The nature of legal profession requires a truly great practitioner to be a jack of all trades while being a master at most of them. The extent of legal professionals’ involvement in politics, economics and policy can look odd to someone who does not grasp this. Nanabhoy (“Nani”) Ardeshir Palkhivala’s achievements in the field of public policy are enviable even to a seasoned policy-maker. And Nani Palkhivala was also, unequivocally, a colossus of the Indian bar.
For Nani Palkhivala, law must have been an unlikely choice. Coming from humble circumstances and out of a prolonged spell of speech impediment, the young Nani aspired to be a lecturer in English. Academia’s loss set in motion the development of one India’s finest legal minds.
Called to bar in 1944, Palkhivala made it quite plain that he was a master in waiting. His eloquence and grasp of subject matter would even inspire quite an audience in cases he argued in Bombay. By the age of 30, he produced an authoritative tome on Indian tax law, sharing credit with the legendary Sir Jamshedji Behramji Kanga. Within a short period, the young lawyer found himself arguing before the Supreme Court in Delhi, incidentally starting with a constitutional law matter centred on fundamental rights. The legend of Palkhivala has its roots mostly in the subsequent cases he would appear for in the Supreme Court, in particular the Keshavanda Bharati case.
Keshavanda Bharati v. State of Kerala, nothing short of an all out war fought on many turfs of constitutional law, was significant enough to call for the constitution of an unprecedented thirteen-judge bench. Parties put their best foot forward and employed the most capable lawyers of the land for this ultimate showdown. Issues and resolutions in the case were notoriously complex, but it is widely agreed upon that it was Nani Palkhivala who stood tallest at the end of this bitter fight over fundamental rights of an Indian citizen. Palkhivala was acutely aware of the import of the decision on the case and would emerge as its greatest defendant in public and in subsequent challenges to aspects of the judgment.
To have appeared in, let alone make a mark in such a case would have secured a lawyer’s place in the nation’s history. But Palkhivala realized that the government required a strong intellectual opposition. Guided by his libertarian ethos and influenced by his ringside view of how far an unfettered government will go, he threw his intellectual weight and legal acumen behind taking on what he perceived as the wrongs of Nehruvian socialism.
Palkhivala would undertake this mission in courts through a string of constitutional law cases that focuses on fundamental rights. Equally significant were his activities in the public domain excluding courts. Palkhivala was a self-taught economist who picked up the dismal science for advancement of his tax law practice. He would use this knowledge in a string of speeches and articles on economic policy that were keenly followed by the general public. His famous budget-day speeches started out as an informal gathering where he would dissect the Union Budget for the audience. Its popularity grew to such an extent that hiring of the Brabourne stadium in Mumbai would become a necessity.
The man who declined offers to be on the Supreme Court bench, and to be the central government’s first law officer would finally take up a government assignment in 1977 as India’s ambassador to the United States of America. There was a virtual race among universities there to fete this capable polymath from India with honoris causa doctorates.
An oft-overlooked aspect of life is his philanthropy. Perhaps it speaks eloquently of what kind of a human being Nani was. This selfless servant to ideas was also in the habit of making massive personal cheques out to various charities he took an interest in. Soli Sorabjee rightly invokes Cardinal Newman to describe the man, “Of Nani, it can be truly said that he walked with Kings yet lost not the common touch.”