New Delhi: Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi will once again become Narendra Modi government’s top law officer. From 1 October, Rohatgi, 67, will take the charge as Attorney General (AG), after incumbent K. K. Venugopal demits office.
This will be Rohatgi’s second stint as the AG. He was the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s first choice after it came to power in 2014.
Known for his sharp and photographic memory, Rohatgi barely looks at his file while arguing matters in court. As the AG, he won several high-stakes matters for the government, including the triple talaq case in which he argued against the practice, and the playing of the national anthem before movies in theatres.
In 2017, on completion of his three-year term, Rohatgi put in his papers, following which the government nominated Venugopal to the office for three years.
Venugopal, 91, was given two one-year extensions after his term ended in 2020. This was because he had expressed unwillingness to continue at the post because of ill-health.
This August, the government again requested Venugopal to remain in office for three months only, so that it could find a suitable replacement for him.
Most preferred lawyer in SC corridors
Perceived to be close to former Union Finance Minister, the late Arun Jaitley, Rohatgi hails from Delhi and is the son of former Delhi High Court judge A. B. Rohatgi. He commenced his practice from the Delhi High Court and was designated as a senior advocate in 1993.
His first assignment as a government law officer came in 1999 when he was appointed as an Additional Solicitor General during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. He went on to represent the Centre in the Supreme Court in a matter on phasing out of diesel buses and introducing a CNG fleet. In May 2004, his tenure ended with the change in government.
Subsequently, Rohatgi moved base from the Delhi High Court to the Supreme Court.
Over the years, he has grown to become the most preferred lawyer in the corridors of the apex court, not just for corporate houses, but for political parties and state governments as well.
In 2002, he represented the Gujarat government, then under Modi’s leadership, in the riot cases and fake encounter cases, in which the Supreme Court had set-up a special investigation unit to probe the incidents of violence.
In the dispute between the two Ambani brothers on pricing of gas, Rohatgi argued for Anil Ambani. The tussle ended with the Supreme Court ruling in favour of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries (RIL) in May 2010.
In 2014, Rohatgi accepted the AG’s position even though he had a flourishing private practice in the top court. His first crucial case as the government’s top lawyer was to defend the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) before a five-judge constitution bench.
Several petitions were filed against the new law envisaged to appoint judges to the higher judiciary, claiming the proposed mechanism would allow the executive to interfere in such appointments, thereby severely affecting judicial independence.
Though Rohatgi was unable to defend the law successfully in court, his hard-hitting arguments in the case — which also included providing examples of “inefficient judges” that the collegium system had produced — left the judiciary ruffled and uncomfortable.
One of the names mentioned in his arguments was that of a sitting judge, whose daughter later rebutted him in an open letter.
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Big cases, big clients
Rohatgi’s position on privacy in the Aadhaar case was the reason why the Supreme Court constituted a nine-judge bench to settle the matter of whether the Constitution assigns the ‘right to privacy’ the status of a fundamental right.
In 2015, Rohatgi, while defending the executive order on Aadhaar, had argued that privacy, which till then was believed to be a fundamental right, was, in fact, not one. The court was hearing a batch of petitions filed in 2012 to invalidate Aadhaar on the ground that the framework to create the database under it invaded a citizen’s privacy.
Rohatgi’s stand pushed the bench to first rule on privacy. The hearing on 21 petitions was abruptly stopped and more than 700 days later, in August 2017, the top court unanimously ruled that privacy is a fundamental right in India.
However, by the time the court took up the original challenges to Aadhaar, Rohatgi had stepped down as AG and Venugopal successfully defended the scheme on behalf of the Modi government.
After he relinquished the AG’s office, Rohatgi appeared for lead petitioner Navtej Singh Johar in 2018 challenging Section 377 of Indian Penal Code (that criminalises consensual gay sex).
He opened the arguments in the matter and urged the Constitution bench not to restrict the hearing to decriminalisation of the Victorian-era penal law, but to enlarge the scope of petitions and determine the rights of the LGBTQ community members in terms of Article 21 (right to liberty) of the Constitution. However, the court declined to entertain this plea.
Rohatgi was nominated in 2018 as the Maharashtra government’s lead counsel in the judge B. H. Loya case in which the state — then led by the BJP — was given the clean chit. He once again defended Maharashtra on the Maratha quota law when its constitutional validity was challenged, and has appeared for Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh as well.
From journalists and politicians to industrialists and state governments, Rohatgi has successfully argued cases for all.
Former Karnataka Chief Minister B. S. Yediyurappa, Shiromani Akali Dal leader Bikram Singh Majithia, former Delhi Police commissioner Rakesh Asthana, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan, and real estate barons Gopal and Sushil Ansal are among the prominent clients of Rohatgi. He has also appeared for Facebook and WhatsApp in the Delhi High Court and the apex court.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
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