Arun Jaitley is something of a paradox. As a Lutyens-compliant minister in a government of Delhi outsiders, he is gossipy, sociable, busy, always at hand to firefight whatever crisis, real or imagined, might be exercising the public, investors or the media. It is almost possible to imagine him as a representative of the previous regime.
Yet to see him only as a plausible lawyer making a skilful case on behalf of the ruling power is to ignore the longevity of his attachment to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its forebear the Jana Sangh. How did he come to be there? The answer lies in two places: his family, and his experiences during the Emergency.
“We were a Partition family,” he says. “They had a nostalgia about Lahore and disliked Pakistan for having taken Lahore from them. It had left wounds. Families who suffered at Partition were conventionally Jana Sangh voters. They were critical of Nehru and even more of Indira. I remember my father thought they had suffered because of Nehru.”
We are sitting in an office at the side of his residence. He wears a mustard yellow Polo shirt with coffee-coloured belted slacks and rimless spectacles, which give him an inquisitive look. As Finance Minister, Minister of Corporate Affairs and Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Jaitley is central to the movement that currently dominates much of Indian politics.
People come and go: staff, supplicants, a delegation of pugnacious jewellers anxious about excise duty. Alongside the law books is a photo of Prince Charles. “The prince is a friend,” he explains. “I’m taking the painkillers, but not much pain,” he says over the phone to his wife Dolly, who has just reached New York. He is an epic multi-tasker, combining conversation with interruption, signing a file while fielding a call from his daughter Sonali and checking messages on a rose gold iPhone 6. He looks lighter and healthier than he did in opposition.
Memories of Partition
Jaitley’s newly married parents had reached Delhi as refugees in August 1947. His grandmother had been left with six sons and two daughters when her husband, a mid-level railways officer, died in the 1920s. She strove to get them educated, and four of the boys ended up as lawyers. “It’s rare to be so keen on education,” says her grandson. “They brought their clothes and jewellery with them. Nothing else. In Old Delhi they took various places on rent and were given a Muslim migrant’s house.”
Born in 1952, he says he had a protected childhood. But it was not easy. “Have you ever seen a Punjabi beggar? Punjabis as a community are an aggressive lot. They made shops on the pavements. They set up ‘camp colleges’. At that time, the High Court was in Simla and the Bar was divided between local lawyers, who were Banias and Kayasths and a few Muslims, and newcomers known as the ‘refugee bar’. Some, including my father, got offices in Chandni Chowk or Sadar Bazaar. Education was a top priority because of the Brahmin thing of my grandmother. My sisters and I were sent to convent schools, English-medium.” In the 1960s his father bought a small plot and built a house in Naraina Vihar.
It was in the courtyard of this house, on the night of 25 June 1975, that Arun Jaitley spotted a policeman speaking to his father. He was at the time an activist in the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and had been picked by JP as the convenor of his youth committee. “I escaped out of the back door.” The next day, as president of the student’s union of Delhi University, he organised one of the only protests in the entire country. “We had 300 people. At that time, I did not even know the Emergency had been declared.” Then the police made mass arrests, across the city. “I was detained for 19 months between Ambala Jail and Tihar Jail.”
While some were torn apart by the experience of imprisonment, Jaitley seemed sanguine. “Jail is a state of mind. If you’re too anxious to be released, it impacts on your mind and body. If you’re in the struggle mode, you don’t give a damn. You read a lot, play volleyball, badminton. We had a few hundred political prisoners and were all segregated. You eat together, develop relationships. It’s like being in a hostel together.”
A political career
It was in the aftermath that he forged his political career. “In January 1977 I was released and plunged into the election campaign. I was the national convenor of the youth and students. I travelled around India. Lalu, Sharad Yadav, Nitish, Karat, Yechury, Parkash Singh Badal, JP himself, Acharya Kripalani, George Fernandes, Advani, Vaypayee, Nanaji Deshmukh – I have dealt with almost every one of them. I’m one of the few eyewitnesses in the present government of what happened.”
Forty years on, wrapped in a jamawar while addressing the Rajya Sabha, having made plenty of money as a senior advocate, it can be easy to forget this tough side of Jaitley. The connections he formed early on stood him in good stead later. He says he first met Narendra Modi in the 1970s, “when he was studying in Delhi,” and was struck in the 1990s by his “organizational competence.” The relationship seems symbiotic. In the wake of the 2002 Gujarat riots, he gave Modi shrewd legal advice in his dealings with the judiciary and Election Commission. “In 2011, I told colleagues he will be the prime ministerial candidate.”
Unlike many politicians, Jaitley does not take argument personally. When I suggest he may be a good communicator who lacks strong convictions, he says: “Communication skill is an asset, not a liability.” But does he share the ideology of his colleagues?
“I am socially wedded to the middle-class family values of India, strong traditional family values. I am economically liberal. I’m conservative on issues dealing with sovereignty, terrorism and separatism. Then on the gay rights issue, I was one of the first people in the BJP to speak on this subject. If millions practice an alternative sexuality, then can you say it’s against the order of nature? You can’t have a situation where they are all locked up. On caste and religion, it is a matter of freedom of choice – I have a big heart. In my family even when children marry, we don’t ask the caste or community.”
Does he believe in God? Jaitley pauses. “My mother was religious and my wife is very religious. We have a temple in the house with multiple gods, portraits of the Golden Temple and all of that. I’m a practising Hindu but I’m not ritualistic. I do it at formal functions. I follow the customs.”
More Patrick French columns:
I ask him what he would regard as his greatest weakness, and he goes off on an extended riff about his favourite dishes. “I was originally a great lover of food but I have health limitations now. My preference is for north Indian food. I like Kashmiri, Punjabi, the Old Delhi food. I like Gujarati, and the South Indian snacky food. And I very much like the old club menus, the legacy foods. Continental is otherwise not my great favourite. I like Chinese and Thai, among the internationals. But these days,” he says wistfully, raising his right hand to the sky with its fingers splayed, “I even have to carry my own food on aircrafts, for health reasons.”
When I asked about your weakness, I say a little awkwardly, I meant your weakness as a person. For the first time, Arun Jaitley falls silent. He tries to think of a weakness, and then gives up. “I’ve never thought of it.”
By now night has fallen, and outside by a lime-washed portico beset by plants in terracotta pots is a cavalcade for the minister: a gleaming white Tata Scorpio, a white SUV containing, visible on the rear seat, sir’s tiffin, and ready to follow at the end of the line, a white Honda City with a lal batti, all waiting to whisk this essential politician to the next event.
Q & A with Union minister Arun Jaitley
If you weren’t a politician, what would you do?
I would do law. Or I would love to do teaching in a university. I could even write.
What keeps you awake at night?
I have a good sleep. I sleep by around 10 o’clock.
Which other politicians do you admire, as a professional?
The two most charming politicians in contemporary politics I would say were Vajpayee and Pranab Mukherjee. When you met them, you remembered that meeting for a very long time.
Which non-Indian do you admire?
This is not a comment on his politics, but seeing what-all happens in the White House, the way in which Barack Obama has run a neat, clean, scandal-free administration makes me say his name. No US president has done it like him.
What is your guiding principle day by day?
I would like to remain ethical in my approach, and to be socially large-hearted.
What will you do when you retire?
I will travel to resorts in the hills and to three of the prettiest places in the world: Austria, Switzerland and Kashmir. I love those three places.
What is your first memory?
I don’t remember. I know that as a small child, I was wearing a uniform and was being taken for my first day in a school. I was wearing grey trousers and a maroon blazer. It was in Old Delhi. I was about seven years old.
What books are you reading?
I like memoirs. I’m reading Tavleen [Singh]’s book [India’s Broken Tryst]. I enjoy reading about the experience of economic administrators like Ben Bernanke.
What music do you listen to?
Sometimes old Hindi film songs, when I’m going to sleep.
What movies do you watch?
I’ve watched almost none since the 1990s. I like sports – hockey, soccer, tennis, cricket, kabaddi. (Behind me is a wide TV screen showing sport and a Jayalalithaa rally, to which Jaitley’s restless eyes are occasionally drawn.)