Arun Jaitley, who died on Saturday at 66, will be remembered as the lawyer-politician who made the sharpest of cases for the party he bore lifelong allegiance to, while easily reaching across the political divide. When the BJP was still struggling to make its electoral mark and was still seen as politically “untouchable”, he contributed to crafting the arguments that helped power its acceptability and rise in the public-political sphere, and also made it look more coalitionable. As leader of Opposition, during the UPA regime, Jaitley was not just forceful and articulate in Parliament, he was also the debater with a keen sense of the argument across the aisle. As minister in BJP governments at the Centre, he helmed many crucial portfolios, with distinction and poise, and his contributions, like the GST and IBC frameworks, will endure. He became the virtual number two in the Narendra Modi cabinet, till he had to step back due to ill health and Amit Shah moved into the slot. As an organisation man, he was the one his party turned to, more often than not — to strategise for important elections, and to put out the fires within and without.
All through a remarkable journey, as he grew from a student leader who went to jail for the entire period of the Emergency, to the promising second rung leader of the Vajpayee-Advani era, to the prominent power centre in the Modi era, what stood out was Jaitley’s affability and ease in straddling different worlds and becoming a bridge between them. This ability is increasingly precious and rare in times more polarised and polarising. Jaitley seemed as comfortable intervening in public debates on the BJP’s core ideological issues — one of his last blog posts was in defence of the Modi government’s controversial abrogation of Kashmir’s special status — as he was in engaging leaders of business and industry and high technology, or in stitching caste coalitions with regional leaders, many of whom did not share the BJP’s worldview, but whom he had befriended during his participation in the JP movement against the Indira Gandhi-led Congress regime. He was a staunch and effective critic of the Congress, while playing to the hilt the role of the ebullient and knowing insider of the “Lutyen’s elite” — a powerful clique, both imagined and real, that successive Congress regimes are seen to have patronised and presided over, and which his own party, under Modi, has openly challenged and disdained.
For the BJP, the loss is enormous, especially so because it follows in the wake of the deaths, in recent months, of Ananth Kumar, Manohar Parrikar and Sushma Swaraj — all were leaders groomed to take the BJP into the future. For India’s public-political life, Jaitley’s going away leaves an empty space that will not be easily filled. Of a frontline political leader whose enjoyment of the political bout meant that he was not just tolerant of, but hospitable to, the opponent.