It Could Happen to You

Truth behind Mukul Rohatgi stepping down as attorney general of India

Harish Salve’s name is doing the rounds as his successor.

 |  It Could Happen to You  |  4-minute read |   14-06-2017
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Mukul Rohatgi, the chief legal advisor to Narendra Modi’s government has put in his papers. “I want to return to my private practice,” he has explained, before leaving for England to enjoy some downtime and cricket.

He has also left behind a stunned silence. For, although attorney generals are appointed by the president of India, they are essentially the prime minister’s men (so far no woman has won that glory). Politics plays an important role in their appointment. They guard the interests of the state in judicial processes and resign only when a government falls.

India has had 14 attorney generals so far. Except for the 12th AG, Milon K Banerji, who died on the job (2009) and the eighth, G Ramaswamy, who quit over scam allegations (1991), almost every top law officer of the country has come and gone with the flow of political cycles.

Rohatgi, who has worked for five years as law officer under the Vajpayee government, represented Gujarat in the Supreme Court in the 2002 riots and fake encounter cases, is close to the PM and his Cabinet. “I have a good relationship with the government,” he has pointed out.

To some Supreme Court insiders, this was waiting to happen.

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He is too independent-minded. Those days of MC Setalvad (1950–1963), the longest-serving attorney general of the country standing up to PM Jawaharlal Nehru over corrupt ministers, threatening to resign from office, are well and truly gone.

Some hint at the way Rohatgi’s contract was renewed on June 3. With Prime Minister Modi out on his three-nation tour of Germany, Spain and Russia from May 29, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet had extended his term of service (along with that of solicitor general and the five additional solicitor generals) on an ad hoc basis, “until further orders”.

Why didn’t the PM sign before he left, ask some. Others pooh-pooh the idea: “That’s how governments work.” But the speculation refuses to die down that as AG Rohatgi’s biggest moment (or failure) was the year-long power struggle between the judiciary and executive over National Judicial Appointment Commission (NJAC) in 2015. The government’s defeat in the NJAC matter is something of a blot that he could not live down.

Some wonder if it is a case of wounded pride and hurt ego at his exclusion from the International Court of Justice battle with Pakistan on the Kulbhushan Jadhav case in May. As the first officer of law of the Modi government, why was he bypassed for Harish Salve, both contemporaries and competitors and among India’s top 10 most influential (and most expensive) lawyers?

Others point out that international law and platform are different ball games, hence not necessary that the AG has to represent India at the Hague. But it can’t be easy when PM Modi takes the lead in lauding Salve and his team.

There are speculations, too, on problems him being someone who would not want be a "rubber stamp" of the government. The first and the longest-serving attorney general of the country, MC Setalvad, was a legend — not just in law but also for courage. He had stood up to PM Jawaharlal Nehru and his Cabinet several times, over corruption charges of ministers, offering to resign from office.

Congress MPs had even raised questions on how could the AG turn out to be the prosecutor. But the profile of the AG has changed since then — from Niren De during the Emergency under PM Indira Gandhi to Goolam Vahanvati under PM Manmohan Singh. Did Rohatgi face his share of problems?

Then there is the question of money. Those days of a Setalvad charging a maximum of Rs 1,600 per hearing are truly gone. At Rs 16,000/- per case per day for suits, writ petitions, appeals and references as fee and allowances, it is too unremunerative to be a law officer today, especially for top-notch advocates used to charging anything between Rs 10 lakh to Rs 1 crore and more per hearing.

Meantime, Salve’s name is doing the rounds as the obvious contender for the post of attorney general. Sources close to Salve, however, have indicated that he has already refused it. Other names are of Constitution law expert KK Venugopal, senior advocate Arvind Datar, Gujarat advocate General Kamal Trivedi and solicitor general Ranjit Kumar.

Whoever takes charge finally, as the biggest litigant of the country the government needs the best and the brightest to defend its interests.

Also read: When Modi govt mocked itself at UN by calling India a minority-friendly democracy

Writer

Damayanti Datta Damayanti Datta @dattadamayanti

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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