How do you remember Arun Jaitley? The quintessential “Delhi insider” who knew something about anyone who was some one? From corporate tycoons to journalists to cricketers to artistes to jurists (little surprise there), Jaitley’s circle was so large that it was difficult to figure out exactly where you fit in. But as I sat in the studios today, speaking to his party colleagues and a range of people whose lives he has touched, I couldn’t help but conclude that there was a politician who had the unique ability to make multiple people feel special, all at the same time.
You only have to look at the reams of Twitter or Facebook posts from editors to junior reporters to understand how everyone has a story on Jaitley. I have mine too, but that’s for later. Should we look at Jaitley as the liberal face who changed tact as “hard nationalism” became the political flavour post-2014?
From someone who had the gumption for saying “we sit in glorious splendid isolation” simply because the BJP as an opposition party at the time couldn’t get others to align with it, to changing tune when he said “a constitutionalist would believe first comes the Supreme Court and then god but faithful would believe otherwise” during the Sabarimala hearing in Supreme Court — Jaitley forever managed to ride two boats simultaneously.
It’s a unique political trait to have, to constantly evolve and repackage yourself as the need arose. Perhaps it’s this trait that ensured he had friends on the Left and the Right ends of the spectrum.
He would often tell me that those who go to Supreme Court fighting for human rights on every small little thing are ultimately weakening the country. But that was when he was in power. While in Opposition, he didn’t think twice before going to Jantar Mantar in 2012-13 when Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade was at its peak. Arvind Kejriwal would later go on to become a rival, but at the time Jaitley didn’t shy away from engaging with a range of anti-establishment voices who keep holding their ground as vehement critics of the government.
But a tribute to Jaitley would be incomplete without mentioning his love for food. As Abhishek Manu Singhvi put it on News 18 while talking to me, “There are food-dotes and not just anecdotes about Arun Jaitley.” His preferred restaurant, the Embassy restaurant from where he would often get mutton rara or daal, his love for ‘chole bhature’, or how to figure out the best keema place in town — you could get all this information from him.”
An afternoon with Jaitley could turn out to be an extraordinary affair, with conversations ranging from cricket to suits-ties in London to the minutest gossip from Delhi’s news rooms. I would often joke with him that he would have made an excellent editor if he wasn’t a politician. An adage which his critics often used to hit out at his dynamics with the media by calling him “media bureau chief” was one that he was always very proud of.
Arun Jaitley’s ability to engage with diverse fields gave him a cult status, which is difficult to manage for any contemporary politician. He may not have won a Lok Sabha election in his life but he was certainly instrumental in ensuring his party colleagues won several.
However, his loss will be felt more in Delhi’s power corridors for his ability to constantly keep a line open with opponents. It’s a trait which often fielded speculation on whether Jaitley was “too soft” for a regime determined to disrupt status quo.
His verbal duel with P Chidambram, who was finance minister in 2013, in Rajya Sabha is worth remembering. When the case concerning Karti Chidambram made headlines first, it was ultimately Jaitley who let it be put on record that the BJP had no plans to “drag in children” of politicians, provided the businesses they were involved in were clean.
However, BJP had contained its attack even as it scored several political points. This adherence to a ‘lakshman rekha’, even while dealing with staunch opponents, is what will be missed the most. Don’t be surprised therefore if you see warmth and affection being exuded through all the obituaries from even his worst opponents.
In his loss, the BJP has lost its finest strategist, the ultimate Chanakya of Indian politics. RIP sir, you served your causes well.