As Mukul Rohatgi declines appointment as next Attorney General, what does history tell us?

The Union Government is apparently in a dilemma, with senior advocate and former Attorney General for India,(AGI) Mukul Rohatgi declining to accept its offer to succeed the incumbent AGI, K.K.Venugopal, when the latter’s term ends on September 30.  Rohatgi, according to several reports, initially agreed to succeed Venugopal, but later changed his mind, for no particular reason.  

Rohatgi’s first term as AGI lasted from 2014 to 2017.  According to Indu Bhan, whose 2015 book, Legal Eagles: Stories of the top seven Indian lawyers throws light on Rohatgi’s professional success, Rohatgi was reluctant to accept the offer in 2014 as well.   ‘I was not hankering for the post.  I had a great practice….It didn’t matter beyond a point, and even if it would not have finally fructified….I knew it was a stumbling block and I was confident that I would emerge victorious’, Rohatgi was quoted as saying in her book.

Rohatgi also told Bhan that serving as the AG is one way of giving back to society or to the profession from which you have earned your name, fame, money and reputation.   He told her: “And these are not lifelong things – a lawyer practises for only about fifty years.  I have already put in thirty-five years.  If I put in forty or fifty years, out of which if I take five or ten years to give back to the profession, it’s not a big deal”. 

As Bhan narrates in her book, Rohatgi, the youngest occupying the post so far, did consider his appointment as the AGI on June 12, 2014 as a great achievement.  With a political shift, he said his task was indeed very daunting.  He considered his top priority, after taking over as the AGI, the task of streamlining litigation for the government in the courts. He suggested that this would involve efforts to ensure that superior courts were not flooded with frivolous and petty litigation, and to check that the government did not involve in inter-ministerial litigation.  

In 2014, Rohatgi justified his acceptance of the offer to become the AGI in the first Narendra Modi government on the ground that despite his soaring practice, he had the urge to give back to the profession – ‘a moral obligation’ as he put it to Bhan – which tilted the scales in favour of his decision.  

In 2022, even as he declines the offer to accept another term as the AGI, it is reasonable to infer that probably he no longer thinks that another term as the AGI would enable him to give back to the profession, and he found that there could be better ways of achieving the same objective.  

It is of interest to recall that India’s first AGI, M.C.Setalvad accepted the offer of appointment in 1949 with an intention to leave before completing his term, as he had his eyes on his private practice in Bombay.  It, therefore, makes sense to ask what changed Setalvad’s mind that he continued as AGI for almost 13 years.   

Setalvad had to quit after 13 years, because he could not get along with the then Union law minister, Ashok Kumar Sen, who resented his public criticism of the then Jawaharlal Nehru government, especially on administration of judiciary and appointment of judges. 

Setalvad’s independent legal advice on several matters went against the view of the then Government, and this made Sen to publicly declare the separation of the office of law minister and that of the AGI as a relic of the British Raj.  It was pointed out in a booklet, brought out by the then government, that it would be ideal to combine these two offices.  The AGI’s Constitutionally-envisaged role as an independent and non-political functionary was not appreciated by the Nehru government then when Setalvad quit after completing 13 years as the AGI.  Instead, the then Government referred to Setalvad’s private practice -as the law officers were allowed then to continue their private practice despite their appointment – and insinuated that he could not, as a result, argue many government matters.  Setalvad had recorded these for posterity in his memoirs, My Life: Law and Other Things. 

In 2017, Rohatgi had stated that he might reconsider his decision to quit as the AGI if the Prime Minister himself requested him to continue in the post.  As the Union Government then appointed Venugopal to the post, it is not clear whether the Prime Minister tried to persuade Rohatgi not to quit as the AGI.   

If in 2017, Rohatgi did not make the real reasons for his quitting as the AGI, public, his reluctance to share the reasons for declining the renewed offer from the Government continue to be a mystery, wrapped in an enigma.  

Perhaps taking a leaf from Setalvad’s illustrious career as the AGI, Rohatgi probably thinks that the space for AGI’s independent functioning under the present government is extremely limited.  Whoever succeeds Venugopal, the role of the AGI’s office, in giving independent, meaningful, and effective advice to the Government will be keenly watched.

Our most recent coverage

Venugopal’s tenure as the AGI has attracted considerable attention from The Leaflet’s contributors.  Here is one such, which has been the subject of investigation by Newsclick as well.  

Attorney General Venugopal complains against removal of his instructing counsel in the Maharashtra Wakf matter.  

Readers  may find this article in the Newsclick throwing more light on Venugopal’s protest.

Interestingly, Indu Bhan’s book mentions that Rohatgi’s grand parents used to stay at Altamount Road, which is where Antilia – Mukesh Ambani’s luxury home – is located.  Bhan mentions that the building, called Dilkusha, where Mukul’s maternal grandparents lived, had been razed to give way to Antilia. 

In their Newsclick article, authors Abir Dasgupta and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta point out that since its construction in the mid-2000s, Antilia has also been the subject of a long-running dispute over the legal validity of the sale of the land on which it stands, which earlier belonged to an orphanage of the Khoja Muslim community.  

The authors point out: “Venugopal’s second letter suggests that the “beneficiaries” of the sale of Wakf-held lands to third parties might be behind the events that have transpired…[and are] bent upon ensuring that the attorney general does not argue this case. 

One such beneficiary is Antilia Commercial Private Limited, the Reliance Group company that owns the land on which Antilia was constructed. The sale of the land by the Currimbhoy Ebrahim Khoja Orphanage Trust in 2002 is the subject of the legal dispute. The case has been clubbed with the Wakf Board of Maharashtra case, which Venugopal’s letter referred to. The outcome of the Wakf Board case will determine whether the sale of the land is legal or not.” 

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