Arun Jaitley, the Soft-Spoken Master of Many Ministries


Arun Jaitley, the Soft-Spoken Master of Many Ministries

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley died on Saturday after battling a long illness. Nonetheless, at 66 he still seemed young for an Indian politician. “In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm,” as the Bob Dylan song goes, Jaitley stood out as somewhat of an anomaly. He was an accomplished lawyer, with the diction and clarity of thought that came with a career spent arguing in the highest courts of the land. He exuded a shrewd, canny vibe that made you feel he was always a few steps ahead of anyone he interacted with. And though he was not a crowd-puller – Jaitley lost the only election he contested in 2014 – he was the man behind many successful BJP strategies and campaigns.   

Jaitley was born, raised, and educated in Delhi. He juggled his ambition to be a lawyer with a genuine interest in politics. Looking at his participation in youth politics, one would not be mistaken in thinking he had already charted out his enviable career trajectory. His appointment as president of the Students Union of Delhi University and his involvement in the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (an early avatar of the BJP) ensured that his connection to the political world was cemented at a very early stage.

As a lawyer, Jaitley had clients across both the political and corporate spectrum. He handled numerous high-profile cases – including the VP Singh government’s investigations into the infamous Bofors Scandal. Although as a politician he would eventually choose a side, as a lawyer, he took a much more non-partisan approach, defending cases for the Janata Dal, the Indian National Congress, and the BJP. 

Jaitley joined the BJP in 1991 and, given his pedigree and obvious level of political acumen, quickly ascended to become one of the party’s most prominent members. In 1999, he was named the BJP spokesman and when the party came to power under Vajpayee that same year, he was rewarded accordingly. Initially taking on the portfolio of Information and Broadcasting, Jaitley soon took charge, additionally, of the Ministry of Law, Justice and Company Affairs. This was the time he befriended Narendra Modi, a BJP general secretary back in the day. Years later, he played a part in ousting Keshubhai Patel as the Gujarat chief minister and installing Modi. All throughout, he remained a cabinet member until the BJP’s defeat in the 2004 general elections.

Jaitley joined the BJP in 1991 and, given his pedigree and obvious level of political acumen, quickly ascended to become one of the party’s most prominent members.

Getty Images/Hindustan Times

For the next five years, even as the BJP struggled to break the hold of the Congress on India, Jaitley kept busy with his legal career, while continuing to serve the BJP as general secretary. Eventually, his appointment as Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha meant he had to put aside his legal practice.

In 2014, as the Modi government swept back into power after a decade in the wilderness, Jaitley stood front and centre. He was hailed as one of the key strategists that helped craft the victory. And though Amit Shah is the chief mastermind, Jaitley let his work to the talking. The faith that Modi had in him was underlined by his appointment to three key cabinet roles. He was made the Minister for Corporate Affairs, the Minister of Defence, and the Minister of Finance, the most coveted of posts. 

To understand how important the finance portfolio was, one would need to appreciate Modi’s obsession with bringing economic development to the Indian people. Much of the PM’s lustrous political aura rested on his perceived prowess in delivering “achhe din” to a country entangled in scandals and corruption. To entrust Jaitley with this honour was a resounding declaration to his vitality within the BJPs senior-most elite.

While some may have decried the appointment of a career lawyer into the role of finance minister, many considered the fit to be one that held true promise. Few could have predicted, however, that his time in the role would see policies implemented that would reverberate through the Indian economy in a manner not seen since the 1991 reforms.

Jaitley kept busy with his legal career, while continuing to serve the BJP as general secretary.

Getty Images/Hindustan Times

In some ways, because this is Modi’s India, Jaitley’s role in demonetisation and the implementation of GST is seen as purely ceremonial. But while Modi took centre stage, it was Jaitley who did the firefighting, absorbing all the criticism that came with these moves.

With demonetisation, the government sent a shockwave through the economy. When you stir a pot hard enough, it takes so much longer for the sediments to find their place. And so, we find ourselves debating – nearly three years since DeMo was announced – on whether it had any lasting positive impact on hindering the shadow economy in India.

GST was a more straightforward affair, and should rightfully be considered one of the largest feathers in Jaitley’s cap. Although plagued with issues in implementation and not without its critics, GST remains one of the most important policy measures ever executed. It helped detangle a multi-layered system of taxation that had hindered Indian businesses for decades. Some may argue that it was pure happenstance that Jaitley was Minister of Finance when GST came into effect. But the truth is that the government had dragged its feet for a long time on GST, and Jaitley was undeniably at the helm when it finally saw the light of day.

In addition to the more eyeball grabbing DeMo and GST, Jaitley also implemented the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. Similar to Chapter 11 in the US, the regulation allows for a formal process that companies can follow in the event of insolvency. With the economy on shaky ground and with a host of companies declaring unmanageable levels of debt, one expects this far-less glamorous policy might end up being a large part of Jaitley’s legacy.

But what made Jaitley truly stand out in a time of hardline politics, are his centrist views. Despite being an integral part of the BJP, Jaitley himself was rarely seen spewing extremist opinion. He was recognised as one of the few leaders who spoke openly about LGBTQ issues. Most surprising is that he was a career politician, whose Wikipedia entry contains hardly a few lines under the category “Controversy” (Spoiler alert: the controversy is rather mild). It is rare to find true gentlemen in politics. 

But what made Jaitley truly stand out in a time of hardline politics, are his centrist views.

Jaitley was not the one to make fiery speeches and draw crowds, but he was a quiet charmer who made friends across party lines. The “My Friend, Jaitley” tributes pouring in after his death stand testimony.  

Jaitley’s health deteriorated after he was diagnosed with a rare form of soft-tissue sarcoma. This came after a kidney transplant. His absence at the last two budgets set tongues wagging, despite his party’s best intentions to downplay the seriousness of his condition. But as Shekhar Gupta’s obituary points out Jaitley was quite the fighter. “In a mere 15 years, between the young age of 51 and 66, Jaitley faced more serious sickness than any public figure we have known. Did anybody see him complain? Betray a trace of self-pity? Or an exasperated why the hell is all this happening only to me? You have probably seen a person make light of battling the most crippling, terminal sickness before, but only in the movies. Like Rajesh Khanna’s Anand. In real life, not many would be dealt such a cruel hand by the health gods,” writes Gupta. 

With Jaitley gone, the BJP loses a key mind and a visionary. But, more importantly, India loses a statesman who spoke clearly, concisely, and in a manner that had you considering whether there was still some good in Indian politics.