PLUGGED in to the last on what was happening in the country, Arun Jaitley wrote in a blog on August 6, after the Modi government had cleared revocation of the special status to Jammu & Kashmir, “The Congress Party, as a ‘headless chicken’, is further consolidating its alienation from the people of India. The New India has changed. Only the Congress does not realise this.”
It was to be among his last blogs, with the former finance minister, who had been battling multiple health issues for some time, rushed to AIIMS on August 9. He passed away just after noon on Saturday, and is survived by his wife and two children.
The body of Jaitley, 66, will be taken to the BJP headquarters on Sunday morning for leaders to pay their last respects. The cremation will be held in Delhi in the afternoon.
While the former student leader had been a staunch Congress critic throughout his political career, Jaitley was also the one the BJP tapped for reaching out to other parties. A skillful strategist, an eloquent orator, a delightful raconteur, and a trained lawyer, he was the prime troubleshooter for his party — who took the BJP to drawing rooms across the country long before its electoral juggernaut did. With the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this made him the prime bridge between his BJP and Lutyens Delhi.
In a blow for the party, Jaitley’s loss comes close on the heels of the death of Sushma Swaraj, another veteran BJP Delhi hand.
Abroad on an official trip, Modi reached out to Jaitley’s family. In a tweet, he wrote, “My friend Arun Jaitley loved India, loved his party and loved being among people. It is upsetting and unbelievable that a person I have known since our youth is no longer in our midst.”
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Addressing a gathering of members of the Indian community at the Bahrain National Stadium too, he brought up Jaitley, saying, “I cannot imagine that I am here in Bahrain while my dear friend Arun Jaitley is no more.”
Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi visited Jaitley’s home to offer their condolences, while senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said, “Arun Jaitley was every non-BJP person’s favourite BJP-ite.”
Soon after the nightmare of the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, reducing the BJP to two seats, party president Atal Bihari Vajpayee had mentioned Jaitley as one of the potential future leaders of the party along with Pramod Mahajan. Never a darling of Nagpur, Jaitley was then seen as a moderate leader in the mould of Vajpayee, while emerging in recent times as among the closest confidants of Modi.
It was in the interim, when the BJP re-created itself, that Jaitley proved his worth for the party. One of its most vocal voices, he cogently articulated the party’s political thought, proving a tough match for the intellectual and opinion-making classes of Delhi that were at the time dominated by supporters of Nehruvian socialism and Left secularism. Behind the scenes, the 66-year-old was known for his “durbars”, where he relished debates with his legal, social and media friends and acquaintances, enriching the same with humour and his vast repository of anecdotes.
One example of his political mastery was how he successful projected the BJP’s disruptions of Parliament during the UPA time in 2012 as “a legitimate instrument for Opposition”. With roles reversed three years later, he was as caustic castigating the Congress and other parties in the Rajya Sabha for “being disrespectful of the popular mandate”, in blocking the NDA’s legislations.
That the Opposition still held few grudges against Jaitley is a testimony of his personal bond with leaders across parties. At a time when such inter-party relations are rare, these came in handy for the BJP both in the Opposition and now in the government.
In a much-talked about event, at the end of a raucous Winter Session of Parliament that had seen a slugfest between the BJP and Congress-led Opposition over the triple talaq Bill, on January 5 last year, Jaitley had a cake delivered to his chamber. It was for Congress deputy leader in Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma, to celebrate his birthday.
That one of his last comments were on Article 370 was apt, given Jaitley’s strong ideological conviction on the matter, not the least because his wife belonged to a prominent Jammu political family.
Not belonging to a political family himself, Jaitley took to politics early, becoming the president of the Delhi University Students’ Union in 1974. He went on to become one of the front-ranking youth leaders of the movement against corruption launched by Jai Prakash Narayan, later leading to dislodging of Indira Gandhi as prime minister. Consequently, Jaitley spent 19 months behind bars, at the Ambala Jail and Tihar Jail, during the Emergency. In 1977, Jaitley was made the president of the Delhi ABVP and the all-India secretary of the RSS students’ body.
As a practising lawyer in Delhi in the late ‘80s, Jaitley helped the Opposition frame its Bofors strategy and oust the Rajiv Gandhi government — stories about which he was fond of recounting. In the Janata Dal government that came next, with outside support of the BJP and Communists, Jaitley served as Additional Solicitor General for a brief period (1989-90) when he was entrusted with the Bofors case.
In 1991, Jaitley was inducted into the BJP’s National Executive, the party’s primary body of which he remained a member till the end.
While other Delhi BJP stalwarts like Madan Lal Khurana and V K Malhotra never made it beyond state politics, Jaitley rose slowly and steadily, though he had to wait longer than Swaraj (who became a minister in the 13-day Vajpayee government in 1996) and Mahajan to find a footing in national politics. In 1998, Vajpayee, in his second stint in power, chose L M Singhvi over Jaitley for a Rajya Sabha seat.
While he was made a minister when Vajpayee again became PM in 1999, Jaitley got a berth in the Rajya Sabha only in 2000, when senior leader L K Advani put his weight behind him. Soon after, Jaitley was given the charge of Law Ministry after the exit of Ram Jethmalani from the Vajpayee cabinet.
He never looked back after that, with his friendship with Modi starting from the time that he was Gujarat chief minister holding him in good stead. Jaitley stood by Modi after the 2002 riots, when he came under pressure from a section of the BJP close to Vajpayee, and saw him through the tough 2007 Assembly elections.
During this period, Jaitley also helped steer the BJP to a win in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh (2003) and led it to considerable gains in Karnataka (2004). His good equations with JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar came in handy for the BJP in Bihar.
After the death of Mahajan in 2006, Jaitley took over several of his responsibilities, including shouldering the party for general elections. But, with Advani-led BJP trounced in 2009, Jaitley had to face the heat. Finally, the RSS stepped in and in its plan for a next-generation leadership, made Swaraj and Jaitley Leaders of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively, and replaced Rajnath Singh with Nitin Gadkari as the president of the BJP.
Long before most others, Jaitley sensed Modi’s rising star. It was a while before the other second-generation leaders followed, resulting in the BJP handing over the 2014 campaign leadership to Modi.
The PM showed his trust in Jaitley by giving him the Finance portfolio, with additional responsibilities of Defence and Information and Broadcasting, even after he lost his maiden Lok Sabha election, from Amritsar, amidst a Modi wave. Jaitley was seen as the virtual No. 2 in the Modi-I government, before Amit Shah began taking control of national affairs.
As Finance Minister, Jaitley will be remembered for having enacted GST and Insolvence and Bankruptcy Code reforms and for promoting insurance-based social security instruments. As a critic of Nehruvian socialism, Jaitley pursued a right-of-centre economic approach. His ailments kept him away from office several times, still Jaitley was a vital cog in the 2019 BJP Lok Sabha election machinery that brought Modi back to power with enhanced majority. However, this time, he bowed out, telling the PM to excuse him from ministerial responsibilities given his health.
Still, before government formation, among those whom Modi consulted was Jaitley, driving down personally to his residence.