January 16, 2004
New Delhi

PM's speech in honour of Nani A. Palkhivala

We have gathered here to honour Nani Palkhivala, a great Indian and a towering man of ideas and ideals, who left us slightly over a year ago.

How do I describe Nani? It was a difficult undertaking even when he was alive. And it hasn’t become easier now. Whichever way you describe him, it seems to leave out a part of his multi-faceted personality that merits admiration on its own count.

He was undoubtedly one of the greatest Constitutional lawyers of his time. But he had few parallels even in civil law, corporate law, taxation law and international law. It used to be said that he was the best law minister that India never had.

But it also used to be remarked that he was the best finance minister India never had. For long years, the annual Budget presentation in Parliament had a companion event, in the form of Nani Palkhivala’s exposition on the Budget. And it had gained as much prestige, and was as keenly looked forward to, as the main event itself.

But there was one significant difference between the two events. The finance minister invariably used to face a barrage of criticism – deserved or otherwise -- for his budget from opposition members, including myself. But when Nani spoke to a packed house in Brabourne Stadium, he used to receive only bouquets of admiration, never brickbats of criticism.

Nani, however, was not merely a giant intellectual. That in itself would not have made him a much-admired public figure. Rather, it was his deep commitment to democracy and values of public life, and his courage of conviction to stand up and be counted, that made him a national icon. In the Keshavananda Bharati case in the early ‘70s, he mesmerized the nation by the brilliance of his argument in the Supreme Court and by the crucial victory he won for India’s democracy. The landmark judgment in that case, while upholding the right of Parliament to amend the Constitution, laid down once and for all that its basic structure was beyond amendability by a brute majority.

Nani again endeared himself to lovers of democracy all over the country by his courageous opposition to the Emergency Rule. In those dark days the battle for democracy was fought by many people in many different ways. Many of us in politics, under the leadership of Jayprakash Narayan, fought it in prisons. But I have no doubt that one of the finest battles was fought in the courtrooms and that fighter was Nani Palkhivala.

Within a few months of the imposition of the Emergency, the government of the day made a plea before the Supreme Court that its verdict in the Keshavananda Bharati case should be overruled. Once again Palkhivala’s legal genius served as a shield to counter this grave attack on the Constitution. So powerful were his submissions that the Chief Justice simply dissolved the Bench and put paid to the attempt to alter the basic structure of our Constitution.

Justice H.R. Khanna, who also earned a hallowed name for himself in India’s legal history by his courageous role in those trying years, wrote this about Nani’s performance in that episode. “The height of eloquence to which Palkhivala had risen during the hearing has seldom been equaled and has never been surpassed in the history of the Supreme Court.”

Friends, my tribute to Nani would not be complete without my expressing deepest appreciation for his performance as India’s ambassador to the United States when I was the Minister of External Affairs in Morarjibhai Desai’s Government. The Prime Minister was very keen that we should have Nani as our envoy in Washington. Never one to take any political office or governmental assignment, he refused.

The responsibility then fell on me to convince Nani to agree. I met him and explained to him that we needed a capable person to improve the strained ties between the two great democracies in the world. I also argued that the nuclear treaty discussions between India and USA were at a crucial stage and they needed to be handled by a legal expert of his caliber. He responded positively to my request out of a sense of service to the nation.

History is witness to the fact that, in spite of not being a career diplomat, Palkhivala was one of India’s great ambassadors. In a brief stint of 21 months in USA, he delivered more than 170 speeches, including those in over 50 universities. With his erudition and power of personality, he contributed immensely to raising India’s prestige in the United States.

As many of you in this hall would testify, Nani’s oratory had both depth and beauty. He was as much at home with Shakespeare as with Sri Aurobindo. He was a universal man who was deeply rooted in the finest spiritual and cultural traditions of India. He was a passionate advocate of inter-faith harmony.

“The major task before India today,” he believed, “is to acquire a keener sense of national identity, to gain the wisdom to cherish its priceless heritage, and to create a cohesive society with the cement of Indian culture.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my abiding regret that I could not meet Nani in his last years. I had wanted to call on him when I had come to Mumbai for my knee operation, but he was too ill to receive me. I am happy that I am here to associate myself with this function when the Department of Posts has chosen to perpetuate the life and spirit of Nani Palkhivala through the release of a commemorative postage stamp.

Thank you.