To those who have known Gopal Subramanium, a “British-sounding” accent is among the defining aspects in the personality of the former government counsel who has been denied and then opted out of a Supreme Court judgeship.
They also refer to various mannerisms. At times, he has been known to chant slokas loudly before deciding whether to take up a case. At his daughter’s wedding, some of the guests felt he chanted slokas better than the priest himself.
As for the “British” accent, Subramanium once told this correspondent that he acquired it not in the UK but in Delhi, over years of listening to BBC — he had spent his childhood hoping to be a cricket commentator. He can be fluent in Hindi, too, as he once showed before a Supreme Court bench hearing the case of Buta Singh’s dissolution of the Bihar assembly — he read out a letter in Hindi though an English copy too was available. And when former telecom minister A Raja called on him in 2010, a meeting that would prove a turning point in his career, they spoke in Tamil over south Indian coffee.
As additional solicitor general and then solicitor general, Subramanium’s stock was high during UPA-1 but fell during UPA-2 when the government lost two major cases — on black money and Salwa Judum. His equations with the NDA had taken shape years earlier. Subramanium was the amicus curiae in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case that led to the Supreme Court ordering a CBI probe, followed by the arrest of Amit Shah.
The lawyer Subramanium, or “GS” to the legal fraternity, is credited with introducing the much-debated All India Bar Examination. When he took over as chairman of the Bar Council of India, Subramanium had an “action plan” that ran into 316 lines in a spreadsheet.
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He began his career with Shardul and Pallavi Shroff (daughter of P N Bhagwati, the former Chief Justice of India), who went on to establish Amarchand Mangaldas Suresh A Shroff & Co in Delhi in 1979. Subramanium appeared as counsel for Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. In Delhi, he later worked under D P Wadhwa, who rose to become an SC judge, and then under Soli J Sorabjee, the former attorney general.
A big break came when Justice A N Verma, heading a commission probing Rajiv Gandhi’s death, engaged him as counsel. In 2013, Verma would again call him for assistance in drafting a new anti-rape law.
Over the years, Subramanium has been prosecutor in big-ticket cases such as the Graham Staines murder, the Jessica Lal murder and the Parliament attack; argued in the Reliance gas dispute between the Ambani brothers; appeared for the Maharashtra government against Ajmal Kasab. Recently, he was amicus curiae in the case relating to Shree Padmanabha Swamy temple in Kerala.
Subramanium was inducted as an additional solicitor general in 2005 and as solicitor general when UPA returned in 2009. About the friction in the latter phase, “GS” says he followed a “two arms’ length” theory — that a law officer should keep at arm’s length both the Supreme Court and the government.
During hearings relating to 2G spectrum allocation, allegations were raised against him for having had joint meetings with Raja’s counsel and CBI officers investigating the matter. In the court, incidentally, it was Subramanium who formally handed over the “Niira Radia tapes”.
On December 13, 1993, then chief justice M N Venkatachaliah went against convention and nominated two young lawyers, Subramanium and Rohinton Nariman, as senior lawyers in the Supreme Court. The fates of the two would be interlinked for years to come.
In 2011, when the Telecom Ministry under Kapil Sibal decided to engage private lawyer Nariman in a public interest litigation, Subramanium resigned in protest and it was Nariman who replaced him.
Subramanium and Sibal had faced off earlier. In 1996, when Subramanium as CBI counsel was pressing for the arrest of then PM Narasimha Rao for allegedly bribing JMM MPs for support, Sibal was Rao’s counsel.
On May 13 this year, Subramanium and Nariman found their fates tied once again when they were nominated by the collegium for appointing judges. The file went to Sibal, then law minister. The law ministry and the PM decided to leave the appointment to the next government.
Before deciding to withdraw his candidature, Subramanium says, he consulted Venkatachalaiah.