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 the biggest names out of the opposition's cavalry. As one of the top JDU leaders explained, only Jaitley could have managed this.
Jaitley was like this. He 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. But many in the party openly spoke against him; this list includes former party MP Kirti Azad, Rajya Sabha MP Subramaniam Swamy and Uma Bharati - who blamed him for plotting against her in 2004. Apart from them, other erstwhile BJP leaders like Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie kept attacking him and his capacity as a minister in Modi 1.0.
Jaitley opted out of the Modi 2.0 because of his declining health. He was detected with non-malignant tissue growth in January and went under the knife at a cancer hospital in New York, but apparently the infection spread. This proved fatal on August 9 and he died on August 24 (Saturday), days after his contemporary Sushma Swaraj breathed her last. This is the fourth big loss to BJP in nine months. Ananth Kumar and Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, too, died of cancer. The void of the talent that has been created with his demise will be difficult to fill.
His mastery of skill to make friends and retain them helped BJP in stitching and re-stitching the tattering fabric of the NDA in the last two decades. In 2013, Nitish had quit the alliance after the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi was anointed as the first choice for the prime minister's post. Despite his bitterness, he kept in touch with Jaitley - his friend since the days of their student politics. It was his friendship with Jaitley that kept the door open for his return to the fold.
Jaitley remained a go-to man for BJP from defending the government on legislative matters to stitching together a national consensus amongst states for reforms. A top Congress leader shared that during UPA regime as leader of opposition, Jaitley reached out to them and reaffirmed personal equations, thus helping the then government pass several critical bills in the upper house. He teamed up with UPA-I's Minister of State for PMO Prithvi Raj Chavan to draft an acceptable document on nuclear liability.
Similarly, he built a relationship with the former Chief Minister of Punjab Prakash Singh Badal during the darkest days of the state. He valued and nourished the relationship till the end. He engineered the alliance with Badal just after 1996 Lok Sabha polls.
The alliance of pro-Sikh Akalis and pro-Hindu BJP was formidable that effectively transferred the votes and ensured the evolution of trust among communities. The alliance has remained in power for 15 of last 22 years of their association. After two decades, when the influence of Akalis started withering away in Punjab, Jaitley single-handedly saved the alliance, although it led to his own defeat from Amritsar in 2014. This didn't stop Jaitley from thinking rationally. He teamed up with SAD General Secretary Naresh Gujral -son of former prime minister IK Gujral-to bridge the gap with several erstwhile Janata Dal's splinters.
His contemporaries in the party complained that he had more friends outside the party. However, he never tried to hide them either. His living room at New Delhi's upmarket borough Kailash Colony has portraits of his two late friends Madhavrao Scindia, father of Congress General Secretary, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Lalit Suri, a hotelier-cum-politician. He defended Scindia in the Jain hawala case of 1996. His party might have opposed re-entry of beverage majors like Coco-Cola or Pepsi in the Indian market, but he defended them in courtrooms. In Vajpayee's era, Jaitley joined his cabinet as minister for state (independent charge) handling a newly created ministry of disinvestment along with information and broadcasting.
A friend indeed
The famous morning walkers' durbar at Delhi's Lodhi Garden, a park spread across 15th-century tombs, is where journalists, lobbyists, and his friends used to gather to chat with him. He would love to have these wide variety of meetings to stay at the top of the game. His habit continued till doctors asked him not to meet many people. Just a day before he moved to AIIMS due to breathing issues, he had organised a family get-together with his lawyer friend Maninder Singh.
Jaitley was BJP's resident of Lutyens's circle. He did his Bachelors in Commerce from Delhi's prestigious Shri Ram College of Commerce in 1973. He joined the Faculty of Law of Delhi University. This was the time when RSS's affiliate Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) was looking for bright Hindi speaking students to expand their base. President of ABVP's Hindu College unit, Hardeep Singh Puri identified him and put his weight behind to push Jaitley's candidature for University's student union as an ABVP candidate. Jaitley won. He started developing his team. Fast forward to Modi 1.0. Hardeep Singh Puri joined the Modi government as his ministerial colleague after retiring as a diplomat.
As one of his friends remembers, Jaitley had a knack for hitting the right nerve and building the conversation. Media entrepreneurs Rajat Sharma and Shobna Bhartia and lawyers Raian Karanjawala, Mukul Rohtagi and Rohinton Nariman formed his close-knit circuit.
The BJP used his wide variety of friends to expand the acceptance amongst voters and bring in more professionals in the party. The list includes present Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (former economist), urban development minister Hardeep Puri (retired diplomat), Olympic medallist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Actor Kirron Kher and cricketers Gautam Gambhir and even Navjot Singh Sidhu (later he fell out of favours).
This made him almost indispensable in the administration of sports (cricket, hockey and other Olympic games), lawyers' groups, Bollywood, newsmen, corporate houses along with other power lobbies. He stayed as chief of Delhi District Cricket Association for a record 13 years before he was inducted into the cabinet. This year when his friend Rajat Sharma contested for the position, he backed him despite his ill-health. Cricket administration observed his wide variety of friendship. He could easily team up with Congress leader Rajiv Shukla (also the chairman of Indian Premier League), a man with clout in the cricketing circle.
Just a day before PM Modi had to take oath after winning the general elections in 2019, Jaitley announced not to join the Modi 2.0 cabinet. Modi and Jaitley go long back when Modi as party's general secretary (organisation) used to live in annexe of bungalow allotted to Jaitley. He might not have joined the cabinet, but the choice of ministers clearly had his stamp visible. This includes the appointment of Nirmala Sitharaman as the Finance Minister, Anurag Thakur as her deputy, Gajendra Shekhawat as the Jalshakti Minister, Prahlad Joshi as the Minister of Mines along with Parliamentary Affairs; and Hardeep Singh Puri as the Minister of Civil Aviation and Urban Development.
PM Modi discussed the formation of his new cabinet only with Shah and Jaitley. This time he broke the convention and didn't discuss the names with the top RSS leadership. Till Jaitley was around, Shah never claimed the number two slot. After all, Jaitley not only gave shelter to Shah when he was ousted from Gujarat on court orders, but also helped him come back to politics.
Arun Jaitley was important to PM Modi. In 2009, when the party was trying to come to terms with their second consecutive defeat in the general elections, the RSS leadership roped in a younger Nitin Gadkari as new party chief. He was RSS' choice for the prime ministerial candidate in 2014. It was Jaitley who meticulously planned the rise of Modi and his brand as a leader with Hindutva and neo-liberalism bent of mind. The failure of Gadkari and the then General Secretary (organisation) Sanjay Joshi to deliver in Uttar Pradesh assembly polls along with reports pointing fingers at Gadkari's venture Purthi Group, sealed Gadkari's fate. Grapevine in Lutyens's Delhi is that those papers were 'interpreted' to RSS leadership by Jaitley.
Before Gadkari's exit as party chief in January 2013, Modi had already become Gujarat's chief minister for the record fourth time. He was all set to claim 2014. With the anointment of Modi as the prime ministerial candidate -- sidestepping LK Advani -- Jaitley made the best of his acceptability amongst allies, bringing back some old names as well. This was the time when Nitish Kumar deserted the NDA flock. Jaitley engineered the return of Ram Vilas Paswan and Chandrababu Naidu.
When Modi became the prime minister in 2014, he needed someone who could help him understand the complexities of Lutyens's Delhi. Despite losing the seat in Amritsar, Jaitley was entrusted with finance as well as defence ministries. RSS top paracharak Suresh "Bhaiyyaji" Joshi and Suresh Soni went to his home soon after the results were announced. They told him that there was no question of him not joining the Modi government.
It was Jaitley and his charm to win friends that India's biggest tax reform since liberalisation -- Goods and Services Tax (GST) -- saw the light of the day during his term as finance minister. He spent hours with state finance ministers of not only BJP but other parties to clarify the complexities of clubbing 17 state as well as central taxes. One of his close associates shared that he had to convince his own civil servants on various propositions. He also shared that Jaitley was closely involved in drafting of Triple Talaq Act and Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill.
Now that Jaitley is gone, filling his shoes will be near possible for the BJP. He was a leader with personal friends in the opposition. He had the charm to handle complex situations by finding a middle ground most of the time. The void that he has left behind will be too hard to bridge.
Trivia about Arun Jaitley
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