The light of the winter day was fading as Subhash waited tensely for Arun Jaitley to arrive in the court hall for the afternoon hearing. He appeared shortly, in elegant legal attire, accompanied by two junior colleagues, who brought a few law volumes in a bag.
Everyone in the tribunal court hall looked at the Supreme Court lawyer. He was one of the young luminaries of the party whose government was in power. The bush telegraph of the court corridors spread the message of his presence and the tribunal court hall filled up, even though Subhash’s case was the last on the list. Arun sat next to Subhash.
The two judges gave Subhash a swift glance of concern; they wondered how Subhash’s lawyers would ever contend with such a formidable opponent. The judicial member leaned forward to ask the Supreme Court advocate, ‘I take it you, Mr Jaitley, are appearing for the Union government?’
‘No, your honour,’ Arun Jaitley replied quietly, ‘I am appearing for the applicant, Subhash Chowdhury.’ Both the judges were surprised. Was this brilliant lawyer, a leading member of the ruling party, going to argue against the government? After moments of throbbing stillness, the judicial member said, ‘Please proceed, Mr Jaitley.’
As Arun Jaitley opened the leather folder before him, a commotion erupted. The standing counsel for the Union government stared in terror at Arun Jaitley. ‘Your lordships,’ he began in a choked voice, ‘I was not aware that the applicant had appointed a senior advocate … he never told me this … I seek some more time.’
Despite the terrible tension of the moment Subhash burst into laughter when he saw the respondents’ standing counsel slumped over a chair, ashen faced, eyes bulging out. Could this be the man who had sneered at him that morning and predicted certain defeat?
‘You will speak when your turn comes,’ the judicial member rebuked the respondents’ counsel. Then looking at Arun, he said, ‘The learned counsel for the applicant may commence his arguments.’ Arun Jaitley rose, his head bent for a brief moment, as if marshalling his arguments. Or did he say a brief prayer for Subhash’s salvation? Then he raised his head and began to speak. The court hall fell into a deep silence. Arun Jaitley had never before argued in the administrative tribunal. His presence seemed to elevate the status of the tribunal.
Arun mentioned the facts of the case, of how the petitioner, an IAS officer, had been selected and recommended by the duly authorized Special Committee of Secretaries. They had scrutinized Subhash’s entire service records which praised his impeccable integrity and his achievements in the thirty years of his service with the Union and state governments. They had seen the five consecutive confidential reports, all graded Outstanding, by different superiors, which are the relevant confidential reports in the run-up to empanelment. These reports had described his integrity, ability, achievements, qualities of leadership, and his unswerving loyalty to his country. According to the Central Staffing Scheme these are the qualities required for empanelment to the highest position in the bureaucracy.
The court hall filled up with advocates from other court halls who had dropped in to hear Arun Jaitley speak.
The benches on the left side were occupied by people who were neither advocates nor petitioners. They were the anxious and uneasy emissaries of the respondents. They had much to fear from the disclosures and by the fact that the formidable Arun
Jaitley was arguing for Subhash.
Arun Jaitley continued. ‘The home minister, who is one of the two members of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, gave his unqualified approval to the panel prepared by the Special Committee of Secretaries, which contained Subhash Chowdhury’s name.’ Then he paused a long pause and drew in a deep breath. ‘And then what happened?
The panel was sent to the prime minister who is the other member of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. The panel was approved except the name of Subhash Chowdhury.’
Arun paused and looked grimly around the tribunal hall. ‘It appears that the note from the PMO was written by the joint secretary Nishi Sting, without the knowledge of the
Prime minister.’ The judicial member and administrative member exchanged shocked glances. The onlookers exclaimed astonishment.
Arun Jaitley then swung into the main thrust of his argument. ‘The decision-making process at the level of the honourable prime minister has been vitiated. Such a decision is not only unfair and arbitrary but appears to have been based on extraneous considerations.’
The stillness of the court hall was now broken by exclamations and murmurs. The judges and Arun Jaitley waited for the ripple of noises to subside. With logic and clarity, and exhaustive citations of constitutional law, Arun Jaitley proceeded to tear into irretrievable shreds the ludicrous arguments and rejoinders proffered by the cabinet secretary and other respondents. Arun Jaitley cited the Supreme Court judgments where it was laid down that it was incumbent upon the ACC to state the reasons why the applicant’s name was rejected.
Arun Jaitley placed the papers before him and looked at the judges. He said, ‘Let me submit a point to your lordships. If the prime minister did indeed have reasons to disagree with the unanimous recommendations of the cabinet secretary, the Union home secretary, the Union personnel secretary, his own principal secretary, and the approval of his senior-most cabinet colleague, the home minister, then the reasons must be known only to him and must be of a serious and secret nature. These are not reflected in the applicant’s service records, or in the confidential reports in the run-up to empanelment in which he has been graded as Outstanding.
Let us speculate what could be the other considerations for non-approval by the prime minister. A foreign bank account where large sums of money have been kept? Secret activities as the agent of a foreign government? Unbecoming conduct of any other type, alcoholism, drug addiction, incriminating correspondence, illicit relationships?’
Arun Jaitley did not speak for a few moments. ‘Even now, your honours, let the learned senior counsel for the government inform us what were the grave drawbacks in the petitioner which made the prime minister or his officers decide against Subhash Chowdhury. If the reasons are valid, even now, I will ask Mr Chowdhury to withdraw his petition before this court and pay for the costs to the Union government.’
There was a deafening stillness in the courtroom…
Continued on page number 299 of the recently released title Rogues Among the Ruins by Achala Moulik.
The book is available at: https://amzn.to/3eXK5zW
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.