It is three years since we lost Arun Jaitley. I worked with him as a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Finance. Mr Jaitley was gentle and a good listener; this enabled him to size people and their work. He was considerate and trusted his officers, which attracted loyalty. He was witty and an excellent raconteur, which made him endearing. He had a stature, which made working for him a pleasure and a privilege.
Critical files were carried to the Finance Minister (FM) by hand, given the sensitive nature of disinvestment work. I would usually approach his affable Additional Private Secretary Bhatia to sneak me in, given the FM is always occupied. Jaitley Saheb would ask a few questions and put his signatures on the file out of implicit faith in his officers.
The next set of interactions would be in the Group of Ministers rechristened Alternate Mechanism by the new Government. The FM Chaired it, and Nitin Gadkari, the Transport Minister, was a permanent member. The Minister, under whose administrative control the Central Public Sector Enterprise (CPSE) came, was the third member of the Group. The maximum number of single-ministry transactions I was involved with was Power.
There was a familiar pattern to the afternoon meetings; they always started on time with a relaxed FM at the head of the table. While getting briefed on the transaction, he would regale us with anecdotes. Often, an assistant would bring cut fruits and vegetables, visibly a forced diet for a confessed foodie. Waiting for his ministerial colleagues to arrive, Jaitley Saheb would tell us, tongue in cheek, “One never turns up but unfailingly signs up to the decision taken by him. The other always comes 15 minutes late starting from his nearby office only when told the meeting has commenced!”
While waiting for the delinquent Minister, we aired our concerns to Jaitley Saheb about disinvestment deals getting probed and concerned officers facing the music of investigative agencies post-retirement. Showing great empathy, he prompted amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act to shield honest officers. He suggested vetting disinvestment transactions by an Ombudsman after persuading a former Chief Justice of India to take the position.
His understanding was that no agency would frivolously probe a deal vetted by a former Chief Justice. The concern was touching as well as reassuring. Not surprisingly, record disinvestments took place under his charge.
A Quick Phone Call
On one occasion, a file had to be cleared urgently, but the FM was in Kolkata. The flight kept getting delayed. Realising my discomfort, Bhatia told me, “Sir, I will get the file signed whenever the FM returns and sent to your house but be ready to come to his residence should he want to discuss it even if it is midnight.”
Around 12.30 that night, my phone rang, and the screen bore the dreaded name of Bhatia! Bleary-eyed, I took the call only to be told the FM had just cleared the file.
It is public knowledge we built a tentative book before unleashing a disinvestment transaction. It was a mega Offer for Sale (OFS). The issue was undersubscribed at 2 pm with the closing bell at the stock exchange to go at 3.30 pm. The Secretary was in a panic when I entered her room. She told me, “I am running to the residence of the FM, and you don’t leave the monitor in my place till you see the issue fully subscribed.”
A diehard public sector investor was playing truant. On reaching the residence of the Minister, the Secretary learnt he was resting. Jaitley Saheb came into the drawing room, rubbing his eyes.
At sight, the Secretary dialled the CMD of the company and put the phone in his hand. Soon after that, I reported to the Secretary, sipping tea with the FM, that the issue stood fully subscribed.
Two weeks later, we provided the CMD with an excel sheet showing the killings his company was making out of investments in our offerings.
Jaitley Had a Soft Corner for Young Journalists
At one point, we had reasons to believe sensitive information was reaching the media prematurely. The entry of journalists was made stringent amidst protests. But Mr Jaitley had a soft corner for young scribes who he thought brought fresh insights into their reporting. Allowing dust and egos to settle one day, he indulgently said, “Bacchon ko mat roko, aane do” (don’t stop the kids, let them in).
The Finance Minister came for the pilot launch of the India Post Payments Bank after I had returned to the Department of Posts. Seated on the dais, Jaitley Saheb asked who the CEO of the bank was. Pointed to me, he said in his inimitable style, “Oh, that’s my officer!”
(The writer is a former Member of the Postal Services Board. He tweets @PalsAshok. 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.)