Prime minister-designate Narendra Modi had wanted Arun Jaitley to handle the finance and law portfolios. At the last minute, however, he changed his mind and asked Jaitley to take charge of defence instead of law, since he felt there was no one else he could entrust with that responsibility. If one goes by the order in which Modi’s ministers were sworn in, Jaitley ranks fourth in the pecking order, after Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj. But if one goes by the degree of clout, Jaitley is the undoubted number two in the government. Apart from the fact that he handles two heavyweight portfolios, several ministers such as Nirmala Sitharaman, Piyush Goyal and Dharmendra Pradhan are believed to have been his protégés. A whole host of other appointments, including those of most senior law officers, could be ascribed to him.
As the quintessential insider in the capital’s political arena, Jaitley with his multifaceted experience and acumen serves as a perfect guide to the former Gujarat chief minister as he navigates Delhi’s corridors of power. Some in the media have dubbed Jaitley Modi’s Chanakya, but this suggests a degree of guile that is absent in a person so open that he is sometimes accused of being indiscreet and too candid for his own good. A more apt description for Jaitley would be as the prime minister’s input provider, sounding board and troubleshooter. Journalist Swapan Das Gupta, who knows both well, sees them as “friends and colleagues”.
As the finance minister prepares to present his first budget on Thursday, one can be sure that both he and the prime minister are on the same page. In fact, the prime minister is believed to be the only other person to have seen Jaitley’s budget speech in its entirety, though senior finance ministry officials were involved in handling separate sections.
Both aspire for a liberal, reforms-driven agenda, yet one that addresses the bread-and-butter issues of ordinary Indians. They are not overly influenced either by the RSS’s Swadeshi Jagaran Manch or by the populist entitlement culture that had characterised the last regime.
The partnership between Modi and Jaitley goes back a long way. When Modi, an RSS pracharak, was appointed a BJP general secretary in the late nineties in Delhi, he stayed in the outhouse of Jaitley’s official bungalow on 9 Ashoka Road. Jaitley helped familiarise Modi with Delhi and was part of the move to oust then Gujarat chief minister Keshubhai Patel. After chief minister Modi’s new government failed to contain the riots of 2002, many regarded him as a liability to the party, but Jaitley remained steadfastly loyal. For years, behind-the-scenes Jaitley offered legal advice to the Gujarat government in combating a slew of cases in connection with the riots and encounter deaths. When in the last few years Modi became the obvious choice as the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee, Jaitley threw his weight behind Modi. L K Advani and Sushma sulked and fought to stave off a Modi takeover of the party, while others in the central leadership watched from the sidelines.
Although he rose to be one of the top-ranking lawyers in the country, Jaitley has not forgotten his middle-class roots. He may have acquired a collection of designer pens and watches and a fleet of expensive cars, but he still relishes the simple joys of a good Amritsari meal with chole kulcha and tandoori fish and seeks the company of his old friends from his days as a student at Delhi’s Sri Ram College of Commerce or from his time in jail during Emergency. Very generous to his staff and juniors, Jaitley with his philanthropy has ensured that his secretaries have all built houses for themselves and funded their children’s education.
Jaitley began his political career as president of the Delhi University Students’ Union, representing the Jana Sangh’s student wing the ABVP. He was also convener of Jayaprakash Narayan’s student and youth wing, which brought him in touch with other student leaders from the Lok Sangharsh Samiti such as Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad. When Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency on June 26, 1975, Jaitley led a protest march on the first day and was promptly jailed for the next 19 months. As a rising young lawyer in the eighties, Jaitley represented The Indian Express when it was fighting the Indira government. V P Singh as prime minister appointed a relatively young Jaitley as additional solicitor-general, and he played a key role in unravelling the Bofors case.
When the NDA came to power in 1999, Jaitley was given ministerial responsibilities but was comparatively low in the hierarchy. All the same, he stood out when he was appointed commerce minister. In 2006 he became leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha and earned the respect of many Congressmen because of his clarity, quick thinking and phenomenal memory. Pranab Mukherjee singled him out as the man to watch.
Since the party regularly assigned organisational work to him, putting him in charge of various assembly polls as well, Jaitley is sometimes dismissed by his detractors as a backroom boy. In 2014, he contested a Lok Sabha seat for the first time. The choice of Amritsar was unfortunate as an anti-incumbency mood was sweeping Punjab. Such was Jaitley’s goodwill that scores of lawyers from Delhi, fellow morning-walkers, as well as family and friends descended on Amritsar to help out in the campaign. His wife Sangeeta — known to most as Dolly and daughter of late Congress leader from Jammu Girdharilal Dogra — and daughter Sonali, a lawyer, pitched in. But the outsider tag and hostility towards the ruling Akali Dal proved too much. Jaitley was defeated by Punjab veteran Captain Amarinder Singh.
Jaitley mulled over returning to law practice, but Modi insisted he join his cabinet. Cynics suggest that the fact that Jaitley is not seen as a mass leader may actually work to his advantage since Modi does not view him as a threat. According to Gujarat folklore, the “autocratic” Modi treated only three people — Anandiben Patel, Amit Shah and Bhikoo Dalsania — as his equals in the state capital. In Delhi, Jaitley is one of the few to enjoy Modi’s trust. The two in fact make a jugalbandi of sorts.