Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley: Friends in Need and in Deed

The friendship between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former finance minister Arun Jaitley was more than four decades old. This bond was not pivoted only on political concerns but was deep-rooted in their hearts. Jaitley was a friend in whom Modi found a most reliable confidant. He could have shared all his worries and woes with his long-time party colleague and trusted him in all the challenging and tough times as well. Jaitley’s death has left a vacuum in Modi’s life that would perhaps be impossible to fill by anyone else.

“My friend has left today,” the prime minister said on Sunday while addressing the Indian diaspora in Bahrain, his voice choked and eyes teary.

Modi’s and Jaitley’s family and economic backgrounds were completely different, including food habits and myriad other aspects. But the friendship was so deep and resilient that no one could create a dent in it for over four decades, a rarity in the political arena. Jaitley was “Arun” for Modi in personal conversations and “Arunji” in public life, while the PM was “Narendra Bhai” for Jaitley behind the curtains and “Modiji” in public life or “Pradhanmantriji” in later days.

Their friendship began immediately after the Emergency when they grew familiar. During those days of suspended civil liberties under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, while Jaitley was in jail for nineteen months, being the leader of the Delhi University students’ union, Modi was resisting the government clampdown, staying underground, as he worked as a bridge between senior leaders and workers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Modi had visited Delhi for a short while and got associated with the Deendayal Research Institute to write a book on the Emergency. During this period, with the inspiration of his mentor and senior RSS leader Lakshman Rao Inamdar alias Vakeel Saheb, and Hindu ideologue Dattopant Thengadi, Modi appeared in his BA final year exams as an external student at Delhi University. Since Jaitley had started his political career from student politics here, both came in contact with each other.

Modi returned to Gujarat after 1978 and got involved in Sangh activities. Jaitley was practising law and soon became a big name in the profession. After the RSS, Modi also joined the BJP in 1987 and became the general secretary of the party’s Gujarat unit. He also was inducted as a member of the BJP national executive, a position Jaitley got in 1991. Around 1989-90, Jaitley shouldered the responsibility of additional solicitor general in the VP Singh government, which came to power with outside support of the BJP.

After 1991, whenever meetings of the national executive were held, Modi and Jaitley were present. Apart from party-related matters, they would talk over books for hours and had long discussions about subjects such as social issues and technology. This intimacy grew even as both were very different in several ways. While Jaitley was fond of non-vegetarian food, Modi was a pure vegetarian with the belief that the stomach is the symbol of the fire god. When it comes to their fashion sense, Modi always wore kurta-pyjama while Jaitley was decked up in shirts-trousers or suits. Hindi was Modi’s language of choice, even as Jaitley favoured English. Jaitley represented the urban middle class and Modi the rural lower-middle class.

But these differences did not affect their growing affinity towards each other. Modi had something unique that others were lacking. Perhaps Jaitley had assessed this a long time ago and was certain of Modi’s long run in politics. On the other hand, Jaitley was the epitome of trustworthiness for Modi – he was an all-weather friend in whom he could see not only an ally but a guide too.

This faith paved the way for a strong and committed friendship between the two political heavyweights. In 1995, with the help of his unmatched skills, Modi ensured the formation of the first BJP-led government in Gujarat under the leadership of Keshubhai Patel. But he had to leave the state due to the rebellion of BJP leader Shankersinh Vaghela and Modi’s Delhi stay made his friendship with Jaitley more intimate. Being together in the party office was common but meeting at Jaitley’s house and sometimes talking to each other over food at restaurants was also enjoyed by both.

Though Jaitley was two years younger to Modi, he got formally associated with the legislative and executive two years before the Gujarat politician. Jaitley became minister for the first time in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1999 and was given the portfolio of information and broadcasting. Then he was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat in April 2000, a development in which Modi had played a part as general secretary of the party’s central organisation.

The very next year saw Jaitley playing a key role to bring a big change in Modi’s life. Following the Gujarat earthquake on 26 January 2001, the Keshubhai Patel government was facing severe criticism over relief and rehabilitation work in the state. At the same time, the BJP lost a few by-elections of Lok Sabha and assembly seats in the state and this became a source of worry for the party‘s central leadership. In such circumstances, Jaitley convinced the-then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and BJP veteran Lal Krishna Advani that the situation in Gujarat could be brought under control by elevating Modi as its chief minister. Finally, the party’s central leadership ruled in favour of the move. Modi became chief minister of Gujarat on 7 October 2001, while Jaitley remained a minister in the Vajpayee government. What is important is that Modi’s association with the legislative began two years after Jaitley. Modi won the bypoll from the Rajkot assembly seat. This was his first-ever election.

However, three days after Modi’s poll victory, Gujarat witnessed the Godhra train tragedy in which coach number S6 of the Sabarmati Express went up in flames and 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed. It led to the Gujarat inter-communal riots and also changed Modi’s political career as well as the state’s politics.

Opposition parties started levelling allegations against the Modi government of failure to control the violence. Television channels, English newspapers and international media also began projecting Modi as the villain. It was a tough time for him and his friend Jaitley – whose association with the state had begun two years earlier – came to his rescue again.

Jaitley had played an effective role not only by countering allegations against Modi in the media, but also kept advising him regarding ways to tackle this crisis. In the meantime, a big faction of the party also started demanding Modi’s resignation from the post of chief minister in view of the government’s alleged failure to tackle the situation. Vajpayee’s statement that Modi should follow “raj dharma” had come as a shot in the arm for this group. However, Vajpayee, in the same statement, had also added that he had full faith in Modi on the matter.

Under these circumstances, BJP’s national executive meeting was being held on 12 April 2002. Jaitley landed in Gandhinagar the day before that. The two friends sat together till late in the night. What transpired between them is not known. However, the strategies they worked out started delivering results soon.

Modi had got prepared a report about the measures he had taken for development in Gujarat in the six months following his elevation as CM in an adverse political situation. He was disappointed with his own party, particularly a section of combative leaders. However, Jaitley was confident. He advised Modi not to worry, saying everything would turn out fine.

On 12 April 2002, Modi, accompanied by Jaitley, landed in Goa to attend the national executive meeting. There was an impression that Modi would have a tough time at the meet. Modi had made it clear that he wanted to sit in the hall not as Gujarat chief minister, but as a common worker of the party. This turned the tables. Most people present started supporting Modi, shouting, “No! No!” Leaders like Shanta Kumar, who were all set to oppose him, were forced to keep their mouths shut. Reading the sentiment, Vajpayee himself changed his attitude and lambasted detractors and Muslims, who were critical of Modi, while backing his stand, at a public meeting in Goa.

The offer to resign is considered a strategy that was mutually decided by Jaitley and Modi. It was an attacking and not a defensive manouevre. This strategy changed Indian politics forever. With the internal equations of the party suitably altered, Modi never looked back. After reigning in Gujarat for 13 years as chief minister, he is now prime minister of the country for over five years. Under his leadership, the BJP won the assembly polls in Gujarat three times and twice in the parliamentary elections.

In his political journey of two decades, Modi has always been in the limelight with Jaitley standing by him through thick and thin. When elections were held in Gujarat in 2002, Jaitley camped in Ahmedabad for two months. He is also considered to be the craftsman of Brand Modi. Apart from caste factor and social equations, emotional manouevres are equally important in elections and Jaitley was renowned for this. In view of this idea, his strategy to associate the assembly polls with ‘Gujarat’s pride’ was made possible through Modi’s Gaurav Yatra. When it came to drafting a manifesto, Jaitley was Modi’s first choice. This was the level of trust between the friends.

After 2002, in 2007 and then 2012 to 2017, in all the elections in Gujarat, Jaitley was to take command of campaign strategy despite his growing stature in national politics. When the 2014 Lok Sabha elections approached, it was Jaitley who pushed for consensus over Modi’s leadership and came out successful.

A few people may know that at the same Hotel Marriott, where Modi had turned the tables by offering to resign in 2002, 11 years later in June 2013, discussions were on to anoint him the prime ministerial candidate. Advaní’s opposition had proved to be an impediment but Jaitley had ensured that Modi was declared chairperson of the campaigning committee and this became reality when Rajnath Singh made the announcement on 9 June 2013. Modi was the clear favourite and this was proven when Advani’s threats to resign from all posts came to naught. Even Advani was forced to withdraw his resignation. After three months of this incident, Modi was declared the prime ministerial candidate on 13 September 2013, with Jaitley performing a crucial part. On both occasions, Advani was the roadblock but Jaitley was clear in his mind about choosing between his close friend, and his mentor who paved the way for his entry in politics.

Like the 2014 elections, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, too, Jaitley had taken responsibility of the election campaign despite poor health. Sometimes from the chair, at other times from the bed, he kept dishing out key strategies. Modi and Amit Shah both had great confidence in him. All three BJP bigwigs were united in one thought: to capitalise on any faux pas from rivals.

In the last two decades, Jaitley had been supporting Modi and later Shah not just in the political sphere but also legal matters. Apart from the 2002 riots, fake encounter cases also lingered and Jaitley kept providing advice while Modi and Shah supported them. He also helped Shah when the latter was ordered to leave Gujarat following a Supreme Court decision. He offered that Shah stay at his house in Delhi. He had been meeting Shah regularly to provide legal and moral support. In the 2014 elections, Jaitley also helped him understand the nitty-gritty of Uttar Pradesh politics.

Both inside and outside Parliament, Jaitley often came to Modi’s rescue. During the Manmohan Singh government, he had been raising his voice in favour of Modi in the capacity of leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha. He tried to bring to the fore how the Congress government was treating Gujarat “unjustly” and attempting to “trap” Modi at any cost.

In the 2014 elections, when Jaitley was fighting his first Lok Sabha poll from Amritsar, Modi was there to support him. Modi had realised that Jaitley wasn’t in a good position against Congress rival Captain Amarinder Singh. But he promised the people of Amritsar that Jaitley would get a place in the cabinet if BJP came to power. Amritsar may not have supported Jaitley but Modi kept his promise. Jaitley was awarded the portfolio of finance minister in Modi’s first cabinet. He was given additional charge of the defence ministry also. It was the first time when two such important portfolios were handed to one man. Even people close to Jaitley, such as Piyush Goyal, Dharmendra Pradhan and Nirmala Sitharaman, were included in Modi’s team.

When the central government prepared its legal team, people close to Jaitley found a place, except Tushar Mehta who is considered close to Amit Shah. These people were elevated to positions of attorney general, solicitor general and additional solicitor general.

In his second tenure, when Modi was going to form his government and Jaitley had refused to be included in the cabinet due to his deteriorating health, the prime minister had gone to his house to change his mind. Though Jaitley turned him down again, this was the first time that Modi had gone to someone’s house to convince them to be part of his cabinet.

Jaitley’s health had started failing much before the elections and Modi was always there to express his concern and support. Most people do not know that when Jaitley underwent kidney transplant at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Modi spent a whole night in his room away from media glare. In Jaitley’s final days, Modi kept enquiring about his condition and sending other ministers to visit him.

There was no lack of light moments in this relationship. Modi was aware of Jaitley’s passion for cricket and always assigned a worker to give reminders to him about pending work when a match was on.

Jaitley too would often joke about Modi. During the 2007 assembly elections, Modi had been announcing in his rallies his anti-corruption stance: “Na khaunga, na khane dunga [neither will I eat (take a bribe), nor will I let others eat].” The election was challenging and Modi and Jaitley were looking for an emotive issue to blunt the relentless attacks of rivals within and outside the party. At this time, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi called Modi “Maut ka saudagar” (merchant of death) at a rally in south Gujarat. This was a major opportunity for Modi and Jaitley. How could they turn it in their favour? Both had been preparing a strategy at the chief minister’s residence in Gandhinagar till 2am one night. The next morning, when some workers from the BJP media cell reached there, Jaitley was still asleep. When woken up, he said, “Modiji pahle kehte the ‘na khaunga, na khane dunga’. Ab kahte hain, ‘na sounga, na sone dunga’ [previously Modiji would say ‘neither will I eat, nor will I let others eat’ now he says, ‘neither will I sleep, nor let others sleep’].” Those present exploded in laughter.

Aside from these amusing incidents, the truth is the depth of their friendship was unfathomable. As one of them left the world, the other was left devastated, uttering only the words, “My Arun is gone,” while his eyes were moist. Perhaps in his heart was the aching question: now with whom would he share his Dil ki Baat?