That India’s new Attorney General, Ghoolam Vahanvati, has come first in every exam he has taken (except his first year at law college, when he came second, because ‘the son of someone influential came first’) shouldn’t be held against him. Despite blandishments by his science teacher at school — did he really want to waste his time being a ‘liar’ — Vahanvati refused to consider any profession but law. His father, the man he loved and admired the most in the world, was a lawyer in the Bombay High Court. Even before he had completed his studies, he was holding classes at Sophia College in the morning and St Xavier’s in the evening, teaching Modern European Political Thought, Political Science and Constitutional History. It seemed for a time that, as he came first in the university in 1972, he would be unstoppable.
But then came the first blow of his life. On May 4, 1975, Vahanvati’s father came home, said he wasn’t feeling so good and fell down, never to open his eyes again. Now Vahanvati had to support himself and his family. His family was an anachronism. They were Bohra Muslims, but poor Bohra Muslims. You can hear the tremor in his voice when he recalls those days: he didn’t have money to pay for his father’s burial and the “only person who has really helped me in my life was my father’s younger brother. I don’t know what we would have done without him.”
Others helped this bright young man, reinforcing his faith in the goodness of human beings, by and large. He used to work 18 to 20 hours a day and had no chamber, so he would work in the Bar library. “The library opened at 10.00 am. Every day, I would arrive at 9.15, trudge up three floors to the home of the Court Keeper, get the keys, open the library and sit and work there, sometimes till 7 pm, sometimes 8. Fali Nariman was so good to me, he used to pass on work. I’ve worked with the best law brains in the country — Ashok Sen, Soli Sorabji, Ashok Desai — I am so grateful for what they taught me,” he says.
Vahanvati is a nationalist to the core of his being. “I am Muslim and I have been asked several times: where is your loyalty? I always say I am made of Indian dust and I will go back to Indian dust.” He has represented India at the United Nations thrice. And Godhra? “It is not that Godhra happened or that we had riots. It is that civil society stood up and fought what was wrong. It showed that systems are still working,” he said.
He believes that, in all of Asia, India is the only country which has functioning rule of law. “Look around you: Singapore, Thailand, Pakistan, Burma.... Where do you have rule of law? On upholding Fundamental Rights, the record of the Indian judiciary has been really fantastic”.
Vahanvati has fought some pretty challenging cases. He argued before the nine-judge bench hearing the case on the Ninth Schedule, Kuldip Nayyar’s challenge to the amendment to the Representation of the People’s Act with regard to the Rajya Sabha, the tainted ministers case, and the reservation for OBCs in higher education in the Ashok Kumar Thakur case. He appeared as amicus curiae in the MP Local Area Development Scheme and for Union of India/CBI in the matter relating to the power of court to suo motu transfer investigation to the CBI without the prior consent of the state government concerned. The judgment is awaited in both cases. He thinks that the Enron case — the termination of the power purchase agreement by the Maharashtra State Electricity Board with Enron and later Dabhol — was one of the most difficult ones, where the issue was reference to an international arbitrator.
Vahanvati is a gentle person with old-world courtesies, and not as well known in Delhi as he is in his native Mumbai. But his peers speak highly of him. They also hint at differences between him and the former Law Minister, HR Bharadwaj, when he was Solicitor General. With this background and an excellent spoken reputation, expect to see some action in the courts.