Courting destiny Prashant and Shanti Bhushan are facing a media trial of sorts
Photo: Vijay Pandey

THE LEGENDARY samurai have a code of being that is difficult to attain: they must be ready to do battle no matter the odds, they must have no fear of consequence, they must value honour and pride above all else, they must be benevolent and they must have no interest in material riches. If they fail to live up to these standards, they must undergo ritual suicide and renew themselves. The Japanese call it the Way of the Warrior.

Lawyer Prashant Bhushan would probably score high on the seven virtues of the samurai.

For decades, he has been an unflappable refuge for dozens of people’s movements seeking redress in the courts. He has championed causes others would readily have abandoned, amplifying the meaning of democracy with each case he has taken up. A socialist and committed civil libertarian, he has fought many of these cases pro bono, charging not a rupee for thousands of hours of work, at a time when top lawyers earn enough to fill an emperor’s treasury.

Prashant has had detractors before: people within the legal fraternity who say he can often be loose on facts and high on emotive idealism. People who say he is dogmatic, obdurate, a man whose views it is impossible to dislodge. People who say he sees the world in simple black and white.

Even if one were to concede all of this, it would be a mistake to underestimate what Prashant Bhushan has meant to Indian public life. On the rights of minorities and the dispossessed, on judicial accountability, on civil freedoms, on environmental concerns, he has prised open new spaces where earlier there was only opacity. He has helped keep democratic institutions responsive.

Interestingly, much of what Prashant has done was made possible by the wealth his father — former law minister and lawyer Shanti Bhushan — generated through his practice. Inheritance can be a great enabler. If you don’t have to put food on the table, ethical conduct becomes an easier pursuit. Prashant openly admits to this luxury. He says his father’s wealth freed him up to follow his conscience. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this as mere luxury. Lesser men would have made different use of their fortune. Only a rare person bends privilege to service the idea of public good.

All this makes the current controversies around the Bhushans doubly complex. At a purely personal level, no father-son duo deserves more benefit of doubt than them. What makes the situation difficult is that, by their own actions and rhetoric, the Bhushans have entwined their personal selves almost inextricably with the high philosophical principles and moral absolutes they espouse. Almost to the point of creating synonyms. This is what they are being judged against today: absolute values.

Prashant Bhushan has championed causes others would readily have abandoned, amplifying the meaning of democracy

It is almost certain that the infamous CD is fabricated. The forensic team the Bhushans sent it to have already endorsed this. Commissioned by interested parties, this does not automatically exonerate the Bhushans, but it’s probably only a matter of time before an independent forensic team comes up with the same conclusion.

The cynical timing of the CD — especially if it is proved to be fabricated — is a terrible and shocking new low for Indian public life. But what muddies the situation against the Bhushans is that Shanti’s first response was to deny that he had ever spoken to Mulayam or met Amar Singh. Given that it appears he did counsel the former — and perhaps appeared at least once — in the high-profile Bahujan Samaj Party anti-defection case (2006), how is one to read his instant denial? It could indeed be true that he had forgotten, but is that an excuse civil society — or the Bhushans themselves — would have allowed anyone else?

The other two controversies are even more complex. The notice about the alleged stamp duty evasion for a supposedly undervalued property owned by the Bhushans in Allahabad was issued by revenue officials in Uttar Pradesh and predates the Lokpal agitation. Quite apart from the fact that Chief Minister Mayawati can hardly be said to be acting on the bidding of the Central government.

The same goes for the petition challenging the allotment of farmland in Noida, where Shanti and his other son Jayant are said to have got two splendid plots. Former additional solicitor general Vikas Singh claims he has been contesting the arbitrary nature of these allotments in general for the past eight months and had asked them all to be cancelled and put on auction instead. The question doubters are asking is why were the Bhushans willing to accept a land allotment that did not live up to exacting standards of transparency? Especially, when they were petitioners against Mayawati in two cases — the Taj Corridor case and the UP statues case — and this could be construed as a conflict of interest.(But some might ask Vikas Singh in turn: would he have petitioned to have the allotments cancelled if he had got a good plot instead of a bad one, merely on the grounds that the process was not transparent?)

No one has yet ascertained the full truth about these claims but to rail at all of it as just “smear campaigns” smacks of a sophism unworthy of the Bhushans. That is a recourse hard-nosed politicians take: society expects a higher standard from its samurai. Undoubtedly these things are being raked into public attention to embarrass the Bhushans who are both part of the Lokpal Bill draft committee. In a sense, it is inevitable. Concede the motives and timing as ordinary weapons of war, the moot point is, is there any grain of truth in it? That is what the Bhushans ought to be taking on frontally. They have been pushing for absolute virtues and absolute transparency. The Jan Lokpal Bill they drafted embodied that vision. It wished to accrue tremendous powers to the Lokpal to curb corruption on the presumption that those who would wield that power would be immaculately virtuous. Essentially, it is that conception that is being challenged. Perhaps there is wisdom in that challenge. The idea of a lily-white reformer could well trip the reform itself.

NO RECENT upheaval has raised more philosophical and ethical dilemmas than the Anna Hazare movement and the Jan Lokpal Bill. Corruption is a malaise that eats at everyone. Yet, set aside the political class, this particular anti-corruption movement has divided even civil society sharply.

Everyone is agreed that India needs a strong Lokpal Bill. That the system needs a massive overhaul. But is the draft envisaged by this particular group of activists the ideal one? Is it really possible for someone to have absolutely no political affiliation or predilection, no moment of vulnerability, no prejudices? Will every small quotidian slip balloon into something massive and dark under its watch? Can we safely repose so much power in anyone? And why should corporates and individuals not be subject to the same scrutiny? Why are the proponents of this Bill saying that these five interlocutors being on the committee is non-negotiable? Do they not trust any other fellow travellers to keep the vision safe? Is this intransigence a good message for civil society to send out? Drawn into the dirt of the battlefield, will they morph into that which they combat?

Many Indians would vouch for the personal integrity of the father-son duo. But that cannot exempt them from scrutiny

These are discomfiting questions to ask. And on the tail of each of them, contending ones arise. What is the alternative? Must we resign ourselves to status quo? Can anyone push for drastic change without a towering sense of self? Was the draft Bill the Bhushans wrote driven by a legitimate impatience drawn from long years of watching a rotten political and judicial system up close?

This is an evolving story and there are no ready answers here. Many Indians — including us at Tehelka who the Bhushans have defended steadfastly through troubled times — would vouch for their personal integrity. But that cannot exempt them from either scrutiny or questions. The samurai must be held to the samurai code. And the correct lessons in fearlessness and humility drawn from it.

The story that follows tracks their crusading journey so far. Prashant and Shanti have not always shared the same prism of values, but now, impelled by the son’s idealism, as both move from courtrooms to the messier, more political, world of direct intervention, perhaps both will have to develop a newer skill set.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka