What made Arun Jaitley so special, and indeed indispensable, to the BJP and the Modi Government?
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
ON THE MORNING of August 6th, the day after the Rajya Sabha cleared the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A on Jammu and Kashmir, I telephoned the ailing Arun Jaitley at his home in Kailash Colony. “It was your day,” I told him, remembering the passion with which he had argued for these constitutional changes over the past two decades, “You should have been there speaking.”
He paused for a while and replied, “That’s fate.” However, he told me that he had been involved in drafting the legislation that had been kept in readiness for some months. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, in fact, pleaded with him to come to the Rajya Sabha and speak for just 10 minutes on the subject. “I couldn’t. I just don’t have the energy,” he said with just a tinge of regret in his voice.
Modi’s request was more than a mere gesture. Before finalising his Cabinet for his second term, he had driven down to Jaitley’s residence to consult him and, possibly, request him to review his decision to stay out of the Government. But Jaitley’s mind was made up. Although his razor-sharp intellect was intact, his body was giving way. He wanted time to himself and his family.
What made Arun Jaitley so special, and indeed indispensable, to the BJP and the Modi Government?
On the day of his cremation, two individuals came up to me and, without any prompting, spoke about their sense of loss.
The first was a two-term Lok Sabha member, a distinguished individual in her own right, who had been inducted into the BJP just prior to 2014. The other was a veteran RSS pracharak who has been part of the BJP for the past two decades or so.
Contrary to what is often alluded, Jaitley was never a misfit in the BJP or the proverbial ‘right man in the wrong party’. He was quite unequivocally committed to the cause – and without reservations. He used to claim he was born into the Jana Sangh/BJP because, as he said “it was the natural home of all refugee families.”
“Who do we go to now?” the MP asked. “Arunji was always our first port of call. He understood us.” A self-professed liberal nationalist, she was speaking as a person who was quite central to the BJP and yet was not part of the group that had come into active politics through the RSS-BJP ecosystem. She could instinctively relate to Jaitley and trust him to understand a point of view that wasn’t, should we say, ideological. It was the social familiarity of the upper middle-class, English-speaking, urban Indian. Not quite the entitled Khan Market brigade but certainly a part of cosmopolitan India.
It was the RSS pracharak’s assessment that was even more revealing. “He is irreplaceable,” he said. “He fulfilled so many functions. He was the person who could get different people together and give them the confidence to talk with total frankness. His house was a natural meeting point for us. We could engage freely over dinner.” Then he added another attribute of Jaitley, not so well-known outside the closed circle. “He was forever solving small problems—getting medical attention for our karyakartas, directing them to lawyers, fixing admission issues of their children.” By then there were tears in his eyes.
Almost every person that overcast Sunday morning who saw him off from this world, had an Arun Jaitley story. The mourners included sitting Supreme Court judges, holders of constitutional posts, politicians cutting across parties, RSS functionaries, political workers and business stalwarts. Some media stalwarts got trolled for uninhibitedly admitting that Jaitley had been their mentor and a person they had sought professional and personal guidance from. Ironically, those who were dubbed members of “Jaitley’s darbar” included those known for their antipathy to the BJP.
I have known Jaitley since 1972, when we were part of the debating circle of Delhi University colleges—he, of course, being more senior and far more accomplished. However, it was in 1973, when he was vice president of the Delhi University Students’ Union that I really got to know him well. He loved dropping in to the University Coffee House—located at that time in the rear section of the Vice Chancellor’s office—in the evening and would often join a few of us for dinner at St Stephen’s College. In the normal course, student leaders with a political orientation were unwelcome in St Stephen’s which, apart from being socially elitist, was quite dismissive of the political world outside. But Jaitley was different. He was always ‘one of us’ and someone who could effortlessly straddle different worlds.
I lost touch with him for about 12 years, the time he was in jail during Emergency and was subsequently building his legal career. He always maintained that if you wanted to make a mark in politics, you must first ensure that you had the means to do so. The alternative was to succumb to temptation.
We reconnected in the late-1980s and the relationship grew closer. He was much more than a political ‘contact’. He guided me in the difficult post-Ayodhya days when liberal intolerance was at its height, drew me into the inner circle of the BJP, offered invaluable personal and professional advice and often used me as a political sounding board. We travelled and camped together during election campaigns in Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh where he initiated me into the world of practical politics. We often transcended the world of politics and gossiped aimlessly about food, corny Hindi film dialogues and cricket. He knew my fondness for mutton rogan josh and would take care to serve me some—made in Kashmiri style—during the many dinners at his place. He taunted me for being ‘too much of a Bengali babu’ but was among the first to direct me to camp in West Bengal before the 2019 General Election. He had anticipated the mood of change in the state.
I was privy to many of his inner-most thoughts on political issues and individuals. They were told in trust and it would be a betrayal of confidence to reveal them. At the same time, some themes stand out.
First, contrary to what is often alluded, Jaitley was never a misfit in the BJP or the proverbial ‘right man in the wrong party’. He was quite unequivocally committed to the cause—and without reservations. He used to claim he was born into the Jana Sangh/BJP because, as he said, “it was the natural home of all refugee families.” He was emphatic in his support for all the ‘distinctive’ planks of the party—the Ram temple in Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370, Uniform Civil Code and the critique of ‘pseudo-secularism’. He had the greatest regard for the RSS as an institution fostering Hindu unity, although he would often be exasperated by the idiosyncrasies and political innocence of individual pracharaks. To him, the Janata Party experience had demonstrated the virtual impossibility of building a cohesive national party without a guiding force, such as the Sangh. He was always welcoming of the non-Sangh politicians who replenished the ranks of the BJP after 1990-91. However, he always nurtured deep misgivings of those leaders who never cared about the slog work and were only interested in the malai. He was a natural coalition builder but always got on better with those he had shared experiences of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement and the struggle against Emergency with. This may explain his success in forging coalitions with the likes of Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Parkash Singh Badal in Punjab. He may have been socially at ease with individual Congress leaders, but he was clear that their political values were at odds with his own.
In the normal course, student leaders with a political orientation were unwelcome in St Stephen’s which, apart from being socially elitist, was quite dismissive of the political world outside. But Jaitley was different. He was always ‘one of us’ and someone who could effortlessly straddle different worlds
SECONDLY, HE WAS deeply respectful of the hierarchies in the BJP. As a youth leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the icon of the movement and Jaitley’s hero worship persisted even after he joined the Government in 1999. Yet, he had the ability to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the leaders. Vajpayee, to him, was always the ‘big picture’ man, impatient with the nitty-gritty of organisation. LK Advani, on the other hand, was a master tactician and understood organisational rigour. He was personally indebted to Advani for mentoring his own steady rise in the organisation. However, his sense of gratitude and loyalty did not prevent his deep disappointment with Advani over his needless ‘secular’ certificate to Muhammad Ali Jinnah during a visit to Pakistan in 2005. After the defeat in 2004, he was also not in tune with the sustained disruption of Parliament and the opposition to the Indo-US nuclear accord. Both, he believed, went against the natural impulses of the BJP’s middle-class support base. Yet, as a disciplined soldier, he never went public with his doubts.
Finally, on issues of economic policy, Jaitley was very firmly on the side of the ‘economic Right’. Like many in the BJP, he had an instinctive suspicion of the Congress’ socialism which he equated with both inefficiency and cronyism. His exposure to corporate clients in the law courts nurtured a respect for Indian entrepreneurship and as Finance Minister, he was passionate in making life easier for businesses so that they could devote themselves to their real work rather than fritter away energies filling forms and securing clearances. He was, however, a cautious globaliser and somewhat of a nationalist when it came to international trade. The politician in him argued against too indiscriminate an entry of foreign capital.
The relationship between Jaitley and Modi has often been the subject of political speculation. There was media consternation when Jaitley defended Modi resolutely in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots and subsequently extended solid backing to the Gujarat Chief Minister being made the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014. There were suggestions that Jaitley’s positions argued against his personality. As someone who had a ringside view of this evolving partnership, my perspective is different. What drew these two individuals close?
Modi and Jaitley’s proximity can be said to have begun around 1995. At that point, Modi was at a loose end, having been more or less banished from Gujarat as a consequence of the Keshubhai Patel-Shankersinh Vaghela clash that split the state party. Modi had responsibilities in other north Indian states but was based in Delhi. When in the capital, he would often drop in for dinner at Jaitley’s residence—a natural meeting place for many in the saffron fraternity. It was Jaitley who introduced Modi to the movers and shakers in the capital and deftly pressed for his return to Gujarat. Finally, in late-2001, after a series of by-election disasters in BJP strongholds, the national leadership agreed to replace Keshubhai Patel as Chief Minister. Modi was installed as Chief Minister in Gandhinagar.
No sooner had Modi taken over than Gujarat was plunged into turmoil following the arson attack on the train carrying kar sevaks from Ayodhya. The Godhra incident led to recriminatory bouts of violence and killing. The Opposition and a large section of the media bayed for Modi’s blood. In Gujarat, however, the mood was very different.
It was Jaitley who introduced Modi to the movers and shakers in the Capital and deftly pressed for his return to Gujarat. Finally, in late-2001, after a series of by-election disasters in BJP strongholds, the national leadership agreed to replace Keshubhai Patel as chief minister. Modi was installed as chief minister in Gandhinagar
Jaitley was among those who accompanied then Prime Minister Vajpayee to Ahmedabad to get a first-hand account of the situation. There, he witnessed the spontaneous demonstration of ordinary people lauding Modi as a hero. He followed this up with consultations with party colleagues in Gujarat. The feedback was uniformly pro-Modi.
Vajpayee wasn’t convinced. Matters seemed likely to come to a head at the Goa National Executive meeting of the BJP. The evening prior to the meeting, Modi came to Jaitley’s residence for a small dinner. His mood was sombre and he let it be known that if the party so wished, he would step down without hesitation. I was there at the dinner but I don’t know if he and Jaitley had privately devised a strategy. In any event, at Goa, Modi stunned everyone by pre-emptively announcing that since there was a call for his resignation, he was stepping down there and then. A stunned National Executive reacted in near-unanimity and said an emphatic no. Modi had won the round and Vajpayee had the grace to acknowledge it.
Thereafter, the Modi-Jaitley partnership flowered. Jaitley was the prabhari for the Gujarat Assembly elections of 2002 and 2007. There was a neat division of labour: Modi would tour the state intensively and Jaitley would manage all the publicity and the media. Late at night, Jaitley would drive to Gandhinagar and exchange notes.
The choreography was beautifully synchronised. In 2009, it was Modi who picked up Sonia Gandhi’s ‘maut ki saudagar’ one afternoon. Promptly, Jaitley set to work complementing Modi’s invocation of Gujarati pride with a propaganda blitz that had the Congress reeling.
After the BJP’s defeat in 2009, it was painfully apparent to the party that a new leadership had to take over the reins from the Vajpayee-Advani duo. For Jaitley, the choice should have been clear. However, there was one complicating factor: the resolute opposition of Nitish Kumar. Jaitley had stitched the JD(U)-BJP alliance in Bihar and had developed a close relationship with the Bihar Chief Minister. He couldn’t be dismissive of his concerns.
It was a tough choice but a choice Jaitley made on the strength of his clinical analysis of Modi’s unquestioned popularity among the party workers. He was among the first to endorse Modi’s candidature openly and played a big role in quietly persuading the RSS to drop its misgivings. The rest, as they say, is history.
In Government, Jaitley became Modi’s troubleshooter, playing a role in shaping policy and even managing junior ministers. The two may have disagreed at times but the outside world never knew it. On his consultations with the Prime Minister, Jaitley was totally tight-lipped. Only once did he tell me that he always left the final decision to Modi. By then the relationship of the two men had reached a level of considerable maturity. It was based on pure trust and mutual affection. Jaitley trusted Modi’s political instincts and the Prime Minister banked on Jaitley’s intellect and knowledge of the system. From GST and demonetisation to surgical strikes and Balakot, Jaitley was pivotal to the Government’s decision-making.
In life, Jaitley’s warmth and friendship touched just so many people. With his departure, I have lost a friend who was also my mentor and my compass. And I am just one of the many who feel orphaned.