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Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Nani Palkhivala, a brilliant mind, a remarkable man

Nani Ardershir Palkhivala ranks amongst the greatest intellectuals of modern India. He joined the Tata Group in 1961, became a director of Tata Sons at the young age of 41 years, and worked very closely with JRD Tata for over 30 years. He served as director of Tata Steel, Tata Motors, Indian Hotels, and as chairman of Tata Consultancy Services. But wait…who really was this remarkable man ?

Was he a lawyer, a taxation expert, a corporate leader, a diplomat, an economist or an orator par excellence ? Or was he one powerful, beautiful mind blending all these facets ? What made him so successful, and what can we learn from him?

At the heart of Nani Palkhivala’s success was that he was true to his beliefs, a man of absolute intellectual integrity. When Palkhivala had been recruited into the Tata Group, he had been given a dispensation to continue his private legal practice as well. In 1975, he agreed to defend the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, when the Allahabad High Court overturned her election to the Lok Sabha, on grounds of corruption. He decided to become her lawyer even if he disagreed with many of her economic policies – only because of his belief that the judiciary should not be permitted to dismiss an elected official on what were, in his view, inadequate legal grounds.

Palkhivala won a stay in Indira Gandhi’s favour, but when he heard shortly thereafter that she had declared a state of emergency, he felt outraged. This was, in his view, a subversion of the Constitution. So, at personal risk to himself, he decided to withdraw his brief as her lawyer. The Tata Group allowed Palkhivala to follow his own conscience, and to take this call. He spoke to the then law minister, and famously told him – “This is not negotiable. I am only informing you of my decision."

He brought this same intellectual integrity to the corporate boardroom, and to his famous budget speeches. As chairman of the Associated Cement Companies (ACC), he took difficult decisions that he firmly believed were in the right interests of good corporate governance. In his annual budget speeches, he would not hesitate to be intensely critical of the finance minister of the day, if his analysis revealed fundamental flaws in the budget document.

Because he was so candid, and also because he was such a powerful orator, Palkhivala’s annual budget speeches were legendary, and held the public spellbound. These speeches became so popular that they were eventually shifted, in 1983, to the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai, because no other venue in the city was large enough to accommodate the crowds. The famous cricketer Vijay Merchant once happily remarked – “Mr. Palkhivala has brought the crowds back to the Brabourne Stadium".

But these speeches also brought to the fore a second reason for Palkhivala’s success. Despite being such a towering intellectual, he reflected humility, and great respect for the people he interacted with, or addressed. He was always punctual, to the dot. Farokh Subedar, my senior colleague who has served the Tata Group for several years, tells me how people could literally set their watch by Palkhivala’s time of arrival for the budget address. He also recalls how Palkhivala would call up young people to sit with him on the dais, behind the chairs or wherever space was available, if he noticed that the stadium was overflowing. At Bombay House, the headquarters of the Tata Group, Palkhivala would always accompany his visitors to the lift, and see them off with due courtesy, notwithstanding the pressures on his time.

This invaluable and rare combination of intellect and humility was accompanied by his total commitment to hard work. At the young age of 29 years, he worked intensely for 12 to 15 hours each day, and this for several months at a stretch, to write his first book, “Law and practice of Income Tax", co-authored with Jamshed Kanga. This book has served as a veritable Bible for students and practitioners of taxation in India.

His insatiable capacity for hard work continued in later life, too. He would painstakingly research material for his annual budget speech, including detailed meetings with heads of Tata Companies, to hear their views. Interestingly, no multi-tasking for him. He would focus on one task at a time, relentlessly – sometimes, beginning a legal draft at 1030 pm. and completing it at 430 am. the next morning! His meetings were typically brief, and to the point, no wasting time.

But perhaps the most important reason Nani Palkhivala led such a fulfilling life was his lifelong desire to contribute to the community and the nation. He was a trustee of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and the Sir Ratan Tata Trust, and played a key role in guiding their philanthropic activities. For many years, he was president of the Forum of Free Enterprise, which advocated a progressive, liberal economic agenda for the country. His biggest gift to the nation was undoubtedly motivated by this desire too - the victory he won in the Kesavananda Bharati case in the Supreme Court of India, where he argued continuously and relentlessly for five months, to protect the citizen’s fundamental rights and the basic structure of the Indian Constitution.

This desire guided many of his personal actions too. Dr. S.S. Badrinath, founder of Sankara Nethralaya, Chennai, one of India’s largest charitable eye hospitals, recounts the story of him being invited to dinner by Nani Palkhivala in Mumbai. As Palkhivala was seeing the doctor to the car, after the meal, he slipped him a small envelope, saying this was a token contribution for the hospital. When the doctor opened the envelope, he saw Nani Palkhivala’s personal cheque for 2 crore! Later, when Palkhivala heard of a move to place a plaque in this hospital, commemorating his name and contribution, he protested and requested that the same be removed.

Palkhivala is a legend because he used his talents to the fullest, and for all the right purposes. He did so by living for what he believed in, by working very hard, respecting the people he worked with, and living his life with absolute grace and humility. These are the old fashioned, timeless values that made this man a phenomenon. These are values that each of us can take to heart too, in our own lives, in whatever we do.

Our nation is proud of Nani Palkhivala and his legacy. He is an inspiration to all of us.

(Harish Bhat is the brand custodian of Tata Sons. The article has been taken from LinkedIn where it was first published. Mint has made no changes to it.)

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