Congress crisis manager for four decades, H R Bhardwaj dies at 83

Manoj C G, Apurva Vishwanath
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Hans Raj Bhardwaj (1937-2020)

From one of Indira Gandhi’s trusted lawyers in the post-Emergency days to Rajiv Gandhi’s sounding board on legal matters to Sonia Gandhi’s first choice as Union Law Minister when the Congress returned to power in 2004, Hans Raj Bhardwaj was a quintessential backroom operator and crisis manager for the grand old party for nearly four decades.

The 83-year-old died on Sunday after a cardiac arrest. His last rites will take place on Monday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister for Law and Justice Ravi Shankar Prasad have expressed their condolences.

Bhardwaj wore the label of Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist on his sleeve almost till the last years of his life. He courted many controversies, from the role he allegedly played to shield Rajiv Gandhi from the Bofors scandal to a controversial tenure as Law Minister in UPA-I. Towards the end, however, he had turned bitter to the Congress and nursed a grudge that he was sidelined.

Bhardwaj’s public life began in 1977 when Congress leader and former Haryana chief minister Bansi Lal introduced him to Indira Gandhi to handle some cases for her in trial courts during the Janata Party rule. The next five years saw his mercurial rise and he was elected to Rajya Sabha. In December 1984, the first-time MP was named Minister of State for Law and Justice, a post he held again from 1992-1996 when the Supreme Court changed the way judges are appointed to the higher judiciary by introducing the Collegium system. He was a Rajya Sabha member for the next 27 years till he resigned in 2009 to take over as Governor of Karnataka. He never contested any direct election.

Congress veteran Mani Shankar Aiyar remembered Bhardwaj’s role as one of the principal lawyers of Indira Gandhi, especially during the Shah Commission trial set up to probe excesses during the Emergency.

In fact, Bhardwaj accompanied Rajiv to Amethi when he filed his nomination papers in 1982. “He was often consulted by Rajiv,” Aiyar said.

During P V Narasimha Rao’s tenure as prime minister, the office of the Attorney General became a flashpoint between Rao and Bhardwaj. Though Milon Banerjee, who enjoyed Bhardwaj’s confidence, was appointed A-G, senior advocate and former attorney general

K Parasaran, who would have been Rao’s pick, appeared for the government in virtually every high-stakes case.

In 2004, when Bhardwaj returned as Law Minister in Manmohan Singh’s cabinet, Banerjee returned as A-G. Bhardwaj’s tenure in the Manmohan Singh government was beset with controversies, including the alleged ‘let off’ of main accused in the Bofors scam Ottavio Quattrocchi. After the Congress victory in 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Bhardwaj lost the Law Ministry.

In 2007, in the Ram Sethu case, an affidavit filed in Supreme Court that there was no scientific or historical evidence of Ram landed the government in a soup. Although Bhardwaj directed his law officers to withdraw the affidavit and held a press conference to assert the government’s belief in Ram, the damage was done.

In 2009, after being dropped from the council of ministers, he was appointed Governor of Karnataka. Controversies followed Bhardwaj to Raj Bhavan where he had a face-off with the then Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa.

He had twice recommended dismissal of the Yediyurappa government.

In fact, he had once said he was “eased out” because he “did not toe the Congress line” on “several matters”.

“Bhardwaj was a quintessential old-style politician who relied much less on theory and concept and much more on a wide network of personal relations which stood him in good stead,” Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi recalled.