Sword of Damocles
- Sachidananda Murthy K S
Story Dated: Sunday, May 5, 2013 17:6 hrs IST
The fighting amongst the topmost law officers of the government has dented the image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as an administrator very much. Despite having a galaxy of lawyers in his cabinet like P Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal, the prime minister has been having trouble finding a reliable minister for the sensitive ministry during the second term of UPA.
While H R Bharadwaj, the Congress insider, managed the law portfolio for five years, he was shunted out as governor of Karnataka when Singh returned to power in 2009. Another insider who was shunted to a Raj Bhavan was national security adviser M K Narayanan. Both Bharadwaj and Narayanan were known for their skills at managing different sets of people, and were regular troubleshooters. Bharadwaj, who had been Minister of State for Law in the Narasimha Rao government in 1990s, has always boasted that he had close links with the higher and middle judiciary, and that he avoided confrontations with the judiciary.
From 2009, Singh has had three law ministers in Veerappa Moily, Salman Khurshid and Ashwini Kumar, all professional politicians who also have law degrees. The law minister is the key person handling all the litigation of the government through the Attorney General, Solicitor General and other law officers.
Interestingly, the law ministers in UPA2 did not have a say in the appointment of the top officials, who were cleared by Singh and Congress leadership. Thus G E Vahnavati, who was solicitor general in the first UPA government became attorney general, while Gopal Subramaniam became the Solicitor General.
Both of them have high connections with the Congress leadership. Vahnavati has been there in the centre of controversy over his advise given to Communications Minister, A Raja in the 2G spectrum allotment case, and has even given evidence in a trial court. Vahnavati is now involved in a public row with Haren Rawal, who resigned as Additional Solicitor General, over the controversial vetting of CBI report on coal allocation scam to the Supreme Court by Ashwini Kumar. The CBI director has admitted that the report was shown to Vahnavati in the presence of Ashwini Kumar, and yet Rawal claimed he misinformed the Supreme Court on the advice of Vahnavati.
Moily passionately believed in judicial reforms, which meant changing the way judges were appointed. He pushed hard for a national judicial commission, where selection of judges of High Courts and the Supreme Court would be done by a large selection committee including politicians and judges, whereas, now the judges are only selected by judges. Subramaniam resigned when the government appointed Rohinton Nariman to represent it in the 2G case, when Subramaniam was already in-charge.
He had serious differences over the headmaster attitude of Moily. Interestingly, Rohinton Nariman, who became Subramaniam's successor, resigned alleging that Ashwini Kumar had tried to boss over him. Even Mohan Parasaran, the present Solicitor General, has criticised Vahnavati for showing lack of teamwork in the legal team. Khurshid did not have an easy relation with the top legal team, and then he was promoted to the external affairs portfolio.
With the sword of uncertainty hanging over Ashwini Kumar and Vahnavati over their extra interest in CBI investigation into a case involving prime minister's handling of the coal portfolio, the law ministership has become a chair of thorns.
Tailpiece: Interestingly, when noted lawyer Ram Jethmalani became Law Minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee government, he had told officials that he would conduct open court-like proceedings to hear private citizens and his own ministry officials. He had said he would give orders in public. Then he was told by the cabinet secretary that the government functions through files and meetings, and not as an open court. He did not last for long.