OBITUARY: Arun Jaitley

A man for all seasons

Published : August 24, 2019 12:30 IST

EVEN a simple perusal of the portfolios that Arun Jaitley (December 28, 1952-August 24, 2019) handled during his Ministerial stints between 1999 and 2004 and later between 2014 and 2019 would be enough to show the approbation accorded by the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar on this leader, who was born and brought up in Delhi.

Jaitley held a clutch of important Cabinet positions in the governments led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1999-2004) and Narendra Modi (2014-19), such as Finance, Defence, Corporate Affairs, Information and Broadcasting, Commerce and Industry, and Law and Justice. In the second stint, which was also the period when the BJP won a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha, Jaitley was literally referred as the “go-to-man” for Modi and his party president Amit Shah.

Countless stories could be heard during that period in the echelons of the Sangh Parivar and the BJP as to how this “thoroughbred Delhiite” was helping and guiding the Gujarati duo through the rungs and ropes of the national capital’s complicated political-administrative system and the bureaucracy.

There were periods when Jaitley was directly or indirectly handling several portfolios at the same time, apart from the couple of important Ministries officially allocated to him.

But Jaitley’s value for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar was not just in terms of governance and management of the administration when the party was in power. As an Opposition leader, too, he was credited with special skills, which included raising and highlighting the BJP’s and Sangh Parivar’s viewpoints in different forums, including Parliament, and building up issue-based and programme- oriented political platforms and short-, medium- and long-term collaborations cutting across ideological divides.

This aspect of his personality was evident right from the time he acquired political prominence as a youth leader during the Emergency (1975-77) and remained a consistent characteristic during the many decades that the political instruments of the Sangh Parivar spent in the Opposition.

It also reflected in the many individual friendships he had across the political spectrum. Cases in point included those with Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Kapil Sibal of the Congress, with whom he shared a common professional background, too, as fellow lawyers engaging with the higher courts of the country.

His friendships with Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar and Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury were founded during his youth activism days in the mid-1970s as fellow campaigners against the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi.

The friendship with Kumar extended into a political alliance, which went through several blow hot, blow cold phases, while Yechury steadfastly remained a political-ideological adversary despite his personal associations with Jaitley. In fact, BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders acknowledge the import that Jaitley’s all-weather friendship had with Kumar in mending the many break-ups and bringing the JD(U) back to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Assessments within the Sangh Parivar are that Jaitley excelled in the role combining the best of conventional politicking as well as perspectives and action plans for “new age politics” during his stint as Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha from 2009 to 2014.

A significant number of political observers as well as practitioners, including those belonging to non-BJP parties, are of the view that in this stint Jaitley’s interventions and the image that it created for him had a striking resemblance to that of Vajpayee, who, as the “ ultimate moderate face” of the BJP, was perceived as a “statesman politician” with the “larger common good in mind” and was capable of impacting diverse political forces as also the lay people.

Beyond the roles in terms of direct political activism or governance management, there were some special attributes that Jaitley displayed through large parts of his political career, whether in Opposition or part of the ruling dispensation. Prominent among them was his capacity to form and firm up associations with corporates, both well-entrenched traditional business-industry houses and new players, ensuring material assistance to the saffron political structure as and when required, the deep-rooted networking with the judicial establishment across large parts of the country, and the powerful bonds he established and developed with significant sections of the media, both among the journalist community and among the owners.

Discussions that come up intermittently within the judicial community in the national capital often highlight how Jaitley’s reach within the establishment retained tremendous depth and spread even during the rule of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments from 2004 to 2014. Within the media world, too, Jaitley’s reach was legendary and it had impact both at the macro and micro levels. The story of how the former I&B Minister struck to change the entire bureau of a leading daily in Delhi overnight still does the rounds in journalistic circles.

Because of the above attributes spanning governance, Opposition politics and engagements beyond in other fields of society, economics and culture, Jaitley earned the sobriquet “man for all seasons”. Indeed, he started off as a firebrand leader who participated in the public burning of an effigy of Indira Gandhi in Delhi in the early days of the Emergency and was even incarcerated for the full 19 months of the Emergency. But, over the years, the firebrand image gave way to the “man for all seasons” political persona. In fact, Jaitley developed this image for himself under the expert tutelage of the RSS and the Sangh Parivar structure.

There are many Sangh Parivar insiders who remember how this persona got crafted over many years beginning in the mid-1970s. Jaitley was among the three youngsters trained by the Sangh Parivar leadership for different roles during the 1977 Janata Party experiment, wherein the RSS had made bold to merge its then political arm, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, with the new political formation. The triumvirate comprised Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley.

These educated, affable and manifestly modern youngsters fit into the ideologically diverse Janata Party set up easily, but even while doing so, they evolved into specialists focusing on different aspects of political activity. Thus, Mahajan was into agit-prop and public relations management while Sushma Swaraj founded her politics on mass appeal with an emphasis on women’s issues. Jaitley grew into a back-room strategist, straddling the diverse political segments and social activity ranging from administrative management, manoeuvring political adversaries, interacting with and making inroads into the corporates, judiciary and media: in short, donning different hats all at once and troubleshooting from time to time.

Along with all this, Jaitley also had intellectual and academic predilections in approaching the issues under his consideration, a trait that was by far limited in the Sangh Parivar organisational environment. In all probability, incorporating and developing these predilections into his political armoury was also triggered by the “constructive competition” that existed between the “three stars of the Janata Party period”.

The cumulative effect of all this appended an aura of a different kind on Jaitley. It was this aura that ultimately made him the primary choice among Sangh Parivar leaders for the multifaceted responsibilities he got when the BJP rose to power at the Centre.

It is debatable whether his long stints and multiple positions in government contributed something substantively people-friendly or welfare-oriented to the country. Certainly, he will be remembered as the Finance Minister who presided over demonetisation, wreaking long-term havoc on the people of India, especially the marginalised.

The exertions that Jaitley had to undertake during the first Modi regime, adopting the roles of guide and facilitator for Modi and Shah along with the management of multiple Ministries simultaneously, took a toll on his health and aggravated the many afflictions that he had, including diabetes. By the time the 2019 Lok Sabha election was held he had become largely inactive and had opted out of any major responsibilities in the second Modi regime.

Jaitley’s departure from the world at the age of 66 is indeed premature. The fact that there are not many in the echelons of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar who can step in to the multiple roles he performed, especially with the kind of finesse and ease that he displayed, would make the loss even more intense and severe for the Hindutva combine.

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