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The Legal Eagle – An Excerpt

"There are two kinds of reactions when you see power and politics very closely—you love it or hate it. I hate it."

Harish Salve’s name ranks amongst the brightest legal luminaries of India. After an illustrious career of nearly two decades as a Supreme Court lawyer, he served as the Solicitor General of India from 1999 to 2000. A highly sought-after practising lawyer, his client list includes corporate bigwigs like Ratan Tata, Tina Ambani and Lalit Modi, as well as powerful politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Prakash Singh Badal, and also Bollywood actor Salman Khan. He represented Vodafone in the well-known tax case with the Indian government which was finally decided in Vodafone’s favour. He was the counsel of choice for Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited in big-ticket cases like the Krishna Godavari Basin gas dispute and for Ratan Tata in a privacy petition concerning the Niira Radia tapes, as well as for the Delhi Police in the case for its midnight raid over Baba Ramdev’s rally at Ramlila Maidan. Besides representing his high-profile clients, Harish Salve has offered his pro bono services several times as amicus curiae to assist the Supreme Court in cases mostly relating to the preservation of the environment.
It’s a special day when I hear from the country’s pre-eminent lawyer, confirming our meeting in early August in Delhi at his office at ‘White House’ on the premium Bhagwandas Road, a stone’s throw away from the Supreme Court and India Gate in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone. I am excited to meet Harish Salve, though thankfully not for legal reasons!
There are guards posted outside his sixth-floor office. As you go past the reception desk, of the three doors that open into the reception area, the one on the extreme right is Harish’s chamber. It’s elegantly done in dark mahogany wood and expectedly has a wall-to-wall library stacked with gilded books as the backdrop to his revolving black chair. His large glass-top work desk and the set-up around it take up almost one-third of the space.
From a reputed family, with his grandfather being a successful criminal lawyer and father, N.K.P. Salve, a well-known Congress politician of his time, I imagine that Harish would have had success served to him on a platter and I share my view with him up front.
‘Contrary to what you think,’ he says, ‘I had what you may call “a lower-middle-class” upbringing. I come from a life of simplicity and grew up in a house full of relatives. My mother’s elder brother took sanyas (became an ascetic) and left home. His children were virtually brought up by my parents. My mausi (maternal aunt) also lived with us. So my elder sister, five of my cousins, my mausi and I used to sleep in the big living room, with the only bedroom in the house occupied by my parents.’ Harish was brought up by the same mausi, who was a professor of philosophy in a women’s college. Every night, she would put him to bed and read something to him. It was a very down-to-earth upbringing. Sports for Harish in his childhood meant playing football with kids from the chawls behind their house. As he says, ‘So even though I went to a very good school in Nagpur, there was so much learning we had on the football field of different aspects of life while intermingling with children from different backgrounds.’
After school, he chose to do his undergraduation in commerce and joined his father’s chartered accountancy firm for articles. Harish’s father was a practising chartered accountant before he joined politics. He and his partner had a small firm with an annual turnover of about Rs 5 lakh. Remembering those times, Harish says, ‘During my first year of college, I used to travel by bicycle in the sweltering heat of Nagpur.’ Colleges started in the month of March when day temperature in Nagpur is usually above 40 °C and burning. ‘I would come back, have lunch and then leave for office.’ As the peak summer months approached, the temperature would go up to 45 °C and Harish would cycle to office earlier in the morning. ‘There were times when we would be required to go to some factories in the afternoons and do an audit. I remember we used to take a wet towel and put it around our heads to avoid heat stroke and then cycle some 8 kilometres to reach the place,’ he says. ‘The so-called “big entertainment” in college and years after that was to go to a local dairy and have coffee or to go to Hanuman Mandir and have samosas. I usually stayed up the nights and studied. We would go to the railway station and eat at the dhabas there.’ That’s how Harish grew up. He credits these experiences for teaching him some very important values, making sure he’s never lost touch with that part of his life.
‘You switched from commerce to law. How did that happen? Did you complete your chartered accountancy?’
‘The moment I completed my graduation I joined CA, but found it very boring. Though the course was good, I knew that I would not stay in the audit and accountancy field. I was more interested in law and taxation. I completed CA only because it became a matter of prestige. Everyone said, “Yeh toh Salve sahab ka beta hai, ye thodi karega CA” (He is Mr Salve’s son, so he will not do CA) and my reaction was, “Ab toh pass karke chhodunga” (Now I will qualify and prove myself).’ Harish qualified for CA, and within two months gave up his certificate of practice to enrol at the bar. His father was very upset, but Harish was very clear that he wanted to be a lawyer. He had been a (Nani) Palkhivala fan from the age of fourteen as his father’s firm used to consult Mr Palkhivala on taxation matters, and Harish got the opportunity to interact with him a few times on cases wherein his father involved him. Harish thoroughly enjoyed income tax and learnt a lot from Nani, and gradually made up his mind that if he had to pursue taxation, it would be as a lawyer. The time had come for him to chase his dream.
Keen to know more about his relationship with his father, I ask, ‘You completed law from Government Law College, Nagpur, in 1980, and by then you had also managed to complete a couple of years’ internship with a law firm operating out of Nagpur and Mumbai, as well as acquiring the precious experience of working with Nani Palkhivala on the famous Minerva Mill case. Later, Nani recommended that you work as a junior with Soli Sorabjee who was then the Solicitor General of India based in Delhi. At that time, your father was the deputy leader of the Congress in Parliament under the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi and soon went on to hold other important portfolios in the Central cabinet—as minister of state for information and broadcasting (I&B), then minister of state with independent charge for steel and mines. How did the relationship pan out between the father and the son in terms of propriety—you as a budding lawyer and your father as an influential politician?’
‘My father joined politics when I was ten years old. All I have seen is a downslide in the quality of my life from the time he joined politics. His income went down and things didn’t change right through to the time I was doing my CA. I remember my mother telling me, “You cannot eat meat every day.” This is how it was even when my father was a member of Parliament (MP). Though he steadily grew in terms of his political stature, it didn’t translate into financial gains. The sense of righteousness was very strong in him, so he made sure that the boundaries between our professions remained concrete. When my father was inducted as a minister in the Central cabinet in the 1980s, I never attended a single official party. I went to his office only once when he was in the I&B ministry because he wanted me to sign some papers. For several years after my father was the minister of power, I didn’t know that his office was in Shram Shakti Bhawan.’
It was only much later when, as Solicitor General, Harish went to Shram Shakti Bhawan for a meeting with Suresh Prabhu—who was the minister of power then in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet—regarding the Dabhol case that he realized that it was his father’s office!
‘When my father was the minister of steel, he called me up one day and said that he wanted to know how much work I had got from the Steel Authority of India in the last year. I totalled it, and it came to about Rs 3000 when I had a practice running into some Rs 40 lakh at that time. When he became the minister of power, he called me and told me that he did not want me to work for any public sector units that came under his ministry.’ Harish assured him he would not and at the same time brought to his father’s attention how there were a bunch of third-grade lawyers whom ministers patronized and that they should be barred from appearing. ‘I ended up becoming the cause for a rumpus that followed in the ministry,’ chuckles Harish and adds, ‘It was only once that I worked for the ministry of power, and then too, instead of getting any benefit, I ended up giving free advice to the government.’
‘You imbibed taxation and law from your family environment. What about politics? Have you ever considered joining politics?’
‘My personal view is that there are two kinds of reactions when you see power and politics very closely—you love it or hate it. I hate it.’ Harish is clear that he has never even considered the idea of joining politics. As a student of public affairs and law, he likes following politics and understanding it because it is important—not in its narrow partisan sense but as an important part of governance.
‘As a renowned constitutional lawyer, what are your observations on India as of today—the way the country is being managed and where it is headed?’
Harish ponders briefly and then very eloquently expresses his key concerns about Indian polity. He cautions and remarks, ‘I think right now India is going through a very negative mindset and if we don’t realize this soon enough and do something about it, we are going to pay a very dear price for it. We have, from about 2011 onwards, created an impression that everybody in power is corrupt, everyone who has a car is a crook, everyone who lives well is a crook. We must realize that India’s biggest fault line is between the haves and the have-nots. In the power game of politics, instead of taking hard decisions for development, people are being pitted as rich or poor—us versus them. In this way, we are gradually cultivating complete disrespect for our constitutional institutions.’
Harish’s analysis is that we are being misled by a wealth-hungry media. The media decides who is corrupt and who is not, and we basically assume if a person is rich and influential, he/she must be corrupt. The reality is that governance comes from institutions, and wealth comes from private capital. By giving them a bad name today, Harish believes we are sawing at the edifice of democracy. This trend is alarming and nothing, nothing appears to be above partisan politics—whether it’s land acquisition, foreign direct investment (FDI), or even the Naga Accord. Not blaming any one political party for it, he points out that everybody does it, with politicians attending to their personal interest first and functioning with a ‘to hell with the nation’ attitude.
However, he acknowledges that we still have a lot of very fine politicians and conscientious MPs, having known them well. ‘There are a lot of lower-middle-class MPs who live in two-bedroom flats and go back to do some good work in their constituencies. But you’ll never hear about those people. On the other hand, if one person makes some communally sensitive statement, it immediately makes for front-page news,’ he says.
What after money and fame (1)

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