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Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi – the multi-tasker, a spokesperson for the Congress, a Parliamentarian and a brilliant lawyer opens up to Bar & Bench. He discusses his life as a lawyer, corruption and talks about the important role of media along with his thoughts on how to improve legal education in India.
Bar & Bench: What made you choose law as a career?
Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi: Normally, such decisions are made by a process of elimination, as in all other cases if there is a pressure or push one normally develops some kind of an aversion. In my case there was absolutely no pressure, but the sight, sound, smell and ambience of law has been there in our family. I’m a third generation and my sons are the fourth generation lawyers. After being an outstanding student during my schooling and college years, virtually by a process of elimination I gravitated towards law. I must hasten to add, that my father never in the slightest even nudged me towards law. If at all, it was my mother who would say that she wanted me to be a lawyer, but it was a very subtle and a gentle push which is perhaps why I took to law.
Bar & Bench: What was it like growing up with a renowned father Dr. L.M. Singhvi, a lawyer and one of the longest serving High Commissioner for India, in the UK.
Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi: As I said it’s not a silver spoon except that it gives you a push in life. After that two things have to happen if you do not perform or work hard. That push is absolutely useless and universally it will not work specially in a profession. In a business it can. Second, people who are young and come from unrelated law families should take heart as real hard work and talent never fails. It is a meritocracy out there. It will not take you long to realise it, but it’s still there and for that your only option is hard work. Of course having an eminent father has its reverse things also, if you take it positively it puts a lot of pressure but a pressure to perform and gets the adrenaline running faster and that’s what happened with me to a large extent and there is always a sub conscious attempt to accept.
Bar & Bench: Talk us through your initial years, as a lawyer?
Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi: People think that if you are born in a legal family, you are born with a silver spoon. I think it’s a straight forward point. It does give you small perks as they say of a profession –a small nudge, a push, some contacts and a good library to start with. It also more importantly gives you the sight, sound, smell, the ambience and heritage of law. But, it is a very cruel profession and a very punishing one which doesn’t tolerate failure and if after that initial push you will not perform, then no family, no father and no name will save you. This is important for young lawyers to realise.
I have been extremely fortunate and I repeatedly say this is because of no particular intellectual or other talent, I’m of course bright, but there are innumerable number of people who are better than me. It has a lot to do with fate and the single most important thing is hard work. I’m lucky because I was the youngest ever designated senior advocate in this country at the young age of 34. In fact before that I had practiced even lesser years than my year of enrolment suggests, since in between after enrolment I had gone back to complete my Ph. D. I was in effect designated a senior within five years of practice, although my enrolment was earlier.
I was fortunate to being designated an Additional Solicitor General at age 37. I think a particular remark by my father proved to be apathetic, I was quite mystified hearing of it and understood it subsequently. In 1991, when I was barely in terms of enrolment – ten years of practice, but in actual practice only five or six years old, my father left the country for good virtually because he was the Indian High Commissioner to the UK and he was the longest serving Indian Cabinet Minister of the rank of High Commissioner for seven years. When he was leaving I did express some misgiving and said that I would be all alone and everybody else I knew, had people in the profession. I had from a very early stage, no one. And he said after I leave according to me, your practice should double and quadruple. I didn’t understand and thought he was joking, but it exactly happened like that and each year after his departure in 1991, each year my practice doubled from the previous year and by 1993, I was designated a senior in two years time, in 1997 I was an ASG and in 1999 I was the Vice President of the Supreme Court Bar Association and also, in 1999 I was given the prestigious Global Leader for Tomorrow award by the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland.
Things went well and what I can claim is certainly no edge or brightness or special facility or talent, but yes hard work. I did a lot of hard work and used to work like a maniac and that is ultimately the best lesson that I can give to the young or the old. As somebody put it, there are several substitutes for Harvard, but not for hard work.
Bar & Bench: What was it like to be designated as the youngest Senior Advocate at the age of 34, in the Supreme Court of India and later chosen to be the Additional Solicitor General of India at the age of 37?
Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi: It’s been a great thrill and a great electric current running through the body and along with that it is a huge burden. Over achievers at young age have a problem and the burden of performance is much greater and the burden of failure is much much greater. Everything that I do today is like exam-time and I’m in a permanent exam in front of the public. People do a lot of good hard work in their offices as a CMD, but it’s in closed doors. My job involves performance in court, in Parliament and in front of the media and that’s a huge burden especially if you are very young. You have to do that extra bit to prove and to cross the threshold of your age.
The only way I could and did compensate was with that extra bit of hard work and of course it’s like a swimming pool, you gasp for oxygen and it teaches you to learn swimming more quickly when you are thrown at the deep end of the pool. When you are a senior advocate or an ASG at 37 and you have to stand up in court and there is nobody on your left or on your right, it’s just you alone and your own luck and you face the top lawyers on the right side who are private practitioners.
Bar & Bench: How do you maintain a balance between your political life as a spokesperson for the Congress, as a Member of the Parliament and your legal life as a lawyer?
Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi: The great joy as also the great bane of my life. The great joy and the great curse of my life has been the job of multitasking. I do not need to boast when I say that there is perhaps no bigger or larger multi-tasker that I know of, than myself. I invented a joke many years ago that I had to juggle three difficult mistresses, along with a difficult wife and those three, each of them zealous and over demanding, are law, Parliament and media. With each one of them no matter how much time spent (with all three of them), time is always deprival. Each demands meticulous preparation and great devotion, assiduous will and therefore time is always a problem. Equally, it’s been a great learning curve. I would like to give an example of an average day in my life, which is unique since it frequently involved five to six major cases, not ordinary cases. They are heavy State cases in the Supreme Court or the Delhi High Court in the morning, in between rushing to the Parliament and opening a debate is a great honour for the treasury benches, and then coming back and doing some more cases in the afternoon and then at 4 pm taking a press briefing. There are three totally different things and if you take the same topic and the same theme its fascinating how on the same subject and the same theme the way I would present, put forth or argue it would be different in the court of law, in the Parliament and at the media briefing and that is a great learning curve.
There is a fourth dimension which also I have done sometimes in the same day and that is to step out and drive out little bit in Delhi and address a political rally. These are four different ways and means of communication on the same subject with audiences which require different treatment.
Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on corruption with reference to the recent 2G scam and the case of Black Money?
Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi: Corruption is a terrible, but a real phenomenon in our country. It’s not that corruption was born yesterday or discovered today or talked about today. It’s been there and you should not be amazed at it. It’s a part of several things – discretionary powers in this country, institutionalised, habitual, and cultural whatever you call it. So there is no point in lamenting and saying corruption, corruption as people are saying.
According to me there are two to three questions that one should start asking. One, are you in a far better position today in 2011 vis-à-vis corruption than in 2008, 2005 or 2001 or 1995. Clear answer is yes, intergenerationally and we tend to be sceptical and cynical but yes in the last twenty years great strides have been made for the simple reason of transparency or pervasive media. Corruption has become less, discretion powers have become less whether you like it or not. It’s a right to complain and you can’t ignore that as well.
You cannot eliminate corruption. The second question has to be, if and when you find corruption the true test is how to deal with it. Preventive may be impossible, but the test of your metal and your sincerity is the curative part. Ideal is preventive, but it’s not possible to be preventive. On the criterion of what action you take when corruption is found, I think this Government and in the principal equivalent has handled it extraordinarily well and its easy again to be cynical, but there is not one case big-small or trivial to a fault where action has not only been taken but has followed the curative consequences. Indeed the levelties, that sometimes the consequences have been too severe for relatively minor things. Shashi Tharoor may think that he didn’t do anything wrong, after all it was a impropritary investment and he lost his job as a minister. Maybe Vocar was on a criminal conviction, but a foreign minister of India left. And of course you have a number of concrete things where the CBI is investigating and where people are being arrested left, right and centre. The Common Wealth Games scam is being looked into, people have resigned as chief minister in Adarsh scam. Now one must therefore compare this to the track record of those who preach to us. Those who preach to us are people who are called candid camera, the president of a party seeking bribe and there was not even a criminal complaint filed. In Tehelka for the first time a criminal complaint was made three years later in 2005, when we came into power. There was a commission of enquiry which was a white-wash job, the defence minister was then made to resign and within eight months or a year, he was reappointed. No exoneration, no conviction and no punishment.
There is a litany of examples from Uttarakhand to Karnataka. Tell me which minister has resigned, has been arrested and has been punished? Then there is the Land Allotment scam. I do think people make a distinction that we try to please, (we cannot please everybody) with the terms and with the rules of law.
Lastly, the practical steps being taken by this Government for corruption are also very important. It will not have a magical effect immediately in a switch on-switch off mode, but it will have down the line an intergenerational impact every five years or ten years because discretionary powers are being reduced considerably. Mining discretionary powers are being reduced, and discretion in every form is being reduced and it is going to have an impact. We are taking both concrete and curative steps and have shown, unlike just preaching about it.
Bar & Bench: What are your thoughts on the role of media, today?
Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi: The single most important revolution and change in my life and everyone’s is only one, or maybe two i.e. media and telecom. And they are both related because they are both brought on the same platform of IT. If you are forced to choose one single biggest change when you were a child in 1990 and today, you would say media or telecom. You couldn’t say a third thing. The all pervasive power of the media has to be realised.
I’m an unabashed fan, a supporter of media freedom and press transparency. I do not believe in censorship, or gagging, or controlling or suppressing. I think being a vibrant democracy is the pride of place for India because we have achieved and overcome our obstacles despite being a democracy, despite paying what I call a “democracy tax”.
It is ultimately a question of awareness of self responsibility, and self awareness. The media’s power can be enhanced only by under utilising it. Unless the media realises, that it has to be responsible and retrained it will diminish and devalue its own power. There is a difference between visual and print media. The visual media has to realise that its superficiality, its time constraints, its need to get responses yesterday, not even instantaneous is causing immense harm in terms of superficial, unstructured, un-understood situations. Stringers and people with no experience or bookies are unleashed on important issues and the questions they ask make the answering person laugh because they don’t know anything about the subject. These are the things which media themselves need to check.
The answer is not external censorship of control, but unless or until the media realises that by and large why it is good, there are so many negatives emerging. It must introspect and come out with a set of guidelines which reduces those distortions. Example: guidelines for sting operations, the conflicts of interest of media persons, the motivated biased nature of a person to a story or reporting. These are some of the things which require a high degree of self awareness, otherwise it will become self destructive.
Bar & Bench: Do you miss practicing as a lawyer for the common man?
Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi: One doesn’t feel it because you’ll be surprised that as a top counsel one does almost 3 to 5 matters per month which are purely common man matters where it will be really needy and certainly no payments are received or asked for. We do a lot of legal aid work which is marked properly, but at the other end if you think I miss being a NGO lawyer, well then no. I think the thrill of professional success has its own kick and you cannot really be a professional success unless you practice in a very highly demanding environment of litigation which is private corporate litigation. That demands the best one slip, and you are out as it’s an unforgiving cruel world.
I set out to be an NGO lawyer, but yes I don’t think there will ever be a situation where (unless personal circumstances or unavailability of a partner) I have ever refused any genuine cause.
Bar & Bench: Thoughts on the present system of legal education in India?
Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi: Needs much much more to desire. Again intergenerationally we have improved tremendously. Our law schools from 40 years ago, 20 years ago to 10 years ago have improved. These improvements are unfortunately only islands of excellence amongst a sea of mediocrity. That’s the crucial test of legal education. Yes, you have at least created islands as there were not even islands earlier. One has to understand that amongst these islands one has to attack the sea of mediocrity. The attack on the sea cannot happen unless you virtually create a university for law teachers. Today, the biggest problem is that there are no law teachers. If I ask you about the top ten law school teachers, it’s the same five names which are rotating because there is nobody else. We have to attack to the reason of why there is nobody else. Structurally anybody who goes in to be a law teacher or principal doesn’t want the same income as earning out of a private practice, but equally he cannot get the return of a person who is a Class IV employee who would be getting one fifth of his return. This balance has to be struck somehow and that is the key to legal education in India. And lastly, in legal education it is important to make it a multi-disciplinarily holistic approach. There are fascinating areas of law now in India and all of them need to be tied together in multi-disciplinarily approaches like law and agriculture and law and economics.
Bar & Bench: Your Mentor?
Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi: You can’t really pinpoint, but I would say yes and two sub conscious mentors in my personal and professional life in my entire life minus a core political life, I’d say it was my father. Not mentor in the sense of him mentoring me, but as an example to implicitly follow. In my political life the closest I have come to a mentor is a person who purely lived in political public life, Madhavrao Scindia who was very close to me.
Bar & Bench: What interests you, other than law?
Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi: If I was left to myself, I would go on top of a mountain and just read. My interest in reading is so vast that it is less than a drop in the ocean. But, the last 15 to 20 years I have hardly read. What interests me is biographies first, history is the second, religion is the third but there are many more areas. Any one of them is to spend a lifetime on. The only way I cheat my conscience is perhaps to keep building my library and whenever I come across good books I just buy them. I’m buying books but not reading them, and it’s a constant challenge. I also love Hindi filmy music, I love to see movies on Friday evenings and I love travelling. I have made a rule not to travel to the same place twice, because there’s so much in the world to see.