Courtside with Swamy
In the case of Subramanian Swamy vs Sonia Gandhi and Others, on the issue of National Herald’s ownership, Swamy is the main cast. The rest are a sideshow
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With senior advocates Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and P. Chidambaram on one side, you would think there is little else that could catch the judge’s attention. But it is no ordinary courtroom where you have Subramanian Swamy—politician, professor, and serial litigant—asking the judge for a mere hour to make a presentation to prove his case.
“The stalwarts can argue all day—I just need an hour to make my point,” he politely tells the judge. A few hearings later, the judge is convinced and quashes an appeal against trial court summonses issued to Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi to appear before the court. This means that on 19 December Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are required to be personally present at 3pm at Patiala House courts.
Swamy is a man who turns a courtroom into a carnival. It isn’t just another day in the court for a reporter when he is spotted in the corridors. His Supreme Court lawyer wife, Roxna Swamy, is present in most hearings involving her husband along with a junior lawyer. Dressed in his trademark white kurta-pyjama, flashing an Apple watch, he engages young lawyers for a chat before the proceedings begin. Journalists get a tete-à-tete afterwards.
When he begins to talk, one cannot miss the composure and certainty in his voice and the frankness in his words. The lawyers on the other side and Swamy take turns to accuse each other of malice.
Every Swamy session is replete with inside jokes, innuendos and friendly jibes. One of the first hearings in the high court was a lesson on Nehru’s legacy, with Sibal and Swamy nitpicking with each other over the editorial values of the National Herald. The retelling of the newspaper’s story—its debt and subsequent corporate transactions—has been done without fail to recall relevant anecdotes (including how and why Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda turned Sam Pitroda).
Apart from the Gandhis, four others—Motilal Vora, the chairman of the board of directors of National Herald and Congress treasurer, Oscar Fernandes, Congress general secretary, journalist Suman Dubey and former National Knowledge Commission chairperson Sam Pitroda—have to appear before a court.
Based on a first information report (FIR) filed in Tilak Nagar police station in New Delhi, a trial court began hearing the case in 2013 and issued summonses to all the accused, notably the Congress President and the vice President. In 2014, the accused moved the high court seeking to quash the summonses. While they were at it, the accused also asked the court to quash the case in the lower court.
Justice P. Vaish started hearing the case and before he could pass an order, the dreaded roster in the court changed and the case was transferred to another judge. The new judge would begin hearing the case from scratch—this is every lawyer’s nightmare, more so in a politically charged case for a layman (legalese for non lawyer. Swamy of course is now layman) arguing the case. You have to explain to the judge why it is imperative for the trial to go on and why it is absolutely necessary to have the accused present in court in all the hearings.
Meanwhile, Swamy also approached the Supreme Court asking for speedy disposal of the case, invoking constitutional provisions. ‘Leave no court unturned’ could very well be his mantra but the court rejected this premise.
The Gandhis were seeking constant adjournments in the high court, which is normal in cases argued by top gun lawyers. The court and their schedule have to work in tandem. However, that doesn’t seem the case with Swamy in spite of his busy schedule.
He appeared before the Supreme Court religiously in the case, challenging the constitutional validity of defamation as an aggrieved party against whom a number of defamation suits have bene slapped, notably by the J.Jayalalitha-led Tamil Nadu government. In the hearings which continued for over a month, the judge noted Swamy’s absence once but his junior was quick to point out that Swamy was in fact in Guwahati high court that morning fighting another defamation suit against him. For someone who could make a career out of toppling big names in court, this again must be normal.
A case of dishonest misappropriation of property, cheating and criminal breach of trust has been made against the accused. Their lawyers argued that the necessary ingredients of the alleged crimes are absent and they cannot apply. Judge Sunil Gaur said in his order on 7 December that at this stage, the “species of criminal offence need not be seen”.
The focus now shifts back to the trial court. Judge Lovleen will now hear the case as the roster has changed once again but the theatrics of this case will continue.