Some Constitution-makers had proposed that the post of Attorney General should be a political post and the law minister could act as one. But the majority was opposed to it and the resolution was frozen. During the Nehru regime, the proposal was revived, but again withdrawn in the face of stiff opposition. Thus, constitutionally speaking, the law officer is non-political like his counterpart in England, and unlike the one under the US Constitution.
It is thus ironical to see Milon Banerji, the present Attorney General, being Bofored for sacrificing the dignity of the high office on the altar of political expediency and acting at the behest of the law minister and the ruling party. Every government chooses attorney generals who are sympathetic to their philosophy and every change of government sees a change in this constitutional post. Banerji, who is four months short of completing 80 years, has been lucky to reign the longest as a law officer. His bad luck is that controversy never left him all these years.
Two momentous cases which created blood enemies are those related to Babri Masjid and Bofors. In the Ayodhya case, he warned the Supreme Court on November 24, 1992, when kar sevaks had started arriving at Ayodhya, that “the situation there had reached a boiling point and any inaction by the court would make the situation irreversible and the court will be faced with a fait accompli.” The court, however, preferred to believe the Kalyan Singh government which gave a diamond-hard assurance that the mosque would be protected. The chief minister did not keep his word, his lawyer apologised to the court and Singh himself was convicted for contempt of court. Banerji continued to appear in the case, defending the law taking over Babri Masjid and the adjacent areas.
The other major case, which compromised his reputation in the eye of the media, is that of Bofors pay-off scam. At various stages of this 24-year-old kickback scandal, his role in giving advice to the government was reviled, the latest being the withdrawal of the Red Corner Notice against Ottavio Quattrocchi. Though the controversy might have contributed to the debacle of the Congress, he survived the Narasimha Rao regime and his talent for giving apt advice was discovered by Manmohan Singh once again, who made him the Attorney General.
Being inured to withering attacks, he gave more advice in political cases, like in the Taj corridor case. He did not find anything wrong against Chief Minister Mayawati and the Supreme Court shelved the probe against her.
He hardly ever tried to explain his views to the critical media. In fact, he is blamed for being ‘invisible’ even in the courts. Though he comes to his third-floor office in the Supreme Court regularly, he hardly steps down to appear in any case. Even the judges are not getting his assistance, and they have often asked ‘where is the Attorney General?’ Sometimes the court issues notice to the Attorney General in important cases like inter-state water disputes. Then he makes short appearances. The majority of advocacy work is passed on to Solicitor General G E Vahanvati, and a favourite Additional Solicitor General, Gopal Subramaniam. Banerji’s forte seems to be giving appropriate advice to the government at the appropriate time.
Born on September 27, 1929, to the country’s distinguished academician, Prof A C Banerji, who had been the vice-chancellor of Allahabad University and president of the Indian Science Congress, Milon got his LLM degree in 1953 from Cambridge University and was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn. He returned to India and started practice in the Supreme Court in 1960. His mother, Probha Banerji, was the first honourary woman magistrate in India.