In fashionably liberal circles, Prashant Bhushan is an authentic modern hero, the people’s advocate who uses the killer argument to avenge the aam admi on the bloodless battlefield of the Supreme Court. Among his lawyer peers, Bhushan is somewhat disdainfully seen as an “activist who takes up causes, not cases”.
Some politicians call him a “self-righteous” busybody with a penchant for the sensational storyline. Some others loathe the 55-year-old, who helped draft the Jan Lokpal Bill, as an anarchist impelled to bring down the system. To the man on the street, Bhushan is all but invisible.
But the results of his relentless war on what he calls “evil and venality” are all around. There appears to be a decided people’s clamour for the anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill he wrote with former Supreme Court justice Santosh Hegde. And at the beginning of March, Bhushan effectively humbled India’s chief political executive—the prime minister—as well as forced the highest court in the land to do his will.
With his trademark cautiousness, Bhushan admits this might be as good as it gets for a knee-jerk activist with “a passion for justice”. He acknowledges “I’ve been unwittingly catapulted into a kind of position of a hero, which I can see from the manner in which people are now wanting to interview me, as well as talk to me in the courts, congratulate me etc.”
It is safe to say Bhushan has made a career out of public interest litigation (PIL) having self-confessedly taken up “about 500 cases over 15-16 years” that deal with ‘good’ causes (environment, corruption, the Bofors case, Narmada dam). He made a career but not a fortune because he doesn’t charge for public interest cases, which he admits “take a long time, go on for a long time… more time than normal cases”. Effectively, therefore, he admits to spending just 25% of his time on paying cases, charging 5% of what other lawyers charge and earning just “enough to take care of my office expenses at any rate”.
Clearly, he is magnificently unworried about money. He lives in simple but great comfort with his former lawyer wife Deepa on one floor of his father’s house in Noida. The oldest of four children of well known lawyer and Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s law minister Shanti Bhushan, Prashant lives the dream described by American novelist Edith Wharton — the only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it. This is the starting point of the difference in Bhushan’s worldview and that of people he lumps together as “professional lawyers”. Most of them, he says severely, “are amoral, morally vacuous and they’re not bothered whether their client gets justice nor are they bothered whether their client’s cause is just or not.”
Bhushan’s fellow lawyer in the Supreme Court, Harish Salve, acknowledges the grubby and distinct reality of being a “commercial lawyer (not an activist). Sometimes, even we’re not convinced our clients are right”. Contrast that with Bhushan’s lofty refusal to “take up a case unless I feel my client is at least morally right.”
America’s leading expert on the Indian legal system and London School of Economics Centennial Professor Marc Galanter says Bhushan is quite remarkable for “being so empowered.” Unlike many great—and effective—activist lawyers, notably the late William Kunstler who fought for civil liberties, black people and native Americans, “Prashant’s circumstances have given him (financial) independence, Kunstler had the imperative of making a living. I find it admirable that Prashant has grasped the opportunity”.
And how. Just months ago, he successfully challenged the Prime Minister and Home Minister’s decision to appoint PJ Thomas as head of the country’s eight-year-old premier integrity watchdog, the Central Vigilance Commission. He was able to prove that the appointment of a man facing corruption charges to an anti-corruption institution was laughably inappropriate.
In mid-December, Bhushan managed to convince the Supreme Court it must monitor the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) inquiry into the 2G spectrum allocation scandal, which the lawyer argued had only benefitted the “favourites amongst the favoured”. The Court even agreed with Bhushan that the CBI had dragged its feet on investigating the mega scandal. It was arguably just the fillip needed to start nailing those alleged to be guilty. From then on, it took the CBI just six weeks to arrest former telecom minister A Raja.
Bhushan wasted little time taking aim at his next quarry in the 2G scam. On March 1, he told the Supreme Court that the CBI was behaving suspiciously by failing to investigate the direct involvement of the Tata group in the entire matter. Justices G S Singhvi and A K Ganguly assured him the case was “progressing in the right direction. Prima facie there is no fault in its investigation. We are quite conscious that CBI must probe every aspect of the case.”
Bhushan had made his point. But he is not triumphant. Possibly just a tad self-satisfied. He talks about his own “moral authority” and the fact that his “responsible and consistent” campaign against judicial corruption means judges “both respect and fear you (him)”. Despite being mild-mannered and retiring, some might find him as boastful as an Arab dictator: “Even judges today are afraid of throwing in jail someone who they know is perceived to be right by the people.”
Chiefly though, he is unyielding and as a friend describes him, “all heavy seriousness” about his role in India today. The science fiction addict who once wrote a turgid novel of the genre, is clear that he is an “agent of change, a catalyst”. The IIT Madras student who left halfway, went on to Princeton to study philosophy and economics but couldn’t stay the course, is steady as a rock about his destiny. He objects to the adjective “messiah”, saying “it can mean many things. I see myself as a person who tries to see the connections between what is happening and tries to spread the message that I feel should be spread about what is wrong with our economic policies, what is wrong with our judicial system.”
He studied law at Allahabad, doing part of the course before Princeton and taking his final exam on his return. He started early down the public interest road, inspired partly by his father’s views on justice, probity and corruption. Early on, he fought limestone quarrying in the picturesque Doon Valley. Then, there was the Bhopal gas tragedy litigation. He was Delhipresident of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, one of India’s oldest human rights organizations.
Bhushan is unembarrassed to be asked if activism is an indulgence for those who can afford it, chiefly people who don’t need to worry about feeding the family or putting a son through Oxford (Manav, oldest of his three sons, is studying Math there). “Activism certainly needs to be supported—by like-minded people or grants…I don’t need to seek grants because I come from a very well-to-do family”. Salve, who has faced Bhushan across the courtroom many times (“cases go up to two digits”) magnanimously says that “we need the Prashant Bhushans, we need people like him. Every system needs crackpots”. Bhushan himself describes Salve as his chief detractor but Salve insists that Bhushan is generally to be admired because “he takes every cause, good, bad or indifferent and argues it with passion.”
Salve’s words of praise may sit oddly with his deeds. In his own words Salve “drew the Supreme Court’s attention” to Bhushan’s September 2009 interview to a magazine in which he claimed “half of the last 16 Chief Justices were corrupt”. Bhushan now faces contempt of court proceedings. Salve denies animosity. “We’re all on the same side, as citizens, we’re against corruption but I think that he is sometimes out of sync with economic reality.”
This fierce romantic idealism seems to annoy Bhushan’s detractors most. Like America’s self-appointed “radical lawyer” William Kunstler, Bhushan is accused of being a “publicity seeker”. Some are suspicious of his chiming with writer Arundhati Roy to recall India Rising to right rather than jingoistic might. Some say the Jan Lokpal Bill would have been drafted with or without Bhushan. Others say the main opposition BJP would have achieved the same results on the 2G scam had Bhushan not managed courtroom success. His chief critics say he’s not really a serious lawyer at all, just a “cause-pleader”. But Salve will have none of this. “He is a good lawyer. His arguments are crisp and to the point. He doesn’t get into high philosophy and jurisprudence. He picks his cause and he bangs it hard”.
Bhushan, unemotional to the point of bloodlessness, bangs on. From his third floor office opposite the Supreme Court, he looks dreamily at the pigeons on the window sill: “There are some straws in the wind. There is reason for hope. Today you can sense a kind of arousal and excitement even among the urban middle class which one didn’t see earlier. There’s resistance everywhere against every kind of loot and degradation.”