A lawyer-turned-politician will be as staid an introduction for Arun Jaitley as a cricketer-turned-commentator for Sunil Gavaskar.
A brilliant strategist and one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most trusted colleagues, Jaitley was far more than an accomplished lawyer and many notches above his contemporaries in politics. The overcrowded grand stage of Delhi’s intoxicating power elite has paused. It has lost one of its main protagonists, who passed away at AIIMS after a prolonged illness on Saturday.
Armed with a razor-sharp legal mind and ace political acumen, Jaitley slew his opponents with intellectual finesse, yet maintained dignity and class that earned him accolades from even those at the receiving end of his diatribe.
Before blossoming into a full-fledged politician, Jaitley had established himself as a shining spark in legal circles. Despite becoming one of the top lawyers in the country, politics seemed his natural calling.
His sprouting at the national scene became imminent after he made his mark as the Delhi University Student Union (DUSU) President in 1974 and got sucked into anti-Emergency movement.
Those were the heady 70s when it was not surprising to see someone from a prestigious institution like Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) representing the student’s body, unlike these days when campus politics has become a domain of bullies and thugs.
The doors for his formal arrival on the national scene were opened in the early 1990s when the nation was at the cusp of social, political and economic transformation. The Mandal politics was peaking in the Hindi heartland, the dust from the demolition of Babri mosque in Ayodhya had turned into a thick dark cloud threatening the very foundations of the nation amidst which then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh were scripting a new economic chapter.
Jaitley slowly occupied a prime place in BJP’s hierarchy in the shadow of stalwarts of the time Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani.
After BJP uprooted the Congress from Madhya Pradesh in 2003, Jaitley’s abilities as a poll manager were widely hailed. He brought the development agenda at the forefront of political discourse by focussing the campaign on basic and long-overlooked issues like ‘Bijli’, ‘Sadak’, ‘Paani’ (electricity, roads, and water).
He made a smooth transition from the corridors of the Supreme Court to the chaotic workspace in Shastri Bhawan, first as a junior minister in the Vajpayee government handling Information and Broadcasting Ministry and Disinvestment, and then as Cabinet Minister from July 2000 onwards driving Law, Justice and Company Affairs and Shipping Ministries.
Jaitley, however, flourished more in Parliament than in the cabinet. After 2004 when the Vajpayee government was voted out in a surprise verdict, Jaitley became the voice of the opposition in the Upper House.
He went on to become the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha in June 2009 and led a series of virulent attacks against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, playing a key role in ensuring its eventual downfall. His acerbic speeches echoed in the high ceilings of Rajya Sabha as he had the government on the mat on a series of corruption scandals and what he termed as ‘policy paralysis’.
His was no ordinary voice in the Parliament. When he stood up to speak, the government of the day would hear in rapt attention. In fact, such was his prowess that the UPA government would often fear if the legislations brought by it would pass Jaitley’s scrutiny.
It is ironical that the best performing MP failed the people’s test in 2014. Jaitley contested Lok Sabha polls from Amritsar but lost to Captain Amarinder Singh. The defeat was a rare personal setback for him as even a Modi wave could not help his fortune.
The electoral debacle did not alter his standing in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Jaitley was seen as the most trusted confidante of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who learned intricacies of New Delhi’s power ecosystem from his long-time friend.
Jaitley was given charge of two key ministries — Finance and Defence. As he shuffled between the North and South block, he suffered another jolt and this time it was more personal. He got bogged down by health issues. Despite frequent visits to the hospital and subsequent long recuperating spells, Jaitley continued to be the most important minister in Modi 1.0 until his condition deteriorated further because of multiple ailments.
Despite his medical condition, he would come to the rescue of the Modi government through his periodic commentaries on social media which became a repository of political judgment.
Jaitley remained physically absent from the election campaign in 2019 but kept the pot of his attacks on the Congress boiling through social media and continued his tirade till the very last days. In one of his recent posts, he had blasted the Congress for its stand on the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.
Despite his ideological doggedness, Jaitley earned the respect of his opponents. His right-wing mooring did not deter him from making friends from leaders of all political hues. The boundaries between political ideologies blurred in his family.
A Delhi boy (he went to St. Xavier’s school in the Civil Lines), he was also the son-in-law of Jammu, having married staunch Congressman and regional stalwart Girdhari Lal Dogra’s daughter Sangeeta. Modi in 2015 attended his father-in-law’s centenary ceremony, attended by scores of Congress leaders, among others.
Jaitley’s influence was far beyond the political domain. He dominated the legal circles even after becoming a politician and was a key cricket administrator who had complete control over Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA). He was one of the key influencers in Delhi’s bar, playing an intricate role its politics. He commanded the same influence in complex cricketing affairs of the country.
Apart from cricket and legal arena, Jaitley was a darling of the media. Contrary to his popular image of being a serious political analyst, Jaitley was a reservoir of Lutyen’s gossip which often landed him on the wrong side of many of his party colleagues who suspected him to be the “source” of many media commentaries on internal affairs. He was at ease with editors and proprietors and held regular ‘darbar’ with a group of reporters.
There was a joke at one time that if an editor’s choice was sought on who should be the Prime Minister, Jaitley would have won hands down!