Goolam Vahanvati: Attorney general or mob lawyer?

"It has constantly pained and anguished me that I have had to face unnecessary indignation on account of your intolerant temperament towards the conscientious discharge of duties especially in high profile cases. I have held you in great esteem as leader of our team but your flip flop attitude towards me has always put me under unnecessary pressure." wrote Additional Solicitor General and CBI counsel Harin Raval in his now public letter to Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati.

Buried in those convoluted words is a simple fact: Vahanvati lied about his knowledge of Coalgate in his testimony to the Supreme Court, and therefore forced Raval to do the same.

Goolam Vahanvati. Image from Ibnlive

Goolam Vahanvati. Image from Ibnlive

Raval's revelation is explosive and a ringing validation of a brilliant, impeccably researched Caravan profile of the man now making headlines: Goolamhussein Essaji Vahanvati. The rich details in the 8-page cover story by Krishn Kaushik are fascinating, but more noteworthy is the process of corruption it describes. Where media coverage focuses relentlessly on the ends of the corruption — companies and politicians who profit from these multi-zeroed scams — Kaushik tells us how it works, as in what levers are pulled, on what authority, in what ways. [Read it in its entirety here]

As the narrative moves through the various scandals, certain patterns begin to emerge, gaining credibility with sheer repetition. For instance, a clubbing together of names: Anil Ambani, Pranab Mukherjee, Vahanvati. In Coalgate, they are connected by one word: Sasan.

One portion of the [2001 CAG draft] report focused on Anil Ambani’s Reliance Power, which had been given permission to divert surplus coal allocated for an ultra-mega power plant (UMPP) at Sasan in Madhya Pradesh to another power plant nearby. The CAG later estimated that the financial benefit of this concession for Reliance Power would be Rs. 29,000 crore (Rs 290 billion) over a period of 20 years.

After the CAG draft report was circulated, an empowered group of ministers headed by Pranab Mukherjee asked Vahanvati for an opinion on whether the Sasan decision had provided an undue concession to Reliance. Officials from the coal and power ministries argued that the decision should be cancelled, but Vahanvati disagreed. In April 2012, the empowered group of ministers cited Vahanvati’s opinion—which the Financial Express called “a big relief to the government”—and opted to allow Reliance to go ahead.

In the case of 2G — where the beneficiary was Anil Ambani's front company Swan Telecom — the nexus bobs back into sight in the form of a meeting Vahanvati again told the SC never took place (though an RTI shows otherwise):

Still, in the first week of December 2007, Raja went to meet Pranab Mukherjee, then the foreign minister, who chaired an existing group of ministers on spectrum issues. He was accompanied by Vahanvati, who as solicitor general was defending the DoT in a lawsuit filed by the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI)...

The meeting was a brief one, and no minutes appear to have been prepared. But Vahanvati presented Mukherjee with a note, detailing the government’s response to the COAI lawsuit, which was later sent by Mukherjee to the prime minister. Under the heading “The issue of new telecom licenses”, Vahanvati described the “first-come, first-served” policy in a way that left room for Raja’s alteration, stating that applicants would be granted their licenses and spectrum once they complied with the letter of intent (LOI) conditions. A letter sent by Raja to Manmohan Singh on 26 December and copied to Mukherjee informed the prime minister that Raja had “several discussions” with Mukherjee regarding spectrum allocation, and that Vahanvati “was also called for the discussions to explain the legal position.

And that's how it works, over and over again. A specific minister pushes for certain actions that designed to grant political favor. Vahanvati as the government's counsel certifies these actions as legal, even participates in making amendments to facilitate the same. Mukherjee acts as a facilitator, exerting pressure on those below, and acts as a conduit to and at times, a representative of the powers above, specifically the Prime Minister's office.

This is the legal equivalent of moneylaundering, where illegal actions are turned into lawful policy. The Attorney General seems no longer to be the government's counsel but quite literally the government's "fixer," the kind usually employed by mafia dons.

Vahanvati's greatest asset, according to Prashant Bhushan, is his willingness "to give convenient advice, suiting a minister or ministers, who use it as a cover for all their dubious dealings, just as Raja did.” An unnamed corporate lobbyist puts it more bluntly: “He’s the government’s alibi.”

His other great virtue appears to be his willingness to flirt with perjury in the highest court of the land. The meeting with Raval, law minister Ashwani Kumar,  and CBI Director Ranjit Sinha is just one example of Vahanvati's fast-and-loose relationship with the truth. As Kaushik reveals, Vahanvati over and again has barefacedly denied reading files or attending meetings — despite witnesses and a paper trail that indicates otherwise.

There is far more in Kaushik's essay including Vahanvati's bizarre role in the CBI disproportionate assets case against Mulayam Singh Yadav. He also offers a personal portrait of Vahanvati as a man who seems compulsively inclined to lie about who he is, be it about his expensive pen collection or his love for the lavish lifestyle. You can and must read Inside Man in its entirety here.

PS: According to Mumbai Mirror, Caravan received legal threats "from the office of a top Mumbai-based industrialist purportedly close to the legal eagle." No prizes for guessing who that may be.

Updated Date: Apr 30, 2013 14:56 PM

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