Arun Jaitley: The Loneliness of Needing To Be Liked By Everyone

Arun Jaitley’s self-image was that he was the prime guide for the formulation and the articulation of the BJP’s position on political, legal, economic and administrative matters. Mr Modi gave him that standing.

A number of expressions that have contributed to the sharp rise in PM Modi’s popularity — among them are “one-horse race” and “policy paralysis”—are attributed to Mr Jaitley.

The role Mr Jaitley played really, though, was slightly different. He was the philosopher guide that the prime minister, whose association with him went back to the emergency days, used – selectively – principally as a strategist for managing the elites.

PM Modi relied on Jaitley’s vast networks in the media, judiciary, legal fraternity, and even across the aisle in Parliament, for managing the environment in Lutyens’ Delhi.

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Arun Jaitley, the Charmer

Remember the Shri Ram College of Commerce (Mr Jaitley’s alma mater) outreach of 2013 that became the stepping-stone to Mr Modi’s arrival in New Delhi?

The popular narrative suggests that Mr Modi neither needs nor cares for the Indian elites. That’s a carefully crafted myth.

Arun Jaitley’s associations with Opposition leaders remained undiminished despite the rancour on the floor of the House. 

In truth, Mr Modi relied on Mr Jaitley’s vast concentric networks in the media, the judiciary, the legal fraternity and even across the aisle in Parliament for managing the environment in Lutyens’ Delhi—something without which his government could not have progressed on a great number of its moves. Mr Modi assiduously built networks that would will help him transmit these ideas far and wide. The Goods & Services Tax would not have become a reality in Mr Modi’s tenure without this advantage.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, LK Advani, Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley at BJP’s national executive meet in Bhubaneswar.

A personality trait of Mr Jaitley was that he purposefully cultivated acceptability at all times. Mr Modi, it is said, enjoys being disliked by the swish set that he calls the ‘Khan Market gang’, and Mr Amit Shah likes to be feared by all. Mr Jaitley wanted to be liked. Widely.

This eventually birthed a conflict within him. A moderate by upbringing and nature, he was not quite sure whether to fashion a sustained rise within the ranks of the saffron party’s hierarchy by branding himself as a moderate intellectual reflecting modernity on behalf of the party, or adopt the traditionalism more commonly associated with it.

Arun Jaitley went out of his way to help a wide circle of friends, many of whom he had been chummy with since his Delhi University days.

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Jaitley’s Habit of Going Out Of His Way to Help Those He Liked

Uncommon in Lutyens’ Delhi, Mr Jaitley often demonstrated an ability for making human gestures towards those he liked without the usual give-and-take expectation. Ensuring patient admissions to AIIMS, helping with college or school seats for distant relatives of junior clerks, help with postings: he did it all.

Mr Jaitley went out of his way to help a wide circle of friends many of whom he had been chummy with since his Delhi University days, in Lutyens’ Delhi. He defended Mr Madhavrao Scindia in the court cases related to the Jain hawala case diaries.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi (left) and former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. 

His associations with Opposition leaders remained undiminished despite the rancour on the floor of the House. Mr Abhishek Singhvi and his wife waited for over an hour in his North Block office just to deliver the invite for a wedding in their family. Mr Anand Sharma cut his birthday cake in Mr Jaitley’s chamber in Parliament.

Arun Jaitley was an admirer of Dr Manmohan Singh — the FM, not the PM — and P Chidambaram, despite criticising them both on the economy.

Jaitley, the Finance Minister, Owed A Lot to Manmohan Singh

Arun Jaitley’s personal views and ideology, especially on the economy, were vastly different than what he put into practice as the Modi government’s finance minister. In fact, he rather stridently disseminated them through blogs written in language that was quite out of character for him.

He was an admirer of Dr Manmohan Singh—the finance minister, not the prime minister, and Mr P Chidambaram. He, nevertheless, criticised both of them acerbically in public, and in Parliament – on the economy. Arun Jaitley was more liberal than most contemporary Indian politicians and not a wannabe socialist like the rest of his party.

Rajnath Singh, Amit Shah, Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Arun Jaitley and others at a ceremony on December 13, 2018.

If Singh is scholarly and Chidambaram analytical, Mr Jaitley’s approach to policymaking was pragmatic. Over the last couple of years, he sought to take credit for improved inflation management by the Modi government. On each occasion he criticised the previous regime for its record of runaway inflation, never once disclosing publicly that inflation was finally reined in through a mechanism designed and approved by the Singh-led government.

Being a lawyer, Arun Jaitley believed in negotiations, give and take, and dialogue and talking things out.

After the first Modi government was sworn in, the file on the new monetary policy framework readied by Mr Chidambaram was put up to him. He signed it without posing a single question, and in a matter of minutes.  The officer who put up the file had stiffened a little seeing the lack of fuss with which he had conferred his approval, and suggested politely that the minister could take some time to study the proposed new policy if he wanted.

‘There is no hurry, Sir.’

‘Two of the finest minds in the country [in the context of inflation targeting and central bank policies] have applied themselves and come up with this solution. I don’t need greater endorsement,’ Mr. Jaitley had responded.

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Jaitley Often Compromised With His Views to Further Modi’s Vision

The one deep difference he had – but on which he did not push enough – with Mr. Modi was on the Indira Gandhi style of functioning and policy making. Early in his tenure he proposed privatisation of most of the nationalised banks barring the five-six large ones such as State Bank of India. He was deeply disappointed when the proposal returned unaccepted from the Prime Minister’s Office.

PM Modi will find it hard to come up with a replacement to fill up the vacuum Arun Jaitley leaves behind.

He compromised frequently with his own preferences and ideas in becoming complicit with the Prime Minister’s proposals and methods, especially in matters of legislation and handling of institutions such as the Reserve Bank of India. Being a lawyer, he believed in negotiations, give and take, and dialogue and talking things out.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Arun Jaitley.

The one place he put his foot down was his sour relation with former Governor Urjit Patel who enjoyed a direct line to Mr Modi.

In sharp contrast, as the Law Minister in the AB Vajpayee Cabinet, he once told a couple of young reporters that he was planning to absent himself from an upcoming meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Disinvestment. There had been indications that the decision had the potential for kicking up controversy.

Despite his disagreements, he kept strategising to press the Modi government’s agenda.

Modi Will Find It Hard To Fill Jaitley’s Vacuum

Mr Jaitley was not universally liked, though, and many of his colleagues even in the BJP took pot shots at him on occasion. For much of his ministerial career, he practised what he said he had picked up from A Vajpayee: a politician must know how to communicate not only through words but also through silence in public life. But he broke that discipline in the last few years.

Although well-networked, and consciously invested in relationships, whether with a staff member in his official team of assistants, or political leaders across the ideological divide, Jaitley would sometimes tend to become withdrawn and dejected.

Despite his disagreements, Arun Jaitley kept strategising to press the Modi government’s agenda.

A little before the 2G spectrum “scam” narrative took shape in the national media during the course of the second tenure of the Manmohan Singh-led government, he went through such a bout, and even wrote a letter of resignation from the position of the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. The letter was, he told reporters at one of his famous "darbars" much later, torn up by a party colleague.

PM Modi will find it hard to come up with a replacement to fill up the vacuum he leaves behind even if he someday acknowledges the extent to which his life in Delhi was made easier by Mr Jaitley.

(Puja Mehra is a Delhi-based journalist. Her first book, The Lost Decade (2008-18): How India's Growth Story Devolved Into Growth Without a Story, has been published by Penguin Random House. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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