Attorney General, Goolam Vahanvati, who has followed a long tradition of compliant AGs, by providing the MoD with a legal opinion that justifies turning down the army chief's petition for reconciling his birth date.
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Jan 12
Squarely in the crosshairs of the army chief, General VK Singh, is Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati. Already under fire in the 2G spectrum allocation scam, which the CBI is investigating, Vahanvati provided Defence Minister AK Antony the legal opinion that led to the MoD’s rejection of General Singh’s petition for his birth date to be recognised as 10th May 1951.
The army chief's writ petition, filed in the Supreme Court on Monday, directly challenges Vahanvati’s opinion. The attorney general’s opinion overruled the earlier decision of a senior law ministry official, who had opined last May that the army chief was correct. Vahanvati, however, ruled that the MoD was on solid legal ground in putting the army chief’s date of birth as 10th May 1950.
Gen VK Singh’s writ petition cites the favourable opinions of four former Supreme Court chief justices and a former Solicitor General to directly suggest that Vahanvati's legal opinion is flawed.
“The attorney general has given his legal opinion, but we obviously do not accept that,” says Puneet Bali, advocate for the army chief. “We will contest it in court. Since the matter is sub-judice, I will not say any more.”
The army chief’s close advisors point out that attorneys general historically, and Vahanvati in particular, have been far from unbiased.
After the Bofors gun scam hit the headlines in 1987, then Attorney General, K Parasaran, provided a notoriously convenient “opinion” for the government, ruling that Bofors could not be asked to reveal the names of those who had been paid money because of “customer confidentiality”. This, although Bofors had declared that they were willing to provide the names; and the government had repeatedly said in public that it wanted the names from Bofors. Thereafter, on several occasions, the government ruled out obtaining those names from Bofors, citing the attorney general's opinion on “customer confidentiality.”
Former NDA disinvestment and telecom minister, Arun Shourie, asks, “Can you recall an opinion provided by an attorney general, which did not suit the convenience of the government of the time?”
Says Shourie, “Attorneys General should function as ‘in-house judges’ from whom government departments can obtain honest evaluations of legal cases. Unfortunately, they have functioned as lawyers for whichever government is in office, providing a legal rubber-stamp to decisions already made.”
Attorney General Vahanvati will be particularly vulnerable to such charges, say sources close to General VK Singh. The former Telecom Minister, A Raja, who is imprisoned and facing corruption charges in the 2G scam, used Vahanvati’s “legal opinion” to rationalize most of his allegedly illegal decisions. And Raja, while replying to a worried letter from the prime minister about spectrum allocation, wrote that he had been greatly “enlightened” in taking those decisions by “the learned Solicitor General”, as Vahanvati was at that time.
The CBI has not yet launched any specific investigation of Vahanvati’s role, and the attorney general himself strongly denies wrongdoing. However anti-graft campaigner, Prashant Bhushan, is pursuing a case in the Supreme Court, charging Vahanvati with drafting some of the most crucial arguments that Raja is now using in his defence.
If the Supreme Court decides to hear the army chief’s writ petition, and upholds his birth date as 10th May 1951, General VK Singh would be eligible to serve till 31st March 2013, when he completes three years in office. In that case, the current northern army commander, Lt Gen KT Parnaik, is likely to be the next army chief. Currently, General VK Singh is due to retire on 31st May 2012, after completing 62 years. In that case, the eastern army commander, Lt Gen Bikram Singh is likely to be the next army chief. This issue has arisen because the army has erroneously maintained two dates of birth for General Singh since 1970.