country earn more than the best doctors, architects or other professionals.” According to one guesstimate, there may be around 500 lawyers in India today who earn over Rs one crore annually, and there are a dozen in the capital who earn eight to ten crores every year. In addition, there are 50-odd solicitor firms making one-and-a-half times that amount, usually from foreign corporates who pay dollar rates.
“There are many levels of earning within the profession,” says Singhvi, “and this astronomical bracket applies mostly to Delhi. You’ll be astonished at the big drop in fees even when you relocate to a place like Mumbai. Rates in Bangalore and Hyderabad are less than fifty per cent, and Calcutta is a quarter. Yes, Delhi fees are obscenely high,” he admits, “and a point has come when something needs to be done. But who will do it? If I drop my fees tomorrow, I will be considered inferior.”
It’s a feeling that’s creating unease in other quarters too. “The huge earnings of a creamy layer is a trend we find disturbing,” says Anand Sharma. “There are those who may appear for Rs 5,000, and others who feel comfortable charging ten times the amount suggested by the High Court. The parameters exist, but who will enforce them? And so it is that lawyers like Shanti Bhushan charge between Rs two and three lakh per court appearance, and with an average of eight cases a day, it is not surprising they pay income tax of three to four crores annually. Naturally then, Delhi lawyers are always at the top of the list of individual tax-payers every year. Says R K Anand, “My fee was Rs 50 when I started practice in the 70s; today it is too embarrassing to mention.” With the bulk of earnings coming from MNCs and top Indian companies, a lawyer like Anand could afford to work free for Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, V C Shukla and others. Besides, these IOUs always come in handy if your next move is politics, as it is for Anand and Sibal.
Lawyers like Shanti Bhushan charge between Rs two and three lakh per court appearance, and with an average of eight cases a day, it is not surprising they pay income tax of three to four crores annually. Delhi lawyers are always at the top of the list of individual tax-payers every year
“Who is going to put a cap on lawyers’ earnings?” challenges Sibal. “It’s a contract between me and my client who agrees with the value I place on my time. Can you say certain products should not be bought because they are too expensive?” Unlike Singhvi, for whom full-time politics “involves a huge financial sacrifice,” these men have enough money in the bank to finance a career in politics—the only game in town that really matters. But it is a double-edged sword, according to some. A full-time party member like Sharma says, “I get Rs 3,500 pension as a former MP, but I cannot sustain myself on that. I don’t have a business, nor do I represent other businesses, so it is a challenge to earn an income from law during the periods I don’t hold political office.”
Conflict of interest
This obviously leads to the question: is there a conflict of interest in being an active politician and a lawyer? Most of the lawyers interviewed disagreed vehemently. “How does my political leaning affect my interpretation of the law in a commercial litigation?” asks Sibal. “If a decision is politically motivated, you must blame the judge. I’m in the Congress Party, but I agree with Congress policies only to the extent my conscience permits,” says the feisty lawyer. “We have had wonderfully independent attorney- and solicitor-generals in the past… it all depends on a person’s integrity. So what if the appointment is politically motivated? Once you are in office you make your own judgements, though a good lawyer is someone who can argue both sides of a case.”
Given the pernicious spread of politics, it is not surprising that some elite lawyers prefer to stay away from the limelight even as they service high-profile clients. Says Rajiv Luthra, whose clients have included the President of India and the late Rajmata Scindia of Gwalior, “I have taken an oath to protect the interest of my client. Since I run a firm, I think I would be in a very strong position of conflict if I were also to become a political activist. How do you separate the two in a country where bureaucracy and politics work hand in hand?” So can one really expect untainted justice from a lawyer who is politically affiliated? Singhvi insists the answer is yes. “While outsiders may think the man is juggling two hats, there is very little scope for overlap. Look at it in practical terms—you either appear for an individual, a company or a political matter. In the first two cases which make up 80 per cent of our work, politics is not an issue. In the third, it is usually an election petition or a matter of pure constitutional law, and here you must deliver a professionally sound judgement. Botch it up once and you will ruin your reputation forever. In the rare five per cent of cases like Ayodhya, the person who approaches you already shares your point of view.” While politics and legal practice may or may not affect each other, one thing is certain. “The bench gives a better hearing to senior counsel…otherwise you get short shrift,” says Anand Sharma.
Yes, these luminaries have a reach and lifestyle that their colleagues can only dream of. But it is a tangible dream, one that has attracted the best legal talent to the capital for the past two decades. “Sure there’s a brain drain to Delhi,” says Karanjawala. “It’s every arguing counsel’s dream to become attorney-general.” In much the same way star-struck actors gravitate to Bollywood, so India’s best legal talent homes in on Delhi’s corridors of power. As in tinsel town, there’s unimaginable wealth, power and fame if you hit the jackpot—provided you play by the unwritten rules of the game.