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Palkhivala: A legendary life
December 17, 2002
It is my big regret that my encounters with Nani Ardeshir Palkhivala were only in the twilight years of his spectacular life. I have reported about his activities mainly in his corporate avatar -- as chairman of ACC Ltd. and director of Tata Sons.
My first experience of the power of his oratory was in the late 1980s when, as a junior reporter, I covered an ACC annual general meeting that was expected to be controversial after a significant change in its shareholding.
The Patkar hall in Mumbai was packed; and before the meeting began, several front bench investors had assured me that they planned to grill the chairman.
Palkhivala rose to speak, and after 45-odd minutes of his powerful and persuasive explanation of developments within the company, the auditorium simply emptied out.
"I have no questions anymore," mumbled one departing investor when I asked him about the little chit of questions that he had quietly stuffed back into his pocket.
It was the same powerful oratory and brilliantly incisive analysis of the Union Budget that held tens of thousands of Mumbai-wallahs in thrall every year.
The budget analysis was a tradition started by the great Ardeshir D Shroff, a financial genius from the house of Tatas, whose biography I wrote it 1999.
Shroff, a great speaker with an enormous grasp of the economy and the stock market, used to deliver a budget analysis annually to an audience comprising economists, businessmen and traders.
The venue was the Green Hotel, which has now given way to the new wing of the Taj Mahal hotel.
Shroff had set up the Forum of Free Enterprise, as a voice of the private sector against Nehruvian socialism, and wanted it to be a platform to introduce new people into public life.
At 37, Nani Palkhivala was one of the forum's star discoveries. His first speech in 1957 was so impressive that he soon took over the budget analysis.
Unlike Shroff, Palkhivala had a genius for communication and a knack of reaching out to ordinary people while de-mystifying the budget to them.
It is no wonder then that the analysis became as big an event on the city's calendar as the budget itself. The forum changed several venues to accommodate the crowds and finally had to hire a cricket stadium in the years leading to 1994 when Palkhivala decided to end the tradition.
Those were the days before 24-hour television began its inroads with instant analysis.
It was in connection with the A D Shroff biography that I met the legendary lawyer in late 1999.
Palkhivala was, as ever, the epitome of courtesy. But the conversation was more about my work as a journalist and the degeneration of the political environment and lack of governance.
The conversation was interspersed with Palkhivala's occasional remarks about how AD (as he called A D Shroff) was a great financial genius and had a phenomenal memory.
Shroff indeed had an extraordinary memory, and from what I have heard, Palkhivala too was gifted with superb recall. But half-an-hour into the meeting, it became apparent that this marvellous gift of memory had begun to fail him.
With obvious embarrassment, he admitted that he could not remember too many details about Shroff. He offered to meet me after a few weeks and promised to jot down his reminiscences as and when he remembered things.
We met on the appointed day. Again, he was courteous and charming, but it was obvious that he had forgotten much of the past.
Astonishingly, his loss of memory was not uniform. On both occasions, I noticed, that he dwelt on the events of the Emergency and turned angry and almost impassioned when the spoke about Indira Gandhi -- so much so that my only notes about that meeting are his strong condemnation of the former prime minister.
"She was the worst prime minister we've ever had. She did more damage to the Indian Constitution than anyone else," he had said. He also pointed out that 'she had no place in her scheme of things for private enterprise.'
Palkhivala's anger at the old memories reveals the extent of his sorrow and resentment about the emergency and Mrs Gandhi's stifling of private enterprise.
But Palkhivala's biggest gift to the nation is probably the Kesavnanda Bharti case (Kesavnanda Bharati v/s state of Kerala) of 1972, which lead to the historic pronouncement by the full bench of the Supreme Court that Parliament could amend the Constitution, but could not alter its basic structure.
Palkhivala had argued for five long months to protect the citizen's fundamental rights.
The decision was reversed during the Emergency, but Palkhivala became a legend when he dared to brave Indira Gandhi's wrath and refused to plead her case before the Supreme Court in 1975 in her appeal against an Allahabad high court decision which had ruled against her 1971 election to the Lower House of Parliament.
Mrs Gandhi expectedly hounded Palkhivala for his temerity. She had asked the Tatas to sack him and his every move was watched by the intelligence agencies who openly posted a jeep outside his residence.
Interestingly, although a legendary legal expert, studying law was not Palkhivala's first choice. One of the many obituaries after his death says that he only studied law because he didn't get a job as a lecturer in English.
Over the years, he represented the Indian government in several important disputes, even while he remained a strong advocate of free enterprise. In 1990, he wrote, "the most persistent tendency in India is to have too much government but too little administration; too many laws and too little justice; too many public servants and too little public service; too many controls and too little welfare."
He wrote several important books, of which The Law and Practice of Income Tax is a must-read for students and tax practitioners.
His book, The Highest Taxed Nation had forced the government to start reducing the ridiculous high tax rates of 98 per cent and the two compendiums of his writing, We, The People, and We, The Nation are considered classics.
Born on January 16, 1920, Palkhivala lived an eventful 82 years, rising from a humble middle class background to the very pinnacle of professional achievement and public adulation.
Deeply spiritual he respected all faiths. He was a follower of Sathya Sai Baba, could quote from the Vedas and was a great admirer of the writings of Shri Aurobindo.
He was also among the last breed of gentlemen who carried their erudition lightly, were unfailingly courteous to all and were zealously secretive about their good deeds and charities.