(This article has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Arun Jaitley’s first birth anniversary after his death earlier this year.)
Arun Jaitley, eminent lawyer, former finance minister and senior Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) leader, succumbed to cancer on 24 August 2019. He will be remembered variously in the cricketing, legal and judicial, political and media circuits that he was a prominent figure in.
Mr Jaitley’s enduring self-image was that of the prime guide for the formulation and articulation of the BJP’s position on all matters political, legal, economic and administrative. Prime Minister Narendra Modi frequently allowed him that standing too.
A number of expressions that have contributed to the sharp rise in Mr Modi’s popularity, among them are “one-horse race” and “policy paralysis”, are in fact attributable to Mr Jaitley.
Jaitley, The Strategist Who Managed The ‘Elites’
The actual role Mr Jaitley really played in the scheme of things, though, was slightly different. He was the philosopher guide that the prime minister, their association going back to the Emergency days, used – selectively – as a strategist for managing the elites.
Be it the Shri Ram College of Commerce (Mr Jaitley’s alma mater) outreach of 2013 that became the stepping-stone to Mr Modi’s arrival in New Delhi, or, raising an army of English-language writers and print and TV journalists with recognisable names – the amplifiers and force multipliers – for spinning a positive buzz around the Modi government’s decisions, taking on opponents and defending mistakes.
In Mr Jaitley’s passing away, Mr Modi has lost an ally who made his life in Delhi easier.
Modi Relied On Jaitley’s Vast Criss-Crossing Networks
The popular narrative suggests that Mr Modi neither needs nor cares for the Indian elites. That’s a carefully crafted myth. In truth, Mr Modi had come to rely tremendously on Mr Jaitley’s vast criss-crossing networks in the media, the judiciary, the legal fraternity — and even across the aisle in Parliament for managing the environment in Lutyens’ Delhi — something without which his government could not have progressed as smoothly on a great number of its moves.
In Mr Jaitley’s passing away, Mr Modi has lost an ally that made his life in Delhi easier.
Mr Jaitley assiduously built and rebuilt networks that would will help him transmit the government’s ideas far and wide, even when he did not agree with him. The Goods & Services Tax (GST) would not have become a reality in Mr Modi’s tenure without the advantage of these networks, or Mr Jaitley’s ability to put aside his personal views when they conflicted with those of the government.
His personal views and ideology, especially on the economy, were vastly different than what he put into practice as the Modi government’s finance minister, and in fact, rather stridently disseminated through blogs written in language progressively rasping.
One deep difference Arun Jaitley had – on which he did not push back enough against – with Mr Modi – was on the Indira-Gandhi style of functioning and policies.
Jaitley, the Finance Minister, Owed A Lot to Manmohan Singh
For much of his ministerial career, he practised what he said he had picked up from AB Vajpayee: a politician must know how to communicate not only through words but also through silence in public life. But he broke that discipline quite a bit in the last few years.
An admirer of Dr Manmohan Singh, the finance minister, not Dr Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, and Mr P Chidambaram – both of whom he nevertheless criticised acerbically in his public and Parliamentary utterances – Mr Jaitley was more liberal when it came to economic philosophy than most contemporary Indian politicians. He was not a wannabe socialist like the rest of his party.
One deep difference Arun Jaitley had – on which he did not push back enough against – with Mr Modi – was on the Indira-Gandhi style of functioning and policies. Early in his tenure as finance minister, Arun Jaitley proposed the privatisation of the majority of the nationalised banks, barring the five-six large ones such as the State Bank of India. He was deeply disappointed when the proposal returned unaccepted from the PMO.
Jaitley: One Of The Few Pro-Reform Voice In Modi Govt
If Dr Singh is scholarly and Mr Chidambaram analytical, Mr Jaitley’s approach to policy-making was pragmatic. Over the years, Arun Jaitley sought to take credit for improved inflation management in the tenure of the Modi government. On each occasion, criticising the previous regime for its record of runaway inflation, never once disclosing publicly that inflation was finally reined in through a mechanism designed and approved by the Dr Singh-led government.
Soon after Mr Jaitley was sworn in as the finance minister, the file on a new monetary policy framework, readied by Mr Chidambaram, was put up to him. He signed it without posing a single question, and in a matter of minutes. The officer who put up the file had stiffened a little, seeing the lack of fuss with which he had conferred his approval, and suggested politely that the minister could take some time to study the proposed new policy if he wanted.
“There is no hurry, Sir.”
“Two of the finest minds [Dr Singh and Mr Chidambaram] in the country [in the context of inflation targeting and central bank policies] have applied themselves and come up with this solution. I don’t need greater endorsement,” Mr Jaitley had responded.
One of the few pro-reforms voices in the Modi Cabinet, he succeeded in giving India a law for insolvency and bankruptcy provisions.
Jaitley, the Lawyer, Believed in Negotiations & Dialogue
If he came across a fair journalist doing their job, not furthering agendas whether in favour or against his party, Arun Jaitley respected their professionalism genuinely. But he compromised frequently with his own preferences and ideas in becoming complicit with the prime minister’s preferred proposals and methods, especially in matters of legislation, and the handling of institutions such as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).
Being a lawyer, he believed in negotiations, give and take, and dialogue, and talking things out. The one place he put his foot down was his sour relation with former RBI Governor Urjit Patel who enjoyed a direct line to Mr. Modi.
Mr Jaitley wanted to be liked. Widely. He purposefully cultivated acceptability for himself.
As the law minister in the AB Vajpayee-led government, he had once told reporters that he was planning to absent himself from an upcoming meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Disinvestment after there were indications that the decision to be approved had the potential for kicking up controversy. Sure enough, he was not present at the said meeting.
Incidentally, he was also not present at Modi Cabinet’s meeting that approved the Constitutional amendments proposed for rolling out the GST. Despite his disagreements, though, he kept strategising to press the Modi government’s agenda.
Still, Jaitley was not universally liked, and on occasion, many of his colleagues — even in the BJP — took pot shots at him.
Arun Jaitley, Unlike Modi & Shah, Wanted To Be Widely Accepted And Liked
Mr Jaitley would sometimes tend to become withdrawn and dejected. A little before the 2G spectrum “scam” narrative took root in the national media during the course of the second tenure of the Manmohan Singh-led government, he went through such a bout, and even wrote up a letter of resignation from the position of the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. The letter was, he told reporters at one of his famous "darbars" much later, torn up by a party colleague.
Jaitley consciously invested in relationships, whether with a staff member in his official team of assistants, or political leaders across the ideological divide.
It is said that Mr Modi enjoys being disliked by the swish set that he calls the ‘Khan Market’ gang. And, Mr Amit Shah likes to be feared by all. Mr Jaitley wanted to be liked. Widely. He purposefully cultivated acceptability for himself.
This eventually birthed a conflict within him. Moderate by upbringing and nature, he was not quite sure whether to fashion a sustained rise within the ranks of his saffron party’s hierarchy, by branding himself as a moderate intellectual representing modernity on its behalf, or adopt the sort of traditionalism more commonly associated with it.
Jaitley’s Habit of Going Out Of His Way to Help Those He Liked
Aside of building networks for work, Arun Jaitley demonstrated an ability for human gestures towards those he liked, minus the give-and-take expectation common in Lutyens’ Delhi. Ensuring admissions to AIIMS, college or school for distant relatives of junior clerks. Help with postings and transfers. He would go out of his way to help a circle of friends, many, but not all, of whom he had been chummy with since his Delhi University days. He consciously invested in relationships, whether with a staff member in his official team of assistants, or political leaders across the ideological divide.
He defended Madhavrao Scindia in the court cases related to the Jain hawala case diaries. His associations with Opposition leaders remained undiminished despite the rancour on the floor of the House. Mr Abhishek Singhvi and his wife waited for over an hour in his North Block office just to deliver the invite for a wedding in their family. Mr Anand Sharma cut his birthday cake in Mr Jaitley’s chamber in Parliament.
Through his career, he contended with many battles – the Bofors scam as the additional solicitor general of the VP Singh government, public perception versus self-image, ambition, ideological conflicts within the BJP and the Modi government. The final one was with cancer.
(Puja Mehra is a Delhi-based journalist. Her first book, The Lost Decade (2008-18): How India's Growth Story Devolved Into Growth Without a Story, has been published by Penguin Random House. She tweets at @pujamehra. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)