What a cruel destiny it is to be forced into writing obituaries every few months. In the past five years, we in the BJP have lost six young and dedicated leaders to untimely deaths. First, it was Gopinath Munde, followed by Anil Madhav Dave, Ananth Kumar, Manohar Parrikar, Sushma Swaraj, and now Arun Jaitley. We lost our beloved Atal ji too. No single political party in Indian history has faced such tragedy.
“Jaatasya hi dhruvo mrityuhu”. Those who are born shall die, said Lord Krishna in the Bhagwad Gita. Yet, when promising leaders pass on in their prime, we long for better answers. The void that these leaders have left behind is hard to fill.
Arun Jaitley was a gentleman politician — suave, sophisticated, humane and witty. He was not just a leader; in over three decades of political life, Jaitley had become an institution. He was our one-stop reference for everything — whether it was the challenges faced by the government or the party or questions about the nation’s future or political issues. From leaders in the states to ministers in the cabinet, from the BJP’s alliance partners to parties on the other side, everyone would turn to him for solutions and guidance. For the media, he was the source of information and the “line-giver”. He was simply indispensable.
Jaitley rose through the party ranks. A find of the Atal-Advani era, he came into prominence through hard work, dedication and talent. An activist of the ABVP, he was incarcerated during the Emergency. When a lucrative offer to contest polls was in sight during the Janata Party regime, Jaitley chose to establish himself as a successful professional before taking the political plunge. A decade in the rugged terrain of the Indian legal system had probably helped him become an expert in matters of law and justice and constitutional intricacies. By the time he became an integral part of the BJP in the late 1980s, Jaitley had made a reputation as a legal and constitutional luminary. This expertise, coupled with his raw sense of grass roots politics, made Jaitley a great asset for the BJP.
Jaitley’s used to be the last word on many legal and constitutional questions that the party would face in the states or at the national level. Law and matters related to the Constitution were at his fingertips. But the solutions he would provide were not just those of a lawyer or a constitutional expert, but also of a shrewd politician, who had his nose to the ground. He had an amazing understanding of the country’s grass roots political reality.
Jaitley was a versatile genius. He handled the finance and defence ministries with equal aplomb. Under two prime ministers, he held portfolios as diverse as law, information and broadcasting, disinvestment, finance, and defence. As the Leader of Opposition or Leader of the House in the Rajya Sabha, he led or participated in several committees and commissions, always adding great value to their functioning.
Jaitley was a quintessential democrat. If we were to name one leader as a successor of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s legacy in politics, it was him. He never believed in political untouchability. He had as many friends in the Opposition as in his party. Like Vajpayee, he too endured criticism with dignity. Like Vajpayee, Jaitley was a man of ideas, feelings, and words. Atal ji used poetry to express himself while Jaitley used prose. Both were superb orators. Jaitley inherited Atal ji’s sense of humour as well. Satire used to be a cherished ingredient in politics in the past. But of late, it has become a rarity. The exception was Arun Jaitley. A player with words, he would use puns frequently in his political discourse to score points without offending the other side. An ability to lighten a heavy debate through his ready wit was Jaitley’s forte. He also had the unique ability to lift a discourse intellectually. He was one of the few leaders in Indian politics with whom one could have an intelligent and profound conversation.
Jaitley’s fondness for cricket is well-known. He was an office-bearer at the BCCI and led the Delhi and District Cricket Association from the front. During his tenure, he promoted many young talents who later became star players in the Indian cricket team. In politics, he was like an all-rounder in cricket. He knew how to hit sixes for the ruling side, how to bowl out the Opposition through tough arguments and how to field the interests of his party in challenging times.
Jaitley owed his rise in politics to the Atal-Advani leadership, when young leaders were spotted and promoted by the party. During the past three decades, Jaitley too spotted, supported and promoted several young talents in Indian politics. Several leaders in today’s BJP, including several in the government, owe their political rise to Jaitley.
With Jaitley, one had the freedom to disagree yet continue to have dialogue and a cordial relationship. He never saw disagreements on issues to be matters of personal prestige. He was a Kashmir specialist. He diligently guided me and Haseeb Drabu in drafting the Agenda of Alliance between the BJP and the PDP. I vividly remember how after 40 days of intense deliberations, we were stuck over a couple of points. At Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s advice, we approached Jaitley who was busy giving final touches to the Union Budget. He joined us outside the North Block at 1 am, standing on the road between South and North Block, nudging us towards closing the matter to mutual satisfaction.
Jaitley is no more. As songwriter Irving Berlin wrote: “The song is ended; but the melody lingers on.”
The writer is a national general secretary, BJP, and director, India Foundation