Arun Jaitley: Reporter-Politician & BJP's Mr. Dependable in the Darkest of Times
Firmly saddled in the nitty gritty of Lutyens’ Delhi, Arun Jaitley was always a Man Friday for powers that be in the saffron party.
Illustration by Mir Suhail
What can I write about Arun Jaitley, a man who was the BJP’s most urban, suave face that transcended the boundaries of caste, creed and religion; a politician who was never shy of dropping one-liners; a gentleman politician who never cared what his critics had to say. Firmly saddled in the nitty gritty of Lutyens’ Delhi, he was always a Man Friday for powers that be in the saffron party.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who claims he is yet to be accepted by the Lutyens’ Delhi culture, once said that his source of information is Arun Jaitley. Modi’s unwavering trust for Jaitley was because of their more-than-three-decades of friendship, and because the latter always stood by him whenever required.
Despite being one of the finest legal brains in the country, his vast knowledge and keen observation of surroundings made Jaitley an Encyclopaedia of information. He could have been a business editor, a political editor or even a sports editor or, combined into one, a managing editor in politics with nose for news which was praised even by his adversaries. Above all, he had a huge stock of stories to share whenever he was with his close circle of friends and that included journalists as well who thronged his room for off-record conversations. He was even aware of the media gossip as well.
Interestingly, whenever reporters needed information on any inside story in the BJP, Jaitley used to talk about cricket gossip, and when we needed something on the BCCI, he used to divert the entire topic by talking about his interesting foreign sojourns. With his wit and humour, he left a lasting impression on at least three generations of journalists in Delhi who will miss him in action.
More than two decades ago, even as young reporters, we had the privilege to walk in to his room. He never let us feel that he was friends with higher-ups in even in our own organisation. He knew the importance of reporters. Whenever he had a bit of free time, he always welcomed us with open arms. Once, he jokingly recalled that as a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet, he used to leave office by 6 or 6:30pm, had a cup of coffee at India Habitat Centre, and by 8pm, he used to be home. The work culture has changed in the Modi government, with Jaitley’s new work hours extending up to midnight sometimes. But he never complained.
Jaitley enjoyed working in the North Block. Despite not keeping in good health, he was always in high spirits. He was always the first line of defence for the Modi government. When the Rafale issue was making headlines, it was Jaitley who took the lead for a fightback. He came out with facts and numbers, wrote regular blogs, and prepared BJP spokespersons with the same at daily meetings.
When questions were raised about the state of the economy, it was again Jaitley who led the fightback. Even when the government was finding it hard to implement the GST reform, it was Jaitley as Finance Minister who with his calm and composure not only convinced all parties, but defended the government as well against the opposition’s all-out attack. The same happened in the days following demonetisation.
Even during Vajpayee’s tenure, when Pramod Mahajan was at the helm of affairs, it was Jaitley’s brilliance that got him going. Advani’s unwavering faith in his capabilities kept him on the forefront. After Mahajan’s demise, it was Arun Jaitley who became Mr Dependable for Advani. The BJP patriarch also made him chief campaign manager of the BJP to fight against the UPA.
Jaitley also enjoyed extremely cordial relations with the Akali leadership as well as with JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar.
Jaitley was targeted by his adversaries for not being a “mass leader”, but the one thing the BJP high command was always aware of was that Jaitley was a master strategist and built the party’s campaign to check-mate the opposition.
Replacing the Lalu Prasad Yadav regime with Nitish Kumar in 2005 was one of his masterstrokes. Jaitley was in-charge of Gujarat elections starting from the first polls Modi faced and continued to do so till 2012. He was in-charge of Karnataka as well when the BJP won its first state in the South and was credited with bringing the Akali-BJP alliance back in power in Punjab despite high anti-incumbency.
Extremely committed to ideology, Jaitley never wavered when the BJP was in the opposition for 10 years during the UPA rule. I remember that after the poll debacle of 2009, top BJP leaders Jaswant Singh, Arun Shourie, Yashwant Sinha and Ram Jethmalani were up in arms against Jaitley. He remained silent and even spent time abroad with his family. With Advani at the helm of affairs, the revolt to remove Jaitley frittered away and he became Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
Jaitley took a principled stand when he refused to attend party meets to protest against the appointment of Sudhanshu Mittal as a prabhari in one of the northeastern states. Despite the move souring mood in the party, Jaitley’s importance in the BJP’s scheme of things was never undermined.
His health deteriorated towards the second half of Modi’s first term, but he kept on working. Advised to rest and avoid infection, Jaitley continued to write blogs even in seclusion. He conveyed his unavailability for cabinet formation in Modi 2.0 and wrote a touching letter to Modi on the same. The PM paid a visit to Jaitley the same night. Jaitley stuck to his stand and slowly faded out of the political system to tend to his health.
With Pramod Mahajan long gone and Venkaiah Naidu not part of politics as India’s vice-president, Jaitley’s demise brings to end an era that shaped the BJP’s destiny in difficult times.
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