If the imposition of Emergency in 1973 tested the democratic institutions of the country, especially the judiciary, veteran lawyer Shanti Bhushan was undoubtedly a major force that compelled the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to resort to the extreme step following the erosion of her hold on power due to Bhushan’s razor-sharp arguments.
When Raj Narain filed a case in the Allahabad high court accusing Indira of winning her Rae Bareli seat in the 1971 general elections through electoral malpractices, it was Bhushan who argued the matter for him and won the case. Indira was held guilty of corrupt practices by the high court and as a result, she was unseated and also debarred from contesting elections for the next six years.
The judicial defeat paved the way for the declaration of Emergency by Indira, further leading to a domino effect that saw the Indira government superseding a judge to have a Chief Justice of India of her own choice and eventually, the fall of her government in 1977.
On Tuesday, Bhushan, 97, passed away after a brief illness. He served as the Union law minister in the Moraji Desai government from 1977 to 1979 after Indira lost the election following the revocation of Emergency.
Bhushan was also a founding member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980 after the fall of Morarji Desai’s government, and he remained the national treasurer of the party till 1986. He however quit the BJP after the party’s top leadership distanced itself from a petition that Bhushan had filed with their consent to establish that Rajiv Gandhi won the 1984 polls on a “communal” agenda in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh security guards. In his book titled Courting Destiny, Bhushan detailed the circumstances that led to his exit from the BJP.
Bhushan belonged to an illustrious legal family from Allahabad. His practice of law was conjoined to public interest as he led from the front in an array of cases involving independence of public institutions and accountability of judiciary.
In the late 1980s, Shanti Bhushan came together with the likes of VM Tarkunde, Fali Nariman and Anil Divan to set up the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL), a non-government organisation that conducts litigation on matters of public interest. CPIL, through the years, has conducted a raft of successful PILs, including the ones that led to cancellation of 2G spectrum licences and annulment of appointment of PJ Thomas as the central vigilance commissioner.
Along with his son and another acclaimed lawyer Prashant Bhushan, Shanti Bhushan also set up the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Judicial Reform (CJAR) to press for accountability in the Indian judiciary. The organisation has filed several cases demanding transparency in judicial appointments, a suitable mechanism to probe judges and declaration of their assets in the public domain.
In a case where his lawyer son Prashant was facing contempt for alleging in an interview to Tehelka magazine in 2009 that half of the past 16 CJIs were corrupt, Shanti Bhushan showed up in the court armed with a sealed cover giving evidence of corruption against the judges in question. The sealed cover, submitted in 2010, was never opened as the court did not allow him to become a party in the case.
During one of the hearings in this matter, the Supreme Court bench asked the Bhushan to end the matter by furnishing an apology. Shanti Bhushan retorted: “The question of apology does not arise. I am prepared to go to jail… I am of the firm belief that there is lot of corruption in the judiciary.” The contempt case was finally closed against Prashant Bhushan in August last year.
Shanti Bhushan was also a prominent member of the core committee of India Against Corruption (IAC) and later became a founding member of the Aam Aadmi Party in 2012. However, he along with his son, quit the AAP in 2015 following a bitter fallout with party supremo Arvind Kejriwal.