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Law officer quits amid buzz on rift with minister

Ashwani Kumar

New Delhi, Feb. 4: Solicitor-general Rohinton Nariman, the country’s second senior-most law officer, has resigned just over half way into his three-year term amid speculation of differences with Union law minister Ashwani Kumar.

The son of eminent jurist Fali S. Nariman, Rohinton Nariman is regarded by peers as an expert in tax and constitutional laws. Among the key matters he handled was the Rs 12,000-crore Vodafone tax dispute that the Centre lost last year.

Kumar could not be contacted despite repeated calls to his mobile. But an aide said the “resignation was purely Rohinton Nariman’s personal decision and the minister has neither a role in it nor anything to say on the issue”.

Nariman was not available for comment, with his family saying he was away in Mumbai. His three-year tenure was to end on July 26, 2014, which means he quit after 18 months of being appointed on July 23, 2011, in the wake of the resignation of his predecessor Gopal Subramanium.

Incidentally, Nariman’s appearance as a special senior counsel for the Union government in 2011 in the 2G scam had triggered the resignation of Subramanium, who apparently felt slighted at the Centre engaging another lawyer.

In the Vodafone case, the Supreme Court held that the Indian authorities had no territorial jurisdiction to tax the company for acquiring the assets of Hutchinson through a deal concluded in the Cayman Islands even though the assets in question were in India.

Unlike the attorney-general who holds a constitutional post under Article 76(1) of the statute, the solicitor-general has no such status. He is expected to appear in key matters on behalf of the Centre and PSUs when called upon to do so. States can also engage him.

By contrast, the attorney-general is appointed by the Rashtrapati Bhavan and holds office during the pleasure of the President. He must be qualified to be appointed a Supreme Court judge.

According to the Constitution: “It shall be the duty of the attorney-general to give advice to the Government of India upon such legal matters and to perform such other duties of a legal character, as may from time to time be referred or assigned to him by the President, and to discharge the functions conferred on him by or under this Constitution or any other law for the time being in force.”

The attorney-general — G.E. Vahanvati holds the post now — advises the Centre and performs other duties of legal character assigned to him by the President. The attorney-general has the right of audience in all courts in India as well as the right to participate in the proceedings of Parliament, but not to vote.

Prior to his appointment as solicitor-general, Nariman was tipped to be named a Supreme Court judge because of his standing. Under apex court rules, eminent jurists or lawyers between 55 and 64 can be directly appointed to the Supreme Court. Examples include Justices Kuldip Singh and Santosh Hegde, inducted in the early 1990s.