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Famous Cases of Abhishek Manu Sanghvi Notes | Study Legal Reasoning for CLAT - CLAT

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Abhishek Singhvi 
No stranger to controversy
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Abhishek Singhvi 
For almost four years in the run up to last Monday’s Delhi High Court ruling that allowed the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) to audit telecom companies, Abhishek Manu Singhvi was senior counsel marshalling arguments against this. “There is no easy set of simple answers; there are highly debatable legal and constitutional issues and a definitive apex court judgement is the only thing that will provide uniformity, stability and certainty,” he says, not unduly perturbed by the temporary set back.

  • The High Court ruling is a rare one that went against the senior counsel who has been involved in most significant telecom litigations—and there have been plenty—over the past two decades. Broadly speaking, four big issues—CDMA and GSM technology related arguments, revenue share and one-time spectrum charge related cases, the Vodafone tax imbroglio and the 2G scam—have shaped the course of the telecom industry over 20 years.
  • Singhvi, 55, has been at the forefront of the court proceedings in all these issues, mostly on the side of various leading private telecom companies. Today, he is representing Bharti, Vodafone and Idea Cellular on three major issues: charge of one-time spectrum fees, 3G intra-circle roaming agreement and license renewals. The combined financial impact of these cases may accrue to over Rs 1,00,000 crore.
  • Other lawyers including Harish Salve, Iqbal Chawla, Soli Sorabjee are also equally active and influential in the telecom space. But Singhvi – with earnings of more than Rs 70 crore in FY13 – pays more tax than any lawyer in the country. Singhvi is also the spokesman of the Congress party, a role he has handled for 13 years. Ironically, in many of his recent telecom cases Singhvi has fought against the government, led by the very political party he represents. “The legal profession is different from my political career,” he says. “A practitioner of law should be able to argue on any side that appoints him, irrespective of the lawyer’s personal stance or leanings.”
  • BJP’s Piyush Goel, also the opposition treasurer, comes to Singhvi’s defence: “There is no reason to point a finger at Mr. Singhvi if he represents against the government. He is an officer of the Court and he has to argue for whoever appoints him.”

Shaping the industry

  • Over the years, Singhvi’s arguments have influenced the way the industry has evolved. TV Ramachandran, former secretary of the Cellular Operators Association of India, recalls one incident where Singhvi contributed to the birth of TRAI, the industry regulator. “(In 1996) the DoT lumped up a 25 times higher charge for calling a landline from a mobile. The judge said that there should be a techno-economic regulator to decide this,” recalls Ramachandran.
  • “Singhvi, who was counsel for the government, didn’t argue the point. Lordship, he said, I ask my client to get the bill formed.” The TRAI bill was passed three months later. “(Before the case) we had been trying for the bill for a good three to four years,” recalls Ramachandran, who has been interacting with Singhvi since 1996.
  • Singhvi’s long and inf luential journey in telecom litigation began when he was 34 and became the youngest lawyer to be designated senior counsel when he took on his first telecom case in 1993-94. The Delhi Science forum had challenged privatisation of mobile telephony and Singhvi represented what later came to be known as the GSM lobby. Things have changed since, but for the worse. “How can business work in such an environment,” asks Singhvi, referring to the current state of telecom regulation. “It is terrible for business, and it isn’t even good for lawyers to be busy with issues that everyone seems to agree are absurd.”
  • The current regulatory environment has also made the industry more divided, observes Singhvi. Earlier, the GSM lobby stood together through COAI. But Bharti, Idea and Vodafone have each made separate filings in the latest cases on ICR and license renewal. “They say that the current argument is identical, but what if they wish to take a separate stance from competitors later during the trials,” he explains. Despite being so closely involved with the sector, Singhvi considers himself an outsider. “We are not sector specialists. Our job is to take the essence of what is being said and turn it into a common man argument before the Court,” he says. He self-admittedly doesn’t necessarily understand how the sector or technology works.

No stranger to controversy

  • Companies do spend hundreds of crores on legal expenses. Safe to say Singhvi gets more than his proportionate share. “His fees sometimes border on extortion, but the results of his cases are seldom undesired,” says a junior lawyer asking not to be named.
  • Last year, Singhvi paid additional income tax of Rs 3.26 crore on what he terms an accounting error that led to unrecorded income of Rs 11 crore in 2010-11. The tax department had said the unrecorded amount was close to Rs 22.86 crore, but Singhvi has denied this.
  • Singhvi also says he has foregone many cases which he deemed were conflicting with his political role. But even within the Congress, Singhvi says there are elements that are capable of undercutting someone seen as successful. He attributes the controversial sex scandal he was implicated in during Feb-April 2012 to such an act. His former driver apparently shot him having sex with a woman in exchange for helping her professionally and circulated the video. In an out of court settlement, the driver later confessed to digitally altering the video and spreading it out of vengefulness. “In that, I saw the most base places people can fall to. But in hind sight it also was a time I identified my true friends and well-wishers,” Singhvi says.

Singhvi’s rise both in the legal profession and in politics has self-admittedly come at the cost of family life. “With age advancing, I am aware I have to focus more on health. My future daughter-in-law has already started control ling that,” he says.

  • 1997: Levy on mobile firms for calls to landline, which led to TRAI being set up.
  • 2001: Migration of wireless in local loop (mobile landline on CDMA technology) to mobile services.
  • 2005: Definition of ‘adjusted gross revenues’, on which firms pay government.
  • 2007: Allowing CDMA players to offer GSM services also
  • 2008: Vodafone tax case (empanelled but did not argue)
  • 2010-12: Defending Aircel and Vodafone in 2G scam and licence cancellations Abolition of mobile termination charge.
  • 2012: GSM lobby’s case against onetime spectrum usage charge amounting to `30,000 cr. Ban on 3G roaming pacts between companies Right to licence renewal.
  • 2014: Allowing government auditor to look into telecom company books.
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