Arun Jaitley: Golden man with no elective merit

With the death of former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Saturday morning, India has lost not only a politician par excellence and an excellent speaker on the floors of the Indian Parliament but a man who was shining because of his own intellectual strength coupled with relentless study and painstaking efforts for over four decades. Jaitley was a union finance minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first government from 2014 to 2019 and held many portfolios including the most significant Finance and Company Affairs in addition to Defence till alternate arrangement was done. He can be truly described as 'Man Friday' for Modi who acted like a 'fire brigade' whenever fire broke out and worked relentlessly to doze out the fire. Yes, the departure of Jaitley has caused enormous loss to the BJP Government in Delhi and to political circles, but the biggest loss is to the Indian polity at large as Jaitley's presence and one phone call had the capacity to doze out worst threats of fire.

Yes, Jaitley was ailing for some time and all those who knew him also knew that death has been lingering around him for ten months at least. Sensing it, Jaitley had bowed out of active politics and informed Modi much in advance not to consider him while formulating his next cabinet. Former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had also done the same thing and requested Modi to leave her alone and not to include her in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll race. What a coincidence that both Swaraj and Jaitley coming from 'non-political' backgrounds entered the Union Cabinet of late Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the same time in 1999 and continued to struggle relentlessly till 2019. It may be recalled that both were leaders of opposition in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha from 2008 to 2014 when they had to put their foot down to keep the then ruling side led by Manmohan Singh on its toes all through.

A Man with Limited Scope

While Swaraj was considered to be a street fighter too, Jaitley had limited scope of intellectual discussions as he could never win any popular election. After relinquishing his post in Delhi University Students' Council, Jaitley never entered the fray of any popular election till 2014 when he was fielded by the BJP from Amritsar, his home-town against the Congress heavy-weight Amarinder Singh. Jaitley lost the battle. Actually this seat was considered to be a 'safe seat' for the BJP as Cricket stalwart Navjot Singh Sidhu had returned defeated from this holy Sikh city thrice before. However, Jaitley managed to lose.

I had many occasions to interact with Jaitley in public and in private on issues from intra-party relations to his own political ambitions. I observed that it was very difficult if not impossible to catch him on a wrong foot. The man, who had a built-in interest in the game of cricket and held important positions in Delhi Board of Cricket, would always cover his wicket and at the same time would not allow the ball to hit his pads.

Jaitley knew that he was not a sharp-tongued orator who could win over a big gathering. But he also knew how to build a case a point at a time and demolish the opposition's arguments in no time. After realising his strength Jaitley built his career on his argumenta ability and he proved to be successful in the Upper House of the Parliament.

I had the opportunity to work with Jaitley in Rajya Sabha during 2009 to 2014, when he held the position of 'Leader of Opposition'. The 'ever-alert' Jaitley forced the treasury benches to be on the edge all the while. His legal acumen helped him in discharging his role and did not allow any opportunity to pass by where he could hold the ruling side in the Accuse Box. I distinctly recall his three speeches in Rajya Sabha when he tarnished the ruling side thanks to his legal and analytical mindset and usage of accurate words and phrases.

I recall the Rajya Sabha debate on the impeachment of then Calcutta High Court Judge Dr Sanyat Sen. It was a single-handed attack by Jaitley against the government, the law ministry in particular and the entire judicial system in general. He went about the argument point-wise as is his style and vanquished the government’s side.

When the '2G Malpractices' wrangle came up, Jaitley again displayed his ability to win legal arguments. Without naming the then telecommunication minister A Raja, Jaitley centred his argument around him by calling him 'Maharaj'. The message was across loud and clear. However, Jaitley could not be caught for mentioning him by name. Finally, Raja had to go behind the bars for over a year.

India's Soft-Power

He talked of India's 'soft power', the ancient education, in a supreme manner. When Rajya Sabha discussed the bill for formation of Nalanda Vidyapeeth in Bihar, Jaitley was at his best. He spoke in Hindi for a change and recited dozens of shloka and richa in Upanishads and Vedas to make his case for the University. I had not heard such a studied speech in pure Hindi for a long time.

In the popular Kannada play 'Hayavadana' an age-old Hindu philosophy is professed. Nobody is complete. Each soul has one or the other lacunae that keeps him incomplete. Jaitley was the personification of this theory. He was a perfect man for Indian democracy but he had only one shortcoming--he did not have elective merit.

The writer is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS).

- Bharatkumar Raut