August 1974: ABVP candidate Arun Jaitley celebrating after Delhi University elections, New Delhi (Photo: Getty Images)
ARUN JAITLEY WAS a quintessential gentleman-politician, a rare breed. Though one or two lawyer-politicians may be more successful in raking in still bigger bucks from their legal practices, it was Arun who stood out for his squeaky clean image. He never strayed from the straight and narrow in both his private and political lives. Suave, cultured and hard to provoke, his legal acumen, his voice of moderation and his excellent power of articulation were always an asset for the BJP whether in government or opposition. He was a liberal in a party in which voices of unreason and narrow-mindedness often distort the political discourse.
An extremely sociable person with friends across party lines, and from various social and economic strata, he never allowed political differences to intrude into his warm relationships, even with those who made no effort to disguise their visceral hatred of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. But to be fair, neither Modi nor Shah or, for that matter, anyone else remotely suspected his complete loyalty to the BJP. For, he was the only bridge-builder in the ruling party across the entire political spectrum.
His power of persuasion and consensus-building served him well while getting all the states on board on the long-pending Goods and Services Tax (GST). He was able to get the nod of the states on what is easily the most vital and durable tax reform since Independence by building personal rapports with state finance ministers belonging to the opposition parties. It came naturally to him to engage state finance ministers in an informal adda at the end of every official meeting of the GST Council. Social and political gupp-shupp was exchanged over sumptuous food fetched from one of his favourite eating places. Personal foibles of notable people were related but without a whiff of malice. He revelled in exchanging tittle-tattle, strictly of the above-the-belt kind. Despite the early glitches in its implementation, GST is now working fine and is bound to help in bringing more and more tax evaders into the net.
Even when abroad on holiday, Jaitley would insist on driving long distances to locate an Indian restaurant to eat rajma chawal or aloo parantha, although finding Amritsari machhli and chhole bhature was hard deep in the interior of Switzerland
Share this on
Another significant decision was to pass the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, making it harder for crony capitalists to enrich themselves while defaulting on loan payments. Never before had India seen iconic businessmen sitting on mountains of debt come to grief as now, after the implementation of the banking reform. They were made accountable at the pain of distress sale of their assets and even doing time. Hitherto it was normal for thuggish businesses to divert borrowed funds to private pockets while stripping their companies of assets and declaring them sick.
This was the norm rather than the exception when ‘telephone banking’ prevailed. But it came to an abrupt end the day the Modi Government was sworn in. And the bank boardrooms were rid of barely economic literates as independent directors nominated at the behest of ministers or their minions. Now, a body of professionals selects directors after fully vetting their credentials and it can be reported that no party apparatchik or sycophant has found place on the boards of public sector banks since Jaitley came to head the Ministry of Finance.
Another reform concerned the constitution of a nine-member Monetary Policy Committee. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor and three deputy governors, along with four outside experts and the Chief Economic Adviser, meet at least four times every year to consider the benchmark rate—the repo rate—at which the RBI lends to banks and the reverse repo rate, at which it borrows from them. Its brief is to hold inflation between 4 to 6 percent. It also does this by deciding the extent of liquidity in the economy with other available monetary tools. Hitherto, monetary policy was an opaque affair, determined by the RBI without any obligation to share the factors underpinning it. To Jaitley’s credit, all through the five years he was Finance Minister, inflation registered at record lows.
Yes, Finance was the line ministry for demonetisation. It was implemented without much planning, causing avoidable pain to lots of people. Since there was no anticipation of the numerous glitches that would crop up daily, sheer haphazardness informed its implementation. But it was no secret in political Delhi that this most controversial measure had emanated from the highest in Government, though it fell upon Jaitley to defend it with his wonted powers of spin and clever strategy. For, he was the most persuasive face of the BJP, both in Government and opposition.
Crony capitalism, the bane of the UPA decade, vanished from the land in May 2014. Neither Modi nor Jaitley, his most trusted confidant and virtually Number Two, gave short shrift to corporate czars. While earlier, industrialists thronged the corridors of power, now both the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister maintained a safe distance from them. Yet, if they had a genuine grievance which required their attention, they were welcome to approach through e-mail or send a representation, but personal contact with the moneybags was a strict no-no. All through the UPA decade, a couple of industrialists would land in Delhi every week, their first stop being the office of the then Prime Minister’s then Principal Secretary TKA Nair. Incidentally, in Modi 1.0, a corruption probe was launched against Nair revealing payments to his daughter and son-in-law through a Dubai channel. Whatever happened to that investigation is not known. But it can be said with a degree of certainty that whatever else might be the failings of the Modi Government, corruption isn’t one of them.
HERE I AM obliged to make a confession. The editor’s brief was to write about the Jaitley I knew. As a journalist, I have consciously avoided sprinkling my copy with I, me and mine. A journalist had expressed dread about the surfeit of ‘my friend Jaitley’ columns that would follow after his demise. But this was rich, coming from someone who is notorious for injecting himself into whatever he writes about. In the very same column about Jaitley, he could not help but insert himself, claiming to have taken something that he considered Jaitely would like when he last went to see him. A case of the pot calling the kettle black, indeed.
Unable to defy my editor, here it goes, then. Arun Jaitley claimed he had known me from the time he became the Delhi University Students’ Union President in 1974, when I was a cub reporter for The Motherland, a now defunct daily started by the Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP, to pierce the stranglehold of the pro-Indira Gandhi media in those authoritarian times. But we became close friends in Tihar Jail, both MISA detenues and in the same ward, he for being an ABVP activist and I for questioning Ambika Soni over beating up boys still not out of their teens, for shouting the harmless slogan: “Up, Up With Democracy, Down, Down with Dictatorship”. That is where a life-long friendship developed.
Even then he was one of the most engaging conversationalists amongst all of us, dissecting the day’s news and rumours—since strict censorship kept real news out of the papers—with relish, much to the liking of people like Vijay Kumar Malhotra, KR Malkani, Jagannathrao Joshi, SS Bhandari, OP Kohli and others who were penned into a small ward. To cut a long story short, upon release from prison after he had spent 19 months in jail against my measly 10 months, he was offered a Lok Sabha ticket for the 1977 election. He could not contest since he was not 25 yet. While he finished his law degree, he remained in touch with the ABVP and the Janata Party, or rather its Jana Sangh component. In 1980, when the Janata Party splintered and the Jana Sangh component emerged in its present avatar as the BJP, Jaitley was one of its prominent youth leaders.
His bread and butter came from his law practice by then. A regular middle-class boy who was gifted with a superior intellect and an elephantine memory, he was sought after in party circles and social gatherings for his easy grasp of legal and political matters. Also, as an engaging raconteur with a nose for gossip about people from all walks of life, including the media, he made for great company. While making strides in his legal profession, his big break came when the short-lived VP Singh Government in 1989 appointed him Additional Solicitor General, tasking him with investigations into the Bofors scam. In 1994, when three Rajya Sabha seats from Delhi were to be filled, and all three were certain to go to the BJP, Jaitley was shortlisted. However, he was denied nomination due to a misunderstanding with AB Vajpayee who, while rejecting his claim, nonetheless volunteered that he would make a good parliamentarian. His chance came in 2000 when he was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat.
While much of his political life is in the public sphere, not many know the real Jaitley who was a great foodie, an impressive public speaker, a storehouse of insight into men and matters, always related in a spellbinding manner. While I have seen journalists and others leave whatever they were doing to crowd around Jaitley whenever he appeared in the Central Hall of Parliament, what is not as widely known is that even in the High Court canteen Jaitley’s appearance would be an indication for everyone else to move near to him, including lawyers far senior to him.
Another side of Jatiley was his generosity of spirit. Always ready to render financial and other help, everyone in his household staff and legal office has seen his or her children acquire an excellent education, fully-owned houses paid for by Jatiley, even decent job placements. One of his personal valets has travelled the world with him when he was minister. Another office boy has had his three daughters acquire law and business management degrees, with all three now in high-earning jobs, two of them in London and New York, respectively. Jaitley also regularly donated large sums to an orphanage for the blind and funded hundreds of free cataract procedures conducted by another charity. He could do all this thanks to a successful stint as a top lawyer. As he would often say, once you are at the top of your profession for a decade or so, you can take care of the financial needs of your family for the next few generations. But Jaitley’s children, son Rohan and daughter Sonali, have turned out to be bright young lawyers in their own right and will not need to dip into the inheritance from their father.
This piece on Jaitley would not be complete without mentioning his love for Indian and Muglai food. Indeed, his long-time friend Mukul Rohatgi would often rib him that even when abroad on holiday, Jaitley would insist on driving long distances to locate an Indian restaurant to eat rajma chawal or aloo parantha, although finding Amritsari machhli and chhole bhature was hard deep in the interior of Switzerland. And then the former Attorney General would add good-humouredly, “Jaitley, we haven’t come so far away from our country to drive 150 kilometres to search for your kaali daal and roti... I want the local fare for our next meal.” And Jaitley would shrug his shoulders and a few hours later press the hotel concierge to provide the address of yet another Indian food joint. A life-long teetotaller, Jaitley could not be grudged his weakness for good veg or non-veg Indian food.
Of his readiness to help even those who were on the other side of the political divide, let me mention but only two incidents. When a lawyer-MP found himself caught literally with his pants down and the recorded video went viral, the long-suffering wife appeared at Jaitley’s door in sack cloth and ashes. He saw to it that his party or even his friends in the media did not embarrass the much-embarrassed lawyer. Again, when the same lawyer was slapped with a Rs 100 crore penalty in back taxes and penalty, he sought out Jaitley to bail him out.
The case of Mulayam Singh Yadav is no less interesting. Someone had filed a PIL demanding that he pay back the costs and a penalty for abusing the ministry aircraft for making weekly trips to his village Saifai in Uttar Pradesh. A worried Yadav, along with his then Man Friday Amar Singh, sought Jaitley’s counsel. Ace lawyer that he was, Jaitley advised him to plead that there being tens of thousands of ex-servicemen in UP, his weekend visits were necessary to address their numerous grievances regarding pension and medical facilities. Yadav got away scot free.
And last but not least, let me end on a truly personal note. On the eve of Republic Day 2016, a joint secretary at the Home Ministry called me, enquiring whether I would accept a Padma award. I said I would get back in 10 minutes; I am glad that my wife and daughters endorsed my decision to say no. Next morning, on learning that I had rejected the Padma award, Jaitley phoned and asked: “Aapne mana kar diya?” I said, “You know I don’t believe in these things.” He went on to say that on being asked by the Prime Minister if he wanted to add some more names, he had suggested mine and two others. “PM readily agreed, Haan, unko toh dena hai…”
Earlier, in the Vajpayee regime, while walking in Lodhi Gardens, he had suggested that I become a member of the Delhi Golf Club from the discretionary quota of the Government. I had countered that at this late stage in my life I was unlikely to take up golf. Besides, I hate official patronage. Now, if it paints me in a good light, it is not intentional. That is what I am and that is what Jaitley was: always generous towards one and all, ready to help and without a trace of arrogance in tu janta nahi mein kaun hoon Lutyens’ Delhi. A great politician, a devoted family man, a firefighter not only for the BJP but for friends in distress from the opposition as well. Bariatric surgery in a prominent city hospital in September 2014 went horribly wrong. Jaitley never fully recovered from its deadly fallout. Let me conclude by saying that if we only had a couple of more Arun Jaitleys in our politics, it would not be the cesspool of corruption and criminality that it has become over the years.