The veteran lawyer will not be able to represent the government in several high profile cases as he has appeared for private parties against the government in the same cases.
Will the vast experience of India’s new Attorney General, K.K. Venugopal, ironically end up limiting him from handling some key cases for the government? The possibility is high if one goes by the list of high profile cases in which he has represented private parties against the government.
KKV, as the 86-year-old veteran lawyer is referred to in legal circles, has practised law for almost 50 years and is expected to face conflict of interest issues that would prevent him from appearing in several key cases in which the stakes are high for the government.
Given that Venugopal has a relatively short tenure of effectively two years, his absence in big cases is likely to have an impact. The tenure of an attorney general is usually three years, but protocol is to offer resignation when a new government is elected.
Since 2015, Venugopal has appeared on behalf of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and has consistently argued against court intervention in reforming the cricketing body. The government’s official stance is that it is not opposed to the court-mandated reforms.
Venugopal was also engaged by the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government against the Centre to challenge the administrative powers of the state’s lieutenant-governor. The apex court has scheduled a constitution bench hearing of the case in August. The Centre, represented then by previous attorney general Mukul Rohatgi, had argued that Delhi is a not a full-fledged state.
Another constitution bench that the government will be handicapped without its top law officer in court is on the right to privacy issue. The case will have bearing on the legality of Aadhaar. In 2015, appearing for the non-profit body Centre for Civil Society, Venugopal had argued against the government’s stance that constitutionally Indians do not enjoy a fundamental right to privacy. He can, however, appear in fresh cases on Aadhaar in which CCS is not a party.
The new attorney general also cannot defend the ban on sale of liquor on highways for which the Central government has agreed to in principle. Venugopal represented states and other private lobbies against the ban. The court is likely to hear a review next week.
“The conflict of interest will throw the attorney general’s office to devise a much more effective litigation strategy for the government by engaging subordinate law officers efficiently. New cases will crop up and on constitutional issues, Venugopal’s presence is invaluable,” Alok Prasanna Kumar, a former fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, said.
But for India’s oldest attorney general, the battles might extend beyond the court room. His appointment signals a shift from the attorney general being a courtroom case match-winner to a strategist for the government’s legal tussles given how different Venugopal is from Mukul Rohatgi, his predecessor who was known for aggressive court craft and fierce opinions.
“Learning from last year’s disasters in the court on constitutional cases like the Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh President’s Rule cases, it will pay off for the government if they can use Venugopal’s expertise in avoiding such tussles and planning their moves within the legal framework. This is where Rohatgi did not see success,” a senior advocate, who did not wish to be identified, said.
Venugopal did not respond to requests for comment from ThePrint.
Air India’s privatisation, Aadhaar and the regulation of cattle sale in the country will be key issues where Venugopal’s legal acumen in avoiding the court will be called upon. His advice to the Union cabinet on key issues will mark his tenure as attorney general.