Spotting Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal in the morning flight to Kochi from Delhi, the first thought that would have crossed the mind of any presumptuous Malayali would be that of another busy lawyer using the Diwali vacation to frolic on the beaches of Kovalam and Varkala.
I have to admit that his black and white attire did escape my attention; but it was not long before I caught sight of other black bats around him giving away the purpose of his visit – the Kerala High Court. I later learnt from twitter that he was being flown in by the State government to defend the Vigilance Department in a desperate attempt to save the State Finance Minister – KM Mani.
Mani’s choice was hardly surprising; Sibal has been the “go to” lawyer for close to two decades. Way back March 31, 1997 this is what India Today had to say about him:
Kapil SIbal in the India Today article
“At 49, Kapil Sibal has moved into the hallowed list of ‘top seniors’, a stratospheric perch where lawyers command between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh per appearance, and clients thank their stars if their briefs are accepted.”
Kapil Sibal is perhaps the most multi-faceted lawyer in the history of independent India. Lawyer, government law officer, parliamentarian, party spokesperson, Cabinet Minister, a poet and last but not the least, an actor par excellence.
Born in 1948 in a refugee camp in Jalandhar, Sibal graduated from St. Stephens, Delhi, where he acquired a reputation in theatrics leading to the name – Kapilious Sibalious. His acting skills would later play a very big role in his rise to prominence at the Bar.
He followed his wife Nina Sibal to USA and completed his Masters from Harvard. He then worked in a law firm in USA – Cole & Deitz – before returning to India to set up his practice here (a pattern his son Amit Sibal would also follow). Sibal the lawyer first came into prominence when he secured a victory for Mohiuddin Malik, the expelled speaker of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly. A Senior Advocate termed it the birth of a North Indian star – signalling the end of monopoly enjoyed by Bombay and Madras lawyers in Supreme Court.
Senior Advocate designation in 1983 by the Delhi High Court, a number of high profile cases, and a short stint as Additional Solicitor General during the tenure of VP Singh government made him a known face in the Delhi legal circle.
But it was the impeachment proceedings against Justice V Ramaswami in 1993 that shot Sibal into limelight. Representing Ramaswami, Sibal became the first non-parliamentarian to address both the house of the Parliament. Subsequently, his standing as a lawyer shot up.
As India Today puts it,
“Three years ago, Sibal set a new landmark when he defended his client, Justice Ramaswamy, successfully against impeachment on the floor of Parliament.
Sibal, though respected for years as a lawyer endowed with an exemplary persuasive skill, could enter the super league only in the ’90s, after that dazzling performance as Ramaswami’s defender.”
There was no looking back.
In 1996, he contested the Lok Sabha elections for the first time without success. However, by the end of the decade, Sibal had cemented himself as a politician too and aside from his Rajya Sabha tenure, he also served as spokesperson for Congress party. Eventually, it culminated in his election to the Lok Sabha in 2004 and his long hiatus from law.
Ministerial positions in both the 2004 and 2009 Congress led UPA governments saw the complete transition of Sibal from a lawyer to a politician. With great power comes great responsibility and it was no different for Sibal. He virtually became the face of Congress party in the second half of the 2009 term when the government was rocked by scam after scam. However, the low point of his ministerial tenure also came during that time when he allegedly tried to usher in internet censorship culminating in popular sentiment against the ruling dispensation.
He had once said that law is his profession while politics is his passion. And it was not long before the “profession” beckoned him once again. After a heavy loss in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Sibal, at 66, donned the gown once again. After a decade of absence from the Bar, his re-entry, however, was not into any “hallowed list”, but into a class apart.
This exclusionist one-man group is unarguably the most sought after lawyer today, thanks in part to many of his contemporaries choosing to serve the new government as law officers and absence of certain others from the Bar and the country. He is also, arguably, one of the most expensive lawyers in the country.
Since his return to practice in mid – 2014, Sibal has made his way to the pinnacle of the profession. Running from one courtroom to another on miscellaneous days, he has replaced the current Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi in that avatar.
With some of the most prolific corporate clients in his kitty, Sibal is giving another Senior Advocate, Abhishek Manu Singhvi a run for money. The Sahara Group, Jindal Steel, Sun TV and N Srinivasan are a few in that list. However, defending politicians, especially those from the Congress party, sets him apart from other lawyers who restrict themselves either to corporate cases involving big stakes or to Constitutionally relevant cases.
Manmohan Singh, Digvijay Singh, Teesta Setalvad, Hardik Patel are a few examples of those who have gone to Sibal for their cases in the Supreme Court.
The crammed schedule has, however, come with its share of ups and downs including a number of confrontations with the Bench. While Justice Khehar, refused outright to accommodate him when he sought permission for attending another case, Justice Dipak Misra recently adjourned a case because Sibal left midway during the arguments. Both the judges were very critical of Sibal’s conduct on those occasions.
Whether Sibal can be counted as a successful politician or not is for political pundits to decide. However, his exploits in court has left him the undisputed king among his peers. Whether this comeback to the Bar is a permanent one or not, only time will tell.