Tushar Mehta’s arc — from apprentice to a Congressman lawyer in Gujarat to India’s second most senior law officer

For someone who has vigorously held the govt’s brief in political matters, the latest row was just another day in office. The Indian Express track Mehta’s arc — from apprentice to a Congressman lawyer in Gujarat to India’s second most senior law officer.

Last week, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta found himself in a political muddle over his alleged meeting with Narada-accused Suvendu Adhikari. For someone who has vigorously held the govt’s brief in political matters, the latest row was just another day in office. The Indian Express track Mehta’s arc — from apprentice to a Congressman lawyer in Gujarat to India’s second most senior law officer.

FOR CLOSE to two months now, the battle lines between the Centre and the Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal have been drawn in courtrooms —from Kolkata to the Supreme Court. While almost a dozen lawyers have appeared for the state government and TMC leaders, Tushar Mehta, the country’s second most senior law officer, is in the Centre’s corner.

On May 28, Mehta told the Calcutta High Court: “If this mobocracy is not checked… tomorrow we may have a situation where a gangster is arrested and his henchmen gherao the CBI office.” Mehta was talking about Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s sit-in at the CBI office, while arguing against the bail granted to TMC leaders by a special CBI court in the Narada case.

Last week, three TMC MPs wrote to PM Narendra Modi and the President, demanding sacking of Mehta as Solicitor General of India for having allegedly met BJP MP Suvendu Adhikari, who is under investigation in the Narada and Sarada cases. Mehta holds the brief for the CBI though he is not the special prosecutor in the cases. Mehta said Adhikari had come to his residence, but denied meeting him.

This isn’t the first instance Mehta finds himself in a political slugfest. His critics often talk about how he is raring to drop the gloves against the Opposition in the court instead of making arguments grounded in law.

For the Modi government, especially in its second term, 55-year old Mehta has emerged as The trouble-shooter in virtually every high-stakes legal battle. From the Covid management and oxygen crisis cases in the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court to appearing in a bail case against former Union home minister P Chidambaram in a district court in Delhi, to defending the government over the delay in filing FIRs in communal riot cases in the national capital — Mehta has held the government’s brief without fail since he arrived in Delhi seven years ago.

From apprentice to SG

Mehta was born in Jamnagar, Gujarat, with the family moving to Ahmedabad when he was 12, following the death of his father, a government employee. He began his career as an advocate in 1987, after graduating from the city’s L A Shah Law College.

He may now be a lawyer whose most well-known clients have been the Modi-Shah duo but Mehta started off with a Congressman — Gujarat High Court senior advocate Krishna Kant Vakharia, an expert in laws related to co-operative societies, whom he joined in 1988 as an apprentice.

“He said he wanted to practise in the High Court. I gave him his first big break,” Vakharia, who remembers him as an “intelligent, hardworking, proficient and articulate lawyer”, had told The Sunday Express.

In 2000, Mehta went on to represent Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank, which had Amit Shah as its chairperson.

Vakharia said Mehta and Shah became “friends” as they drafted petitions for hours.

Mehta also represented Shah in the Gujarat Cricket Association election cases. The BCCI-affiliate body, which was under the control of Congress leader Narhari Amin, saw Shah taking over as vice-president in 2009.

Mehta stayed with Vakharia till about 2004, before starting own practice. Mehta’s upward trajectory began in 2008, when Shah, then junior minister holding the portfolios of home and law in Gujarat, appointed him Additional Advocate General (AAG).

“As AAG, he mostly handled civil litigation for the government” Devang Vyas, who worked as Mehta’s junior and is now Assistant Solicitor General of India at the Gujarat High Court, had told The Sunday Express.

Recalling his first meeting with Mehta, Vyas had said, “Vakharia sahab sent me to Tusharbhai, saying I can be appointed if he approves. I waited for three hours for a meeting and when we met, he sent me back, asking me to be ‘appropriately dressed’. Those days, I had long hair. I came back the next day after a haircut and got the job.”

In 2010, Mehta represented the state of Gujarat in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case, in which Shah was an accused. A Mumbai court discharged Shah in 2014.

This lawyer-client trust was to become Mehta’s springboard. In 2014, when Modi became PM, Mehta was appointed one of the six Additional Solicitors General in then Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi’s team. Mehta was seen as the ‘outsider’ with the team largely comprising Delhi-based lawyers seen as close to Arun Jaitley.

Mehta insists his move to Delhi came as a surprise to him. “I had just expanded my office in Ahmedabad and renovated it. Then the phone call from the Prime Minister came,” Mehta had told The Sunday Express.

In 2017, Rohatgi quit as A-G, leading to a spate of resignations in the government’s legal team. With every such resignation, Mehta became even more indispensable, handling almost every high-profile political case — the plea for an investigation into the death of judge B H Loya, on deportation of Rohingyas, the challenge to Article 35A, among others.

After then SG Ranjit Kumar resigned in October 2017 citing “personal reasons”, the post stayed vacant for over a year until Mehta was finally appointed Solicitor General of India on October 10, 2018.

As SG, among the most high-profile cases he has handled is on the abrogation of Article 370. On August 5, 2019, the day Shah announced in Rajya Sabha the government’s decision on Jammu and Kashmir, Mehta was with the Home Minister in Parliament all day.

Throughout his legal career, Mehta has made no bones about his proximity to Shah. In fact, as ASG, Mehta had appeared for Jay Shah in 2017 before a Gujarat metropolitan court in a criminal defamation case against news website The Wire. When questions were raised about a government law officer appearing in a private case, it was clarified that Mehta was granted permission by then law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

“Mehta is a master executioner. If needed by the government, he will not shy away from appearing before a trial court despite being the Solicitor General,” said a law officer.

This was also evident in the Aircel-Maxis case involving P Chidambaram. Mehta handled the CBI case personally and appeared before the Patiala House District Court, special CBI court, Delhi High Court and Supreme Court — sometimes all on the same day.

“When the other side has four-five big lawyers before a district judge, the government also has to keep up,” Mehta justified.

However, Mehta’s aggressive style of argument, often invoking national security, “vested interests” of petitioners and opposing lawyers, and assurances of the government’s “good intentions”, have often been called out for striking jarring political notes.

When cases challenging the clampdown in J&K came up before the SC, Mehta told the judges to “trust the security forces” and avoided any legal argument in the first hearing. On March 31 last year, as the Supreme Court took up the matter of stranded migrants, Mehta attacked critics of the government as “prophets of doom” and said they “don’t even have the patriotism to acknowledge” that “ministers are working overnight”.

In February last year, during a hearing in the Delhi High Court in the riots case, questioned about the government’s lack of urgency in registering cases against rioters, Mehta told Justice S Muralidhar “to not get angry”.

Government and BJP circles argue that the “difficult cases” Mehta handles and his job call for this no-holds-barred style. “The Attorney General is a friend, philosopher and guide to the court. He is a conscience keeper and holds a constitutional post. The SG’s job is to make sure the government stand is conveyed in court,” noted a top BJP functionary.

The road ahead

Outside the courtroom, Mehta is affable with friends cutting across political lines. Former ASG Maninder Singh, who was one of the top contenders for the SG post in 2018, is now one of Mehta’s trusted friends.

An Urdu poetry and ghazal enthusiast, Mehta’s library is lined with collections of Mir Taqi Mir, Wali Dakni and Ghalib. “You have to have interests outside the law. I read something other than the law every day,” said Mehta.

With Mehta having handled some of the most significant briefs for the government, many thought the next step for him would be as AG. Last year, when AG K K Venugopal turned 90 and requested that he be relieved of his post, the loudest buzz in court circles was whether Mehta would take his place. But the Centre requested Venugopal to continue for another term. Once again this year, Mehta was given a pass as Venugopal’s tenure was extended for another year.

Despite Mehta’s indispensability, in fact, when it comes to constitutional matters, the government has often turned to veterans such as Venugopal and K Parasaran, incuding in the crucial right to privacy case and the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute.

While the doors to the AG post haven’t closed on him yet, Mehta’s legal career could also take the judicial route. In 2014, Justice Rohinton Nariman, who was previously Solicitor General, was appointed SC judge.

Mehta himself says he is happy with his current position. “I’ve always believed that you must throw yourself into life and it will take you places,” he says.

With inputs from Sohini Ghosh

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