Having been through life’s quandaries at an early age, and then defying a series of odds to become the Attorney General of India, Goolam E Vahanvati is no stranger to sticky spots, says Brijesh Pandey
IN A profession full of booming baritones, Goolam Essaji Vahanvati is so soft-spoken his voice has to compete with the hum of the air-conditioner in his spacious office near India Gate, New Delhi. Even when he is agitated, as he now has reason to be, he pitches himself only a couple of decibels louder. The Attorney General has been accused by the Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) headed by BJP MP Murli Manohar Joshi of favouring Swan Telecom in the 2G spectrum allocation in 2008 and, to compound his alleged offence, directly giving advice to former telecom minister A Raja.
“What wrong have I done? Was I the one who gave the licence to Swan?” he asks agitatedly.
Adversity is no stranger to the man who, after years of struggle, rose to become the first law officer of the country. He had to support himself while doing his bachelor’s in law by teaching at Sophia College and St Xavier’s in Mumbai. His father died within a year of Vahanvati’s enrolling at the Bar. “At that time, the financial state of my family was not so good. I had no money to bury my own father. My uncle, who was very fond of my father, offered to pay. He was coming with the money in his shervani pocket, when he also dropped dead. I lost two father figures in a span of two hours. Nothing could be worse but I never cried,” he says. Talking about it now, though, his voice quivers a little.
From 1976 to 1980, the young Goolam worked almost 18 hours a day. “I didn’t have a chamber, so I worked from the Bombay High Court library,” he recalls with a smile. “I used to come at 9.15 am, unlock and clean the library before its official opening time of 10 o’clock. By 10.15, the staff would start arriving. I had three lockers there but no office space. At any point, I was working on 19-20 drafts. I used to dispose of five drafts a day, leaving the rest on the long table. Every morning, I would find my briefs scattered all over the library by jealous lawyers, who would resent my using the facilities.”
In 1981, Vahanvati became the first Indian lawyer to be enrolled by special dispensation to appear for a case in England. In 1990, he became a senior advocate and took up several aviation cases, including the Bengaluru crash on 14 February the same year. In 1999, he became the Advocate General of Maharashtra, which got him several high-profile cases, including the one against Enron that resulted in the closure of the Dabhol power plant. In 2000, he appeared in high-profile default cases on behalf of the regulatory body of the stock exchange, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). One such case was that of Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra of First Global. “Initially, I appeared for the SEBI in this matter but when they tried to revive the charges in March 2004, it was clear to me that they were unverifiable,” he says. “The day I told SEBI I am returning their brief, I bumped into Shankar and Devina on the street. We exchanged pleasantries and when they asked if I would be coming the next day, I quietly told them that I had returned the brief. Then I walked away.” Seven years later, the agitation he betrays is surprising for a veteran of many court battles.
As SG, Vahanvati appeared in every major case, including the TDSAT, now better known as the 2G scam
In 2004, Vahanvati moved to Delhi and was appointed Solicitor General of India. It took him time to find his feet in the Capital, but once he did, there was no looking back. In his top job, he appeared in virtually every major case, “including, unfortunately, the TDSAT (Telecom Disputes Settlement & Appellate Tribunal), now better known as the 2G scam,” he says, breaking into laughter. The Central Bureau of Investigation questioned Vahanvati about the legal opinion he gave as Solicitor General, that Raja’s adoption of the ‘firstcome- first-serve’ policy was fair and reasonable.
His regret for being embroiled in the 2G scam is understandable since now the entire phase of his career as Attorney General has also come under scrutiny from both the CBI and the PAC headed by Murli Manohar Joshi. The PAC summoned him for questioning. In the draft report that was leaked to the media in April before being presented to the Lok Sabha Speaker, there were several disparaging remarks against Vahanvati as Attorney General.
According to the report, “The Law Secretary, while deposing before the committee, has categorically stated that seeking direct opinion of the Solicitor General, bypassing the Ministry of Law and Justice, is not in line with the rules and procedures prescribed in this regard. The AG himself is of the opinion that the minister should not make references to any law officer directly. But it is intriguing that the Attorney General, when he was the Solicitor General himself, entertained a direct reference made by A Raja.”
According to Prashant Bhushan, senior advocate and a crusader against corruption, “Goolam’s role, which has emerged in the 2G case, is quite dubious. It certainly leaves him wide open to the charge that he was complicit with Raja in his attempt to abuse his position and authority in order to benefit some of the ineligible licensees.”
Vahanvati, however, refutes all the charges. According to him, “What I said on 7 January was in the context of the TDSAT case, for which I was appearing. In the lower court, there was no stay; in the Delhi High Court, there was no stay. They asked me: is there any stay? I said no. Then they showed me the press release, which was ‘first-come-first-serve’ that they had told Pranab Mukherjee also, and both of us said that this is the policy and we should follow it. Then they go and change it on 10 January as ‘first-comply-first-serve’, and then there is forgery and all…which I don’t want to go into.”
Warming up to the issue, Vahanvati elaborates: “In the written reply to the PAC, I told them since the matter was sub judice and since the licence had been issued over a year ago, I was of the opinion that at that stage it was not necessary to make any further references to the Ministry of Corporate Affairs as according to the Department, there had been full and exhaustive consideration of the facts of the case. I was not called upon to opine as to whether the application of Swan Telecom was proper or what the shareholding of Swan was. I have never cleared the application of Swan. I have not even seen the papers.”
THERE ARE many in his fraternity who vouch for his integrity. Eminent jurist Fali S Nariman says, “When he started off in law, I was one of the few people who predicted that he would reach the top of this profession and I am glad to say that he has. He is a man of great integrity. Criticisms like these are occupational hazards of lawyers.”
Concurs Rajeev Dhawan, noted constitutional expert. “Goolam is a diligent man of impeccable integrity, in the unfortunate position of having to defend a government, sometimes against impossible odds. We have some aggressive attorneys, some wily attorneys who could find solutions but he plays it straight. He may be wrong, which we all are at some point in time but he plays it straight without any doubt about his integrity”.
‘People are twisting what I told the PAC. This will make officials wary of advising the govt,’ says Vahanvati
Scandals apart, for someone occupying the position of Attorney General, Goolam Vahanvati is a man of immensely varied taste. From writing columns to horsebreeding, he has a range of interests. “For four years, I wrote a column for The Asian Age titled Legal and Other Affairs. It was hugely popular. Apart from this, I have written for the Taj magazine on the history of food, history of their restaurant; the year in which chicken was introduced in the menu, the year eggs became an option, or when they started serving tandoori chicken. But the hobby closest to my heart was horses. I was barely five years old when I was going to the Mahalaxmi race course in Mumbai. By the time I was 11, I could recognise every horse there. I knew every pedigree by heart.”
He has an interesting story to share about his favourite horse, and how it was killed. “Knight and Day was a horse I bred myself. I sent his mother, Princess Daisy, to be mated with a champion stallion called Everyday Second. Daisy had a ‘day’, Everyday had a ‘day’, so I called this horse Knight and Day. He was an incredible horse, unbeaten. Somebody wanted to stop him; one day they rubbed a potion in his hooves which makes the horse dull. He smelt it and didn’t run. But the mafia, which was making good money betting on him, wanted him to run and bribed the stable boy to give him an injection. The guy broke the vial — there were putrid fumes coming out of it — and he jabbed the horse with it. When Knight and Day started trotting towards the course, he fell down and started thrashing — he was like that for the next 18 hours. We tried to revive him but in vain. A part of me died that day. My children never went back to the race course again. I gifted all my 17 horses to friends free of cost.”
Coming back to his present trauma, he says, “People are distorting everything I said to the PAC.” This, he says, will make government officials diffident about giving advice to the government as a few years later “it might come back to haunt us”.
His reasoning is convincing, but then, which lawyer, standing witness for himself, won’t make you feel that all the force of logic is behind him and he’s telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.