My last interactions with Arun Jaitley were at the end of the Winter Session of Parliament this year. As the general elections approached, he had been furiously authoring blogs criticising my party and leaders.
So I went across to his seat and told him that I was going to write an article highlighting his ‘lies’. Chuckling, he responded: “Ha, that’s political, go right ahead.” As soon as the article appeared, I handed him a printout. He said he would give me his reactions, but due to his ill health, I never got to meet him again.
The first time I met Arun Jaitley was in Central Hall, I saw how generous he was with compliments.
Arun Jaitley: A Sharp Lawyer & Master Of Spin
I can guess how he would have reacted. The sharp lawyer that he was, he would have certainly found some holes to pick in my story. But, crucially, he would have borne no ill will, because he enjoyed a good political joust. And I’d done it before. In a speech on one of his budgets, I had remarked that I knew the key qualification that had enabled him to become a cricket administrator. He was a master of spin! He enjoyed that quip.
Arun Jaitley was always finding ways to disarm an opponent through wit and appreciation, and this enabled him to build friendships across party lines.
Arun Jaitley was not so with many others. He had intense hostility and rivalry with a host of people, within his party and across the aisle. Towards them, he had a way of aiming sharp ripostes, whether in the House, or while gossiping with journalists and MPs in the Central Hall, or to telling effect, on TV debates and in political speeches.
I got to know him only during the last five years after I was elected to the Rajya Sabha. The first time I met Arun Jaitley was in Central Hall, I saw how generous he was with compliments. When I introduced myself, he responded: “I have seen you on TV, you are very good!” Months later, as I sat down after delivering a speech, the attendant tapped me and handed me a slip of paper. It was from Jaitley. It simply said: “Very well spoken, Rajeev!”
Thus began my observation of the master politician at work.
Arun Jaitley was a very quick thinking parliamentarian.
He was always finding ways to disarm an opponent through wit and appreciation, and this enabled him to build friendships across party lines. We, MPs, would listen to Arun Jaitley’s speeches with rapt attention, seeing how his years of legal practice ensured that he mastered his brief effortlessly. He could deliver a nuanced, well-constructed argument at a moment’s notice. And if there was an inaccuracy or falsity in his story, it was for the sake of winning the argument. Jaitley infamously went so far as to justify parliamentary disruption as a legitimate strategy.
Arun Jaitley to the Rescue
He was a very quick thinking parliamentarian. Some years ago, DMK MP Tiruchi Siva had introduced a Private Member’s Bill to strengthen the rights of the transgender community. Many of us had spoken in its support. The usual practice with private members bills is that, after the debate, the concerned minister requests the member to withdraw the bill, saying that the government will bring a bill to address the issue at hand.
This time, Siva insisted that there be voting on the bill. The number of MPs on the Opposition benches far outnumbered those on the ruling party’s side, as private members’ business is scheduled for Friday afternoons, when most MPs have gone back to their constituencies. The BJP was in an awkward spot. If they voted against, given that it was an Opposition-sponsored bill, it would expose them as denying rights to one of our most marginalised communities.
Arun Jaitley was also of immense help to Modi and Amit Shah on the legal front.
At this time, Jaitley came rushing into the House hearing that some crisis was afoot. Someone briefed him quickly and he rose to speak. He pointed out that the passage of a private member’s bill would not have any substantive effect as bills have to be brought by the government if they are to become laws. Our intended act would only be equivalent in impact to a resolution. So he said that the government would also offer its support to the bill, and it passed unanimously. A potentially sticky situation was resolved.
Jaitley Excelled at Setting Media Narrative & Organisational Politics
It was this combination of diplomatic, legal, and political skills that made Jaitley a modern day legend. For someone who won only one direct election in his life — the presidency of the Delhi University Students Union — he was regarded as a skillful electoral strategist.
Jaitley excelled at setting the media narrative, and in strategic candidate selection, paying attention to caste arithmetic. I recall that Karnataka’s then Chief Minister SM Krishna advanced the Karnataka assembly elections in 2004 to coincide with the national election partly because he was worried that Jaitley would lead the BJP campaign against him in case of a separate election schedule.
He also excelled at organisational politics. One spinoff of this was his closeness to then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Their friendship began from the 1990s, and was cemented when as the Gujarat in-charge, he helped Modi cement his complete control over the state BJP.
Because of his unparalleled hold on the media, Jaitley was able to ensure that his party’s agenda was highlighted.
Arun Jaitley was also of immense help to Modi and Amit Shah on the legal front. It was thus no surprise that Modi ensured that he was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat three times. However, Jaitley was the only high profile BJP leader to lose during the Modi wave of 2014. For whatever reason, he chose to avoid a Delhi Lok Sabha constituency, and ended up losing in Amritsar to Captain Amarinder Singh.
Still, the election loss did not deter Prime Minister Modi from making Jaitley his virtual number two. Partly this was a result of Modi sidelining leaders from the Advani camp in the BJP such as Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu, and Ananth Kumar.
Modi’s Implicit Trust in Jaitley
Modi’s implicit trust in Jaitley’s ability was clear from the start. At one point, Jaitley was handling both the Finance and Defence ministries. It wasn’t just the dearth of talent in the BJP which prompted this move, but also the faith Modi had in Jaitley. However, observers feel that Jaitley was not consulted during Modi’s disastrous demonetisation decision, but yet valiantly rose to its defence.
Jaitley’s legal skills saw him assisting Ram Jethmalani on many cases, but they fell out in recent years.
Because of his unparalleled hold on the media, Jaitley was able to ensure that the party’s agenda was highlighted. He had a large number of media ‘cronies’ and the moniker “Bureau Chief” suited him perfectly. While journalists loved the endless gossip sessions with him in Central Hall, they also feared his wrath. Rarely would a negative story about him be repeated in mainstream media. The story goes that Firstpost saw top personnel changes after Jaitley’s hostile reaction to its strongly pro-BJP editor, R Jagannathan’s article savaging him, which was later taken off the website.
Jaitley was known to relish good food. On visits to Delhi before 2014, I used to see him holding court in Lodhi Gardens in the mornings, sipping tea surrounded by acolytes such as former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi. One could discern some gentle, jovial ambling near the historic tombs, but nothing that could be characterised as exercising.
Jaitley’s Legal Prowess
Jaitley was a star from an early age. A graduate of Shri Ram College of Commerce, he was seen as the battering ram that broke the stranglehold of the St Stephen’s elite over the levers of power. The Emergency era saw him come into the limelight when, as part of the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, he was involved in protests and later arrested. He was part of the Emergency crop of student leaders such as Lalu Prasad, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Sitaram Yechury, Nitish Kumar, and Ram Vilas Paswan who have all had enduring political careers.
In these highly illiberal times, Jaitley, as the moderate face of the BJP, was someone the Opposition could turn to.
Jaitley’s legal skills saw him assisting Ram Jethmalani on many cases, but they fell out in recent years. He became one of the youngest senior advocates of the Delhi High Court, and Additional Solicitor General under the VP Singh government, which tasked him with preparing the papers on the Bofors issue. In 1999, Prime Minister Vajpayee made him a minister at the age of 46, but internal intrigue saw him being dropped in 2002 before he staged a comeback in 2003. He always stayed at the centre of the political action thereafter.
GST Regime: Jaitley’s Crowning Achievement
If we were to look at his crowning achievement, it would be how he used his cross-party friendships and diplomatic skills to get India’s states to give up their taxation powers and become part of the GST regime. This much-delayed structural reform became a reality, because Jaitley proposed a GST Council voting arrangement which ensured both Centre and states needed to be on board for decisions to be made. Thus far, the GST Council has worked entirely through consensus, and that clearly has Jaitley’s stamp on it.
Overall, in these highly illiberal times, Jaitley, as the moderate face of the BJP, was someone the Opposition could turn to, to ensure some semblance of a balanced resolution to problems and challenges. He had the capacity to provide advice to and soften the hardline agenda of Modi and Shah. Now, with his untimely death at just 66, I worry that the nation will miss him and his wise counsel more than ever. Om Shanti.
(Prof. M. V. Rajeev Gowda is a Congress Member of Parliament. He tweets @rajeevgowda. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are personal. 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.)