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Thursday, Nov 21, 2019

Opinion | How Arun Jaitley shaped ‘new Bihar’- an untold story

The BJP leader’s role in ensuring NDA’s victory in 2005, and elevating Nitish Kumar as CM, altered history

analysis Updated: Aug 31, 2019 09:19 IST
Sanjay Jha
Sanjay Jha
Two days of state mourning by the Bihar government is a solemn gesture of gratitude to Arun Jaitley
Two days of state mourning by the Bihar government is a solemn gesture of gratitude to Arun Jaitley(Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

A week has passed since Arun Jaitley left us. His was an innings that straddled many genres — political, legal, administrative and public. Obituaries to him have been deserving and reflect his multifaceted persona. And yet, one of Jaitley’s decisive political legacies — in how he crafted the resurgence of Bihar after 15 years of “jungle raj” until 2005 — remains untold. Two days of state mourning by the Bihar government is a solemn gesture of gratitude to Jaitley — the architect of the thriving National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar. Both on account of Bihar’s unique significance, and its turnaround as one of the fastest growing sub-economies since 2005, the story warrants attention.

In 2004, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had come back at the Centre, with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) getting the highest number of MPs following the Congress. Bihar’s state elections were to follow in eight months, and the signs looked bleak for us in the opposition. At this time of utter hopelessness for the NDA, the Bharatiya Janata Party picked Arun Jaitley as in-charge of Bihar. Jaitley first worked out the crucial distribution of seats between BJP and Janata Dal (United). He also simultaneously charted out the overall election campaign. The February 2005 elections were scheduled in three phases. The NDA had gone into the elections without a CM face. The first phase of voting passed thus. A survey run by Jaitley in this period however suggested that pitching a “face” could swing 2 to 3% votes in NDA’s favour. They needed a clean, credible and development-oriented face as an alternative. And to effect it, Jaitley showed the drive, commitment and grit to recalibrate a crucial election campaign midway.

Jaitley quickly prevailed over his top leadership on not just the need for announcing a CM face, but also that Nitish Kumar must be that face. The CM face, as Jaitley put it in his characteristic straightforward manner, had to be from the senior partner. I was then privy to how Jaitley, with his charm, convinced and won over JD(U)’s national president, George Fernandes, in favour of Nitish Kumar. Election result analysis later clearly revealed that the NDA had gained significantly in the later two phases of voting.

The hung assembly and the ensuing chaos were to test Jaitley’s other core skills. Thanks to his sharp negotiating abilities, the NDA had the requisite numbers to effect a credible government. And yet, the UPA imposed President’s rule in the state through a late night fax order. Curiously, the President himself was away in Russia. Jaitley then kept the NDA intact as a strong unit; spearheaded a tireless campaign in the media, on national forums, and in Parliament; led a historic legal-constitutional win in the battle against President’s rule; and shepherded an iconic parade of the NDA’s MLAs before the President on his return. The events cemented the politico-administrative capabilities of Jaitley, and ushered in a wave of change and aspiration in Bihar.

It propelled him to work out, and fine tune, along with Nitish Kumar, the design and nuance of the upcoming re-election, the results of which rewrote Bihar’s history. Even more telling for me, as a co-worker to both, was the natural deepening of chemistry between these two leaders. On the day the results were announced and the NDA emerged as the winner, even as leaders and media thronged Nitish Kumar’s Akbar road residence, he wouldn’t address the press conference until Jaitley arrived. On most of his Patna visits, Jaitley made it a point to carry Gopala rasagolla for Nitish. Even as Bihar’s NDA alliance went through ups and downs, mutual communication and trust between the two remained intact, and they nurtured it. Jaitley was known to calmly sidestep the discomfort of some senior BJP leaders to this proximity.

Jaitley retained a special connect with Bihar. He fondly praised the assertiveness of party workers from the state, besides being open to all genuine demands of the state. In my pursuit of securing an airport for Darbhanga, I had approached him when he was the defence minister for a mandatory No Objection Certificate. Once briefed, he promptly issued the necessary instructions.

On his last Bihar visit to attend the wedding of Sushil Modi’s son in December 2017, Arun Jaitley, then India’s finance minister, chose an old time co-worker like me to host him at my Patna residence for a few hours so he could have tea and some local gup-shup. Much as it reveals his humility, it was Jaitley’s way of keeping his ear to the ground. Arun Jaitley will remain integral to the NDA’s legacy of effecting Bihar’s turnaround and giving wings to aspirations of its 11 crore people.

Sanjay Jha is water resources minister in the Bihar government and national general secretary, JD(U).
The views expressed are personal