The Tribune - Spectrum


, April 7, 2002

Larger-than-life lawyer’s legends
Rashmi Sharma

The Legend of Nani Palkhiwala
by M. R. Pai. Popular Prakashan, Mumbai Rs.250. Pages 142.

IT was Winston Churchill who said that one mark of a great man is the power of making lasting impressions upon the people he meets; and another is so to have handled matters that the course of after events is continually affected by what he did.

Nani Palkhiwala—-loved and respected by millions —-fulfilled both these hard tests.

If greatness consists in the combination of character and intellect of the highest order and if it is to be measured by the lasting value of the solid work done in the fields of thought and action. Palkhiwala is, beyond question, a living legend and an outstanding man. Nani Palkhiwala plays many parts with great distinction and runs through the gamut of high public offices. He remained close to the heart of power for decades, but the corroding power of power left his inborn simplicity and humbleness untouched. He has a mind that cuts its way as instantly and easily to the core of a problem as a hot knife through butter. He thinks in a lightening flash—one that illumines the inmost recesses of the case. In quickness of grasp, he has no superior among the legal brains of this country. In court and in conference he is always a mile ahead of all others. He waits you to arrive and when you at last catch up with him, you find that he has already surveyed the whole area and chosen and illuminated the best paths. C. Rajagopalachari had once observed in his own inimitable way: "Nani is God’s gift to India".


He became the cynosure not only of the legal profession, but also the general public in what is considered to be the most important case of his career which left a lasting mark on Indian constitutional law. Popularly known as the Fundamental Rights Case, it led to the Supreme Court interpreting the basic structure of the Constitution. A full bench of 13 judges, taking five months, is said to have given the longest time for any case which came up before the Supreme Court. When the case was being heard, there was countrywide excitement and Nani Palkhiwala became a household word.

Palkhiwala has also the unique record of holding an annual public dissection of the Union Budget for almost three decades under the auspices of the Forum of Free Enterprise. He started his annual budget speech in 1958 at Green’s Hotel, Bombay.

About 500 persons attended it. When the hotel was pulled down, the venue was shifted to the Cowasji Jehangir Hall. As the annual affair started attracting more and more people, the venue was again shifted in 1966 to the Cricket Club of India lawns which can accommodate 3,000 persons. Since 1982, the venue has been the sprawling Braboume Stadium which seats 60,000 people. The stadium has drawn full crowds every year. He lectured in different cities including Delhi and Bangalore. His analysis on March 3, 1992 saw over 1,00,000 in attendance.

Legend of Nani Palkhiwala is a heartfelt tribute from a person who followed the courtroom giant like a shadow throughout his life. The author, who was closely associated with Palkhiwala’s varied public activities, gives a complete account of his qualities of head and heart and his contribution to public education through budget writings, lecture tours and published work.

The book encapsulates Palkhiwala’s relentless struggle for public causes in the courts of law; analyses reasons behind his contribution to the corporate world and his deep involvement with voluntary service organisations despite a hectic daily schedule. It also throws light on certain hitherto unknown information about him. Like for instance, why he agreed to be the Indian Ambassador to the United States of America. Why did he accept former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s brief in her battle in the Supreme Court against the Allahabad High Court judgement? Also discussed is his interaction with the key players across the spectrum of Indian politics and how all the major political parties had tried to woo him to fight the battle of ballot. The book also describes Palkhiwalas’s method of operation which contributed in large measure to his success as a professional and a public figure and to inspire the younger generation by presenting to them a role model for the twenty first century in India.