Indian Express , Sunday 14. 06.2009
It was his father’s sudden death in 1975—at 54, of a burst ulcer—that changed Goolam Vahanvati’s life. The family hardly had enough money for the burial but the young lawyer took charge and decided that he and his sister would not stay home for an endless mourning period. Three days after his father’s death, he was back at the Bombay High Court, beginning his day, as usual, with collecting the keys of the court library at 9.50 a.m. to devour legal tomes in between court appearances. He didn’t have a chamber in the court and would often put in 18 hours of work in a day.
Vahanvati, 60, who was last week appointed Attorney General—the first Muslim to be the Government’s senior-most law officer—now recalls the contribution of his father, Essaji Vahanvati, in shaping his legal career. Vahanvati, who would sit in court to hear his lawyer father argue cases, remembers an instance when his father had cited a page number for reference, and the judge had remarked, “We accept your word Mr Vahanvati. We do not need to check the reference.” “Those words had a deep impact on me,” says Vahanvati, whose son Essaji is named after his father and works in London as a non-litigant lawyer. “Years later, in the Supreme Court, when judges told me during cross-questioning that they believed what I had said, I knew I had picked up the best of my father’s court craft. That is why my advice to younger members of the legal profession still is: never mislead a court.”
Vahanvati also acknowledges the role that several legal eagles under whom he trained played in his ascendancy—from being appointed Advocate General of Maharashtra in 1999 to Solicitor General in 2004 and now, Attorney General. His longest stint—almost five years—was under the watchful eye of Fali Nariman and later under Soli Sorabjee, Ashok Desai and Ashok Sen.
He admits that as the outgoing Solicitor General, though his name was doing the rounds as the “front-runner” for the post of Attorney General, it was only after the Prime Minister called him last week for a discussion that he knew the Government was serious. “The PM wanted to know my views on judicial reforms. It was later that the Law Minister telephoned me and told me about my appointment and I don’t think my being a Muslim had anything to do with my elevation,” he says.
He says that with an assurance from the Prime Minister himself that there would be no resource crunch for the passage of judicial reforms, he is very enthusiastic about starting his stint as AG. “The Law Minister is also not one to make hasty statements on serious legal issues.”
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There is an anecdote that close friends of Vahanvati tell you when you ask them what kind of man he is. Last year, speaking before a select gathering, Vahanvati, then SG, shared his simple plan to check corruption. “Just organise a candlelight vigil outside the house of a corrupt official,” he suggested, adding that the results would be there for all to see within one week. “Let’s see how he moves around in society.”
This, his associates and colleagues say, is what Vahanvati is all about—simple, sharp and somebody who has no qualms about saying what he feels strongly about, whether in the government or outside.
What they, however, leave unsaid is that Vahanvati’s style is in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, Milon Banerjee. Vahanvati is expected to be the bridge between the executive and the judiciary, something that will not be too easy considering the ambitious plans of the government to make the judiciary accountable and bring transparency in the appointment of judges.
“The government couldn’t have selected a better person to be its top lawyer. Goolam has the ability to present the case without being too shrill. It is also important that he will be an active AG, who will argue for the government in important cases and not just depend upon other law officers,” notes a senior advocate who was an additional solicitor general in the last government.
A senior advocate since March 1990, Vahanvati is known to follow strict rules while being a government lawyer. His friends say he routinely turns down invitations for social dos as he doesn’t want to be caught in the wrong company or be accessible to networkers.
Vahanvati is a huge supporter of transparency in the government and is often heard talking about the good that the RTI Act has ushered in.
“He reads his brief very carefully and is prepared before the arguments begin. He refuses to be led by his assisting counsel. Many a time, he comes and sits in the courtroom at least half an hour before his case is to come up for hearing. While sitting there, he even offers advice to other government lawyers,” says a lawyer.
And, if the list of the cases he has won for the government as SG is any indicator, the faith reposed in him doesn’t seem undeserved. He argued the government’s stand on reservation for OBCs in higher education and the MP Local Area Development Fund. He also argued before the nine-judge Bench hearing the case pertaining to the Ninth Schedule, represented the government in the PIL filed by Kuldip Nayyar to challenge the amendment to the Representation of the People Act as well as the Delhi sealing cases.
Before being appointed SG in 2004, Vahanvati was Advocate General of Maharashtra from December 1999 to June 2004, where he handled various important cases, including the Enron cases and the stock market scam.
A topper in almost all the exams he sat for, Vahanvati is a teacher-turned-lawyer. While studying as a Tata scholar, he also lectured at St Xavier’s College and Sophia College, Mumbai.
An avid cricket fan, Vahanvati was given the responsibility by the International Cricket Council (ICC) to inquire into allegations of racism in Zimbabwean and South African cricket.
It’s not just law that engages his attention. “He can hold his own against anybody on the subject of rock music. These days he doesn’t get too much time to indulge in his love for music. Whenever he finds time, he listens to lounge music,” says his long-time associate Claude J. Mirinda.