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Meet Nanabhoy Palkhivala, A Lawyer-Economist Whose Budget Speeches Were More Popular Than The Finance Minister’s


Nanabhoy Palkhivala was a very popular Lawyer and Economist of his time. He used to analyze the Budget and explain the Budget to the masses through his speeches. As per The Paperclip, his speeches were more popular than the Finance Minister’s Budget speech.

His vision and analysis were so popular and loved by people that in 1983, Brabourne Stadium was booked to accommodate an audience of more than 20,000.

Nanabhoy Palkhivala was a lawyer, jurist, expert in constitutional law, public finance, and taxation, educationist, diplomat, and statesman.

Nanabhoy had applied for the position of English professor at Bombay University. But the university then rejected him. After being declined by the university, he enrolled himself at Government Law College, Bombay.

He started practicing in 1944. He joined the chambers of the legendary Sir Jamshedji Kanga. His chamber was a nursery for many great lawyers. In 1946 he passed the Advocates (O.S) examination, standing first and securing the highest marks in every subject.

He was called to the Bar in 1946, and his rise at the bar was momentary.

He used to work out Kanga’s opinions. When Kanga saw his first draft of opinion, and on learning that it was the first time the gentleman was drafting one, Kanga was very appreciative and encouraging. In a particular case, Kanga read the opinion drafted by Nanabhoy and made a modification on a certain point. The solicitor was pretty delighted, although he expressed some scepticism on one point—the one where Kanga had made the modifications. Kanga was kind enough to inform the solicitor that Nanabhoy had written the entire opinion, and his only contribution was the one modification he made.

His focus was on Commercial and Tax law. He was an eloquent barrister.

When he was just 29, he wrote the book named “The Law and Practice of Income Tax.” He ascribed the co-authorship of the book to his senior whom he used to worship. Still people knew that the efforts were all his own. The book was all about a model of precision, brevity, and lucidity, typical of his exposition of the law in the courts.

In 1950, when the first edition was in stands, J.V. Fitzgerald, an eminent English lawyer reviewing it said: “To write about the complicated subject of income tax as clearly as the authors do is in itself an achievement and the welcome which the book deserves is heightened by the admirable English style in which it is written and by the occasional flashes of humor with which the learned and distinguished authors have enlightened the grim topic.”

The book went through numerous editions and quickly established itself as the go-to resource for the subject. When hearing about income tax, Chief Justice Chagla referred to it as “the book”; frequently, when a tricky legal issue emerged on which precedents were silent, he would ask, “What does the book say?

Nanabhoy’s big break came very early, in 1948-49. In P.V. Rao vs. Khushaldas Advani, (AIR 1949 Bom 277) a case under the infamous Bombay Land Requisition Act, he was only the junior counsel for the petitioner. He had to reply to the arguments of the Advocate General for the respondent Government. And about the same, he was informed only the previous evening, so, he just had a night to prepare himself. Still, the next morning he managed to present entirely new arguments and was able to persuade the Court to issue a writ of certiorari against the State Government- the first of its kind in the country. When the case ended, Advocate General Amin told Nanabhoy, “I did not object to your presenting new arguments in your rejoinder because I could see you were building your career.”

Not many but few people supported Nanabhoy in his career. when the chamber next to Kanga’s fell vacant Chief Justice Chagla gave it to Nanbhoy and he shifted to his own chambers. Many did not like it then, but Chagla turned out to be right.

From 1957 to 1994, he analyzed Budget Speeches. In the 1980s, he gave his budget address at Brabourne Stadium because of his popularity, which surpassed that of the Finance Ministers. He often quoted statistics off his head, without a single note. While arguing cases or delivering speeches or the prestigious Tagore Law Lectures, he had no notes with him. The same thing happened when he came before the International Court when he presented India’s case verbally using a meticulously prepared text that had been ingrained in his extraordinary memory. He hardly marked or underlined anything in the briefs he argued. But he had a quite flexible memory, as after the cases ended he deliberately erased all the data relating to that particular case from his mind. His mind was a storehouse of apt quotations and statistics and he did not want to overburden his memory.

He immediately responded, “It is mostly God-given,” when asked if his incredible recall was innate or learned. It was also partially grown.

His study of the Budget recommendations in the Finance Bill became a national event. He performed it yearly beginning in Bombay on a limited scale from 1957 to 1994. Later on, his budget lectures were significantly larger in scope and held in numerous additional locations. He spoke with wit and humor and rattled off numbers, facts, and statistics without missing a beat. It is not well known that these impromptu statements were preceded by arduous and in-depth preparation, much like in Winston Churchill’s case.

Nanabhoy employed a methodical and consistent approach in each of his court cases. On the basis of a thorough analysis of the facts and compartmentalization of the legal difficulties, he would next develop his arguments for the court. Whether it was the Supreme Court, the High Courts, or Tribunals across India, this academic prowess combined with skilled and convincing advocacy worked like magic and accomplished wonders over the years.

When the Allahabad High Court invalidated the then-prime minister Indira Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha in 1975 due to corruption, he volunteered to represent her. He took her case even though he didn’t agree with many of her economic policies because he thought the judiciary shouldn’t be able to remove an elected person on what, in his opinion, were insufficient legal grounds. After obtaining a stay in her favor, he quickly dismissed her lawsuit after she had declared an emergency.

Also Read: Veteran Lawyer And Former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan Passes Away

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