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Arun Jaitley: BJP’s Man for All Seasons

Arun Jaitley, the former finance minister of India and one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's closest assocoates, is no more. It took a series of health conditions to end the life of the BJP's serial troubleshooter. As finance minister, Jaitley presided over the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax and led efforts to reform India's ineffective laws dealing with industrial sickness with a new bankruptcy code. He commanded goodwill on both sides of the political divide.

What led to Arun Jaitley’s demise?

Former Finance Minister and BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley’s long fight with various health ailments ended at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi at 12:07 pm on Saturday, August 24.
The statement read: "It is with profound grief that we inform about the sad demise of Shri Arun Jaitley, Hon'ble Member of Parliament & Former Finance Minister, Government of India at 12:07 pm on 24th August, 2019." "Shri Arun Jaitley was admitted in AIIMS, New Delhi, on 09/08/2019 and was treated by a multidisciplinary team of senior doctors," it further said.

Except good health, Arun Jaitley had all that he could attain or destiny could bestow: prosperity, power, fame, family, friends and above all, a fine brain. He knew it, and would lament often that painful reality of his plentiful life. Vinod Sharma, the political editor of the Hindustan Times, writes that Jaitley once told him “Ishwar ne sab kuch diya hai sehat ke alava” (God has given me everything except good health).
Jaitley, 66, a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), stepped down as finance minister in January due to ill health, just months before elections that returned Modi’s party to power. “With the demise of Arun Jaitley Ji, I have lost a valued friend, whom I have had the honour of knowing for decades,” Modi said on Twitter. “His insight on issues and nuanced understanding of matters had very few parallels.”

A diabetic, his health had worsened after he underwent a kidney transplant in May last year. He also had to skip the presentation of the interim budget in February when he was in hospital in the United States for cancer treatment. The lawyer-turned-politician also had triple heart bypass surgery when he was 52.
Jaitley’s urbane and articulate manner helped him win friends across party lines and industry. During his tenure as finance minister, Jaitley led the enactment of a bankruptcy code and a national goods and services tax law that had languished for almost 20 years.

The BJP lost another veteran party leader and former minister of external affairs when Sushma Swaraj died after a cardiac arrest earlier this month. This is the fourth big loss to the BJP in nine months. Ananth Kumar and Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, too, died of cancer.

Why did Jaitley command respect in political circles?

Arun Jaitley stood up and delivered across many roles

As the law minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government, he piloted a landmark legislation that left a deep impact in Indian politics: the 91st amendment to the Constitution that put restrictions on defections of political leaders. It was the first step to stop the so-called Aaya Ram Gaya Ram phenomenon (the phrase was coined after Haryana MLA Gaya Lal changed his party thrice within the same day in 1967).

Jaitley flourished in the Opposition benches between 2004 and 2014 in the Rajya Sabha, including when he was the Leader of Opposition (2009 to 2014) in the Upper House while late Sushma Swaraj was his counterpart in the Lower House. Their ascension marked a generational shift in the BJP’s parliamentary party and the rise of a new, firebrand Opposition politics.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government faced a tough Opposition that reaped the benefits of internal contradictions in the ruling coalition and at a later stage, of several charges of corruption. In the post-Vajpayee era, Jaitley emerged an erudite orator, a sharp lawmaker and a flamboyant leader of the Opposition who mixed his legal acumen with political skill. He attacked the Congress, especially the Nehru-Gandhi family ruthlessly. But he never made personal attacks. The acrimony between the BJP and the Opposition escalated over the years, but Jaitley never lost his friends in the Opposition camps. He went to invite senior Congress leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi personally for his daughter’s marriage but didn’t hesitate to dub Rahul as “clown prince” in his column.

He was a vocal critic of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the scam-tainted UPA 2 regime, but after the 2014 results came out, he wrote in a blog: “Unquestionably, Dr Manmohan Singh was a very good finance minister”. He had immense respect for former President Pranab Mukherjee of the Congress. During any function at the Parliament’ central hall, Jaitley could be seen taking a seat next to Mukherjee and engaged in long conversation. Leaders of a feather flock together in spite of the divisive party politics.

Spending many years in the Opposition as well as in the treasury benches had gifted him a holistic vision on Parliament. And that’s why, speaking on the Congress’s stance on Aadhaar in 2017, Jaitley could make an immortal assessment, “Where you stand depends on where you sit!” When Congress leader Jairam Ramesh claimed in his Rajya Sabha farewell speech in 2016 that former cricketer Vijay Merchant had said “You must retire when people say why and not when why not”, Jaitley, employing his disarming sense of humour yet again, stood up and said, “I have been correcting Jairam for last five years. I have to correct him for the last time. It was said by Sunil Gavaskar, not Vijay Merchant.”

When Jaitley retired earlier this year, people asked Why. He was a sincere man, an ace lawyer, and he took parliamentary proceedings seriously. There was an element of truth in what Jaitley said. There was some humour too. He reminded the nation of the good days when politics was played, not carried to the grave. He ended his political innings just like he started it. Simply but firmly.

When did he enter politics?

Born in 1952 to Ratan Prabha and Maharaj Kishen Jaitley, the senior leader made the political plunge during the Emergency years after being active in Delhi’s student politics.
He graduated in commerce from Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in 1973 and got his degree in Law four years later. He was among the founders of a platform that helped Old Political Individuals of the University Meet (OPIUM). The composition of the group was eclectic, comprise as it did of politicians of varied hue active on the university campus from 1969 to 1974.

During his university years, Jaitley was a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP, and became the president of the Delhi University Student Union (DUSU) in 1974. He was placed under preventive detention first in the Ambala Jail and then in the Tihar Jail when prime minister Indira Gandhi proclaimed Emergency.
As Emergency was lifted, Jaitley pursued his career in law and started practising in the Delhi High Court followed by the Supreme Court, while officially joining the BJP in 1980. Arun Jaitley married Sangeeta, daughter of former Jammu and Kashmir finance minister Girdhari Lal Dogra, on May 24, 1982. They have two children, Rohan and Sonali. Jaitley's both children are lawyers by profession.

He was appointed the Additional Solicitor General of India in 1989 by the VP Singh government, which was supported by the BJP from the outside, and worked on the infamous Bofors scandal in 1990. He became a member of the BJP’s national executive in 1991. Jaitley joined the government in 1999 when he was appointed the Minister of State (MoS) for Information and Broadcasting in the Atal Bihar Vajpayee’s 13-month-old government, later heading the disinvestment ministry and the commerce ministry as well.

After Vajpayee came back to power, Jaitley was given the responsibility of being the party’s official voice as its spokesperson along with the likes of Sushma Swaraj and Pramod Mahajan. He was called back into the government in 2003 as a full-time Law Minister. Earlier, as a lawyer, Jaitley was known for fighting cases for big corporations. Before quitting his law practice in 2009, Jaitley represented several multinationals including Pepsi Co. and Coca Cola in the Supreme Court.
Jaitley, the lawyer-turned politician was an important part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Cabinet in the BJP government's first term.

Before opting out of the new Modi government in 2019, he looked after the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. He was also the Minister of Defence 2014-2017, and the Minister of Information and Broadcasting from 2014-2016.
Arun Jaitley's biggest achievements as the finance minister in the Modi cabinet were the successful implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST) and Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC), both of which formalised the Indian economy. He also laid the roadmap for direct tax reforms and extensively worked toward opening up the economy by easing out foreign direct investment (FDI) rules. Besides, Jaitley was instrumental in bringing in several changes in the company law, bank recapitalisation process and the monetary policy framework.

His record as Finance Minister has largely been judged as ‘mixed’. But his record as a committed and hard-working politician who worked his way up the ranks is exemplary. He, even in his last Rajya Sabha stint, would go through volumes of documents to prepare for the next day’s debate. Any young person who wants to make it big in politics and is willing to work hard can choose to follow Jaitley’s career path.

Where lay his greatest skill?

Arun Jaitly was a master of the art of making friends and influencing people. He was the troubleshooter the BJP went to when all else failed. Jaitley developed strong friendships with leaders across parties. And this became his biggest quality in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - otherwise a cadre-based party with a conservative outlook.

At the height of the see-saw over the Indo-US nuclear deal, BJP’s then strongest and senior-most leader LK Advani was asked whether he had studied the pact. He replied in the negative, saying the matter was left to Jaitley, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie as they had better grasp of the issues under debate. After the Sinha-Shourie duo drifted away from the BJP, Jaitley became the party’s all-purpose debater, be it defending the indefensible or explaining the incomprehensible. Or forging impossible alliances.

On the sidelines of the farewell dinner for the then outgoing President, Pranab Mukherjee, on July 22, 2017, Arun Jaitley tipped Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar about the plan of his then ally Lalu Prasad to break Nitish's party Janata Dal (United) and possibly engineer his ouster. At the dinner itself, Jaitley convinced Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the re-induction of JD(U) into the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Nitish Kumar's return to the NDA was considered as one of the biggest coups in the recent political history of the country, which not only strengthened the government but also stole a biggest name out of the opposition's cavalry. As one of the top JDU leaders explained, only Jaitley could have managed this.

Narendra Modi too owes some part of his rise to Jaitley, who had played a crucial role in Modi becoming the prime ministerial candidate of BJP in 2013 before the 2014 general elections, an idea that some of the senior leaders of the party were opposed to. Jaitley had personally spoken to most of the members of the party’s parliamentary board and chief ministers of BJP-ruled states to get their support in favour of Modi as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP.

His debating skills and knowledge of the law made him the best defender of the BJP’s political line and policies. His cerebral combats in Parliament with peers such as P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Singhvi and Sitaram Yechury added lustre to the proceedings. He excelled in the Rajya Sabha in the debate on the Office of Profit controversy over which Sonia Gandhi had to resign and re-contest from Rae Bareli in 2006.

The finalization of the GST regime in 2016 required extensive consultations and consensus-building with states, and Jaitley’s interpersonal skills played a key role in enabling this. It can be argued that he was the best man for the job that demanded showing genuine empathy towards states’ concerns.

His colleagues in the Rajya Sabha remember him as a keen participant in the proceedings of several key committees. He was in the Committee of Privileges, and in the Joint Committee that examined the constitutional and legal position relating to Offices of Profit, as well as the Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha on the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill. He steered the discussions and gave valuable inputs in framing laws such as the Lokpal Bill.
His biggest strength was that he was seen as a genuine politician. He kept his word and retained his friends, regardless of where he met them.

There are countless stories of Jaitley having helped friends and colleagues buy homes, own cars, and finance higher studies for their children. He never sold old vehicles. He gave them away to deserving associates. Several lawyers owe their careers to him in the courts of Delhi.

So does Mahesh Pandit, a young man from Bihar’s backwoods whose oil-on-canvas hyper-realistic paintings caught the finance minister’s eye and opened for him the gates to the who’s who of politics, including President Ram Nath Kovind and PM Modi. Pandit, who couldn’t finish school and did menial jobs to make ends meet, now earns Rs 25,000-50,000 per painting, and both his children go to school.

Who said what on his demise?

“Full of life, blessed with wit, a great sense of humour and charisma, Arun Jaitley Ji was admired by people across all sections of society. He was multi-faceted, having impeccable knowledge about India’s Constitution, history, public policy, governance and administration,” tweeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is on a three-day tour to the UAE.
The best tributes to him have come from the leaders of the party he spent his career arguing with. And that says a lot about the quality of his politics.

“Arun Jaitley Ji’s demise is a huge loss to the nation. He was a brilliant lawyer and parliamentarian, whom I personally admired and from whom I have derived immense learning. In him the nation has lost one of its leading lights and I have lost a family member.” ~ Jyotiraditya Scindia of Congress

Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi expressed deep pain and distress at the passing away of Jaitley. She said that Jaitley had a long innings as a public figure, parliamentarian and minister, and his contributions to public life will forever be remembered.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a condolence message, described Jaitley as an eminent lawyer, an excellent orator, a very good administrator and an outstanding parliamentarian. In his condolence message to Jaitley’s wife Sangeeta, Singh said, “In his death our country has lost a great leader who always worked for the betterment of society.”

The party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said, “Saddened to know about the demise of Shri Arun Jaitley. My deepest condolences to his family. An astute parliamentarian, he’ll always be remembered. May his soul Rest in Peace.”

Noted lawyer and former union minister Kapil Sibal said he has lost an old friend and a dear colleague. “Very sorry to learn that Arun Jaitley is no more. An old friend and a dear colleague will be remembered for his seminal contributions to the polity and as FM of India. As Leader of Opposition he was without match. He always stood steadfastly for his friends and for his party,” he said.

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said Jaitley’s death is a great loss for the country. “Deeply saddened by the tragic passing of my friend Delhi University senior Arun Jaitley. We first met when he was at DUSU and I was President of St Stephen’s College Union. Despite political differences we enjoyed a healthy mutual respect and debated his Budget often in LS. A great loss for India,” he tweeted.

Senior journalist Karan Thapar, who is a bitter critic of Modi, wrote an article praising the approachability and ethics of Jaitley. “Even when I fell out of favour with his party – and it was clear I was boycotted at the behest of the prime minister – Arun maintained a line of contact. I would SMS him and he would always ring back”, he wrote. “Years later, when I wrote about this in my book Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story, Arun rang to say he had read the chapter on Modi. “What did you make of it?” I asked. I feared his answer wouldn’t be approving. After all, he was now finance minister and Modi was prime minister….“You have every right to write as you want,” he softly but firmly replied. And then, after a little pause, added: “I wouldn’t really disagree with what you’ve said. Maybe a bit here and a bit there. But, by and large, you’ve been fair.”” He also wrote, “In fact, Arun was gentle and ironic. He chose to draw me out rather than push me into a corner. He made me expansive, not defensive. Had he not been a politician, he would have made a great interviewer. I even pointed that out to him.”

On his death, Mahesh Pandit, the artist who owes his career to Jaitley, tweeted (in Hindi, which translates to): “The passing away of respectable Arun Jaitley has devastated me. This is a personal loss to me. He was a source of inspiration for me. When my daughter was seriously ill, he saved her life.”

How will Jaitley be remembered?

The country will move on at a relentless pace with its politics becoming more divisive in the coming years. Arun Jaitley will be remembered as the nice guy who still made it big in politics and learnt the tricks as he moved forward.
No matter how he settles into national memory, as a campus leader up against the might of the Emergency, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a truly argumentative Indian, a cordial NDA minister, a man of witty remarks, an advocate of rightist views, or as the Modi regime’s first minister of finance, Jaitley’s most crucial role for India was as a reformer of the economy.

He will be remembered for his steadfast commitment to fiscal prudence. With good fiscal sense as his mantra, the former finance minister set the goods and services tax rolling, at some risk of business disruption. For all its glitches and complexity, it has indeed got going — to India’s benefit, and its best is yet to come.
He also played champion for the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, which has empowered lenders and reformed our credit culture to quite an extent. The Code may have faltered since, but seems effective enough to deter crony capitalism.

Institutionally, though, his boldest move was in the realm of monetary policy. He helped pivot India’s monetary policy towards snuffing out inflation and also raise the Reserve Bank of India’s level of autonomy to better enable it to achieve that aim. The conquest of inflation is beyond dispute today.

And finally, Jaitley would be remembered as among the warmest individuals to inhabit Delhi’s political universe. He was everyone’s friend - from political rivals to party juniors, from fellow lawyers to businessmen, from those who were a part of his walking group in Lodhi Garden to journalists, from doctors to bureaucrats.

Did I mention that he lost the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, when his party swept to power? He was the nice guy who finished second.

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