Arun Jaitley was a man for all seasons and a friend for hundreds he knew and helped.
Through a political and public life spread over 44 years from the Emergency to his retirement from Cabinet, he was a confidant of many, Narendra Modi perhaps being his longest political friend. Over the years, as politics in India changed from the hegemonic position of the Congress to its decline, while the Jana Sangh became the BJP and rose to pre-eminence, Arun not only had a ringside seat but his enormous talents as a lawyer, parliamentarian and a pivotal leader in the complex task of policy design across all questions facing the first BJP government with a majority, played a vital role often behind but lately in front of the curtain. It would severely exercise minds and memories to find another politician who can lay claim to such a status.
The story of the changeover from the Congress to the BJP from 1975 to 2014 will be told someday. It happened at first because of the draconian imposition of the Emergency. The incarceration of MPs, the bullying of Supreme Court judges, the high-handed behaviour of an unelected son of the prime minister were an example of deep self-harm by the Congress. But for a young, fiery, idealistic president of the ABVP, it was an opportunity — to establish the image of his party as one fighting for freedom, to reverse the old criticism of the ruling party that the Hindu nationalists were a dangerous lot not to be trusted by the people, especially the Muslims. Tell that to the million Muslim men sterilised forcibly by Sanjay Gandhi.
Arun was the quintessential political professional who spoke with every side, every person seeking conversation. He was the person to go to for solving not just complex political questions but even one’s private worries. In this, he was somewhat like Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was Ajatshatru.
The last 20 years saw the full flowering of Arun’s talents. Leading his party in the Rajya Sabha both in the Opposition and in power, his face became more publicly seen. His extraordinarily deep knowledge of the Constitution, of the working of Parliament and his mastery over the conduct of business could be admired. But it was his role in the Modi.1 government which was the full revelation of his ability to provide the hard wiring for the vision of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas. The BJP had tried in its first term between 1999-2004 to demonstrate that it was a modern, technologically savvy party. But alas, the people of India voted them out.
In the 2014-2019 government, the BJP was able to establish and renew its popular position. It was not just a Hindu nationalist party but also a party which could modernise India and make it an economic success story. Each budget which Arun presented was a landmark, particularly when the Ayushman Bharat scheme was presented. It will last for decades as the best healthcare scheme starting with the deprived 40 per cent and spreading later its coverage to all. The GST lays down for the first time after 70 years of Independence the possibility of making India a single economic entity, a Common Market.
His departure leaves a huge gap in India’s economy and polity.