It was a sad day when, travelling overseas, I heard the news of the death of Arun Jaitley. His multiple health issues had already debilitated him for the last few years, and these took his life. The country has lost a political and professional stalwart. Earlier, the government had lost a respected and sobering voice when he retired to his private home in south Delhi, in stark contrast to the many who cling to the post and its perks till their last breath.
I had worked with Jaitley when I was Secretary, Corporate Affairs and he was the Minister for Law and Corporate Affairs. He is one of the best ministers I worked with. Why do I say this? He was honest, both financially and intellectually — somewhat rare in politics. He never once asked me to do anything inappropriate, never even discussed any such thought or proposal.
His sharp mind instantly dived to the core of an issue — that may have led some people to feel frustrated with his “short attention span”. He read people and their character insightfully. Earlier, he had early once discussed with me about the weaknesses of a senior officer in my team at the ministry. That officer’s habits soon unraveled a few months into my tenure at the ministry, and on one occasion when he reached out to the PMO without permission, the minister and I were compelled to have him bundled out of the ministry.
Sometimes, there was a certain brusqueness to his behaviour which could be misunderstood as rudeness. Even I was appalled when two top partners of a global consultancy came to meet him and I had been asked to be present. He almost ignored the presence of the number two whom Rajat Gupta had brought along, apparently because he had been a previous acquaintance of Jaitley.
One of the country’s top lawyers, Jaitley was nothing short of brilliant on the floor of Parliament; his eloquence and fluency were in a class of their own. On the debating floor, he was a formidable adversary who could demolish in a few pithy, and sometimes sharp remarks, the opposite argument with consummate ease.
One of the pleasures of working with Jaitley was in the way he reposed trust in you and relied on your advice. There was this underlying comfort that if you were in the right, he was with you. He was willing to put his formidable influence and argumentation behind any reform or new idea. Politics never entered into the discussions about policies, though his passionate belief in his political ideas occasionally and momentarily surfaced in informal conversations.
He was the minister when the Competition Bill was introduced in Parliament. Years later, when he returned to power, this time as finance minister, people approached him about the high penalties being imposed by the Competition Commission, and he remarked to me that may be we had brought in the new Act too early. I pointed out that the penalties may appear high, but were insignificant compared to the harm caused to the economy and to the consumers by cartels and abusive monopolies. Notwithstanding his reservations about the high penalties, he willingly wrote the foreword to the second edition of my book on competition law.
His record as finance minister is to many observers a mixed legacy, mainly due to the fallout from measures such as demonetisation (which damaged the economy in ways that the government apparently failed to foresee) and the government’s disagreements with RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan. However, demonetisation was in all probability not a Jaitley initiative or his voluntary decision. On the apparent tiff with the RBI governor, I cannot claim any inside knowledge, but to me it was likely an honest disagreement between the RBI and the finance ministry on what the economy needed at that point in time. Nonetheless, true to his persona, he was entirely civil and discreet in handling the disputes — unlike US President Donald Trump, whose uncharitable remarks about the US Fed Governor Jerome Powell are public knowledge.
On the other hand, under Jaitley’s captaincy, the finance ministry delivered a host of measures that had otherwise been hanging fire for years — GST, insolvency law, DBT of subsidies, FDI liberalisation, etc. The high regard and respect that he enjoyed across the political spectrum was reflected in his ability to harness all state governments and parties to back reforms such as GST. He will be or should be remembered for many of these bold measures whose long-term benefits to the Indian economy will be visible in due course of time.
Arun Jaitley, statesman, legal luminary, true son of the soil, may your soul rest in peace.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 5, 2019 under the title ‘Captain Cool’. The writer is a former secretary, Government of India and head of the Competition Commission of India