Ever since Saturday noon, when I got the phone call — which despite his prolonged and brave battle with illness, I didn’t think I’d ever get — I’ve been reflecting on what Arun ji and I had in common. No amount of introspection has led me to any answers.
Yet, if mentorship is the hallmark of a political career, I’ve had the best. Did I have a role in the selection of the mentor? None at all, and that is where the role of Providence is.
I come from the country’s south, sometimes distant in its connect and preoccupations with the political culture of the north. “Are you a ‘TamBram’ from Mylapore,” he’d asked me on more than one occasion, even after a few years of my having worked closely with him. It was a genuine query that, at times, gave way to light-hearted ribbing at a stereotypical contrast in our sensibilities.
I was, and to a large extent, still am, an alien to Delhi’s social circuit, with whom he shared a wonderful rapport, given the gregarious entertainer and raconteur that he was. I’m not a lawyer either, to a lot of whom he was a generous senior, apart from being a role model, given his undeniable legal acumen.
I hardly knew any leader of “stature” in Delhi’s political world when I first came to the capital, as a national spokesperson in 2010.
But his shishya I became, without doubt.
Once in my early days in the party, I prepared a version of a political resolution only to have him send it back to me, saying that the party needed a draft resolution and “not a term paper”. We were too close to the deadline already, but despite the pressures of time, somehow, Arun ji knew how to extract the best from me.
Given his legal training perhaps, he was a brilliant speed-reader, with a complete hold over comprehension. If I laboured a point he’d already grasped, his sense of impatience was palpable. But Arun ji would never stop me — or a few others like me, for that matter — from finishing our piece.
We’ve also disagreed on matters, but he never gave me the feeling that he contradicted me. Even at his most candid, his clarity of thought and manner of delivery were wedded together so seamlessly that he made sure you didn’t take his disagreement personally.
In a city known for its ego and tu jaanta nahi mein kaun hoon, Arun ji, for all the heights he’d reached, made sure to communicate with consideration, even when you were wrong, and especially when he knew he was right. He was also very easy to talk to, given his varied interests. In 2017, after a visit to Russia, I had brought back a photo-book of the collections in the State Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg for him. Before he even opened its cover, he rattled off the names of at least three bookstores overseas — in Paris, Tokyo, and London. He waxed eloquent about each of them, and pointedly asked me where had I got this one from.
His inherent security in showing generosity to his juniors is perhaps encapsulated in one very vivid memory I have: The day I took charge at the Raksha Mantralaya, it was Arun ji who affectionately walked me through the corridors of the majestic South Block and on entering the room, drew the chair and gestured for me to take the seat.
There was nothing Arun ji stood to gain by taking me under his wing, so to speak. Yet, he did. Without ever being overbearing, he’d step in to guide me. With a quick phone-call, or with that dismissive frown on his face, to tell me that I should let some things go, or that I could do better, and to discourage me from negative thought.
His well-known penchant for banter and gup shup was never to hurt or malign anybody. When it came to party karyakartas, he was fiercely protective of them, and would do anything to safeguard their legitimate interests.
In person, though, he was never proficient with praise. When I did something well enough by his standards — initially a press conference, later a parliamentary answer — his pat-on-the-back, as it were, would be limited to a “hmm” and a nod.
That was enough, especially because it reinforced to me the biggest lesson there is to remember: At work, in politics or otherwise, you can’t rest on your past successes. There were always ten other things that needed our attention. Sometime between 2011-2012, as I was on the way back after a particularly tough day in the TV studios, I got a call from him. He asked if I was alright, and told me to go see him the next day. I did so promptly. What he said then will stay with me a long time:“Don’t try to win the evening with an argument,” he said.
“Gently put the facts across, and you’ll win the day.” This was a time when there was no “power” yet on the horizon, for the BJP. Arun ji always thought of persuasion and ideology as more powerful than noise and catchy remarks to make a point. He held on to nuance with élan, made subtlety a powerful instrument, and believed that a turn-of-phrase would endear you to the listener. How relevant! For him, etiquette and grace were never to be compromised. And neither were the principles of integrity in public life. I’ve heard him use the phrase “squeaky-clean” for honest people. It was a quality he deeply valued.
Arun Jaitley, my guru, my mentor, and my moral strength, is no more. Ever grateful for the role you played, Arun ji.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 26, 2019, under the title ‘A shishya’s tribute’. The writer is the Union Finance Minister