In Arun Jaitley’s death, nation loses a brilliant strategist in public life
Arun Jaitley - former Finance, Defence and Law Minister; former leader of the house and leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha; one of Bharatiya Janata Party’s tallest figures and a key architect of its campaign strategy across elections; a legal luminary; and among the most prominent individuals in Indian public life - passed away on Saturday. He was 66.
Jaitley’s death triggered an outpouring of grief, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On a visit to UAE, the PM tweeted: “Arun Jaitley Ji was a political giant, towering intellectual and legal luminary. He was an articulate leader who made a lasting contribution to India. His passing away is very saddening.”
There were eight different facets of Jaitley’s life that would stand out.
The first was as a student leader who fought for democratic freedoms. A quintessential Delhi boy, who went to school and college in the city, Arun Jaitley’s association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), started and got cemented in Delhi University’s Sri Ram College of Commerce and then Law Faculty. And then, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency. Jaitley, president of the Delhi University Students Union, emerged as a major figure of resistance, and participated in protests, before he was arrested and kept behind bars for close to two years. This legacy - of having fought authoritarianism - would help boost his political credentials.
RIP Arun Jaitley: Former finance minister and BJP stalwart dies at 66
The second element in Jaitley’s life was his ability to combine law and politics. He had a thriving practice, but his heart lay in politics. Appointed the additional solicitor general at the remarkably young age of 37, under the VP Singh government in 1989, Jaitley was involved in the building the legal case against Rajiv Gandhi on Bofors. This intersection would stay through his career. From defending political colleagues during their legal troubles, mounting a legal offensive against the opposition, or advising his party on the fine print of legislation, including most recently on the changes in Jammu and Kashmir, Jaitley deployed his legal knowledge to push his political beliefs successfully.
The third major strand in Jaitley’s life was as a committed party worker. Jaitley spent years in the organisation, serving as the party’s youth wing president and secretary of the Delhi unit. In later years, he would take charge of states during elections - and helped the party win victories in as disparate geographies as Gujarat, Bihar and Karnataka among other regions. But Jaitley really became a major figure in public consciousness with the advent of news television in the 1990s. One of the party’s most articulate voices, fluent in both English and Hindi, with an ability to construct his arguments flawlessly, combining the right degree of aggression and sobriety, Jaitley played a major - and often underestimated - role in expanding the party’s appeal among the middle classes in urban India. The same skills also made him the party’s key link to the intellectual ecosystems - academics, journalists, think tanks - in both India and abroad.
The fourth was as the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha who kept the BJP flag flying. He fiercely attacked the UPA government on corruption allegations and policy paralysis. As the government’s credibility dipped, and popular resentment grew, the BJP’s importance kept rising as the sole national alternative.
The fifth element which defined Jaitley’s public life was his close association with Modi. Both were friends and had come to work closely together in the late 1990s, when Modi was the party’s general secretary based in Delhi. Jaitley played a role in creating conditions which enabled Modi’s shift to Gujarat as the CM. But it was after the 2002 riots that the friendship grew even deeper. At a time when Modi was under fierce attack for either being complicit or being unable to control the violence, Jaitley rose to his defence. Over the years, as Modi battled legal cases and faced commissions of inquiry and investigative teams, Jaitley remained a close adviser. While both had considered Advani their mentor and acknowledged the veteran leader’s role in strengthening BJP, after the 2009 elections, both Modi and Jaitley were clear it was time for a change. Jaitley was among the first leaders to begin working for Modi’s elevation as the party’s Prime Ministerial face.
Jaitley’s sixth facet was as the man behind the party’s messaging in a series of elections, including 2014 and 2019. In democratic and electoral politics, language matters, vocabulary matters, messaging matters, for polls are often won or lost on the key narrative dominating public discourse. Jaitley’s ways with words would make him invaluable to the party. In 2019, due to a string of health setbacks, Jaitley was unable to travel to states. But he wrote, much before anyone else, that the election would be fought on Modi’s leadership - the more the opposition attacked the PM, the better it would be for the BJP. He wrote, back in 2018, that the election would be one between the prospects of a strong government on one side and a weak, divided, chaotic opposition on the other. This turned out to be prescient and became the party’s signature campaign themes. Jaitley would spend time at the party headquarters with a battery of junior spokespersons every morning during the campaign, briefing them on what to say to the media. He would give speech inputs to the PM. And he would, through his blog, write on key issues to bolster the party’s prospects and demolish the opposition’s case on allegations like Rafale.
Seventh, Jaitley was a rare BJP figure who could combine both an understanding of politics and policy. His record as Finance Minister would hold both the passage of the Goods and Services Tax, and the introduction of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, as landmark achievements which would have a structural impact on the Indian economy. The GST, in particular, required extensive consultations and consensus-building with states, and Jaitley’s interpersonal skills played a key role in enabling this.
And finally, Jaitley would be remembered as among the warmest individuals to inhabit Delhi’s political universe. He was everyone’s friend - from political rivals to party juniors, from fellow lawyers to businessmen, from those who were a part of his walking group in Lodhi Garden to journalists, from doctors to bureaucrats. Few political figures were as well-networked. He invested in each relationship; he looked out for their interests; he was not hierarchical; he enjoyed banter and exchanged gossip with friends; and yes, he thrived on hearty meals with friends.
Arun Jaitley was an institution in Indian politics. A sparkling 45-year old career has ended. Public life in India is today a lot poorer.