Arun Jaitley: The leader with largest constituency
Three years ago, I had written Arun Jaitley’s authorized semi-biography in my book, Courting Politics, and, with deep sorrow today, I write this tribute to a gentleman-politician and luminous personality. The outpouring of grief that has marked his death reveals the sway he exercised across political ideologies and parties, and the love he received from his people.
Jaitley was a man of ethics who followed a code of conduct far removed from the political climate he thrived in. That was the brilliance of the man. He steadfastly defended his way of doing and looking at things in the most adverse climates. Yet, he remained loved by all he interacted with. His code did not make him aloof but approachable, loyal, and courteous. A people’s man. Truly a man for the people, if not of the people.
For many years, when it was utterly unfashionable to carry a card identifying one as a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member, he wore his party affiliation like a badge of honour. He never deviated from his commitment and loyalty to the ideology of his chosen party. In Delhi, that could have meant ostracism for anyone else, but Jaitley was welcomed in all political circles and respected. This was a testament to his towering intellect, easy charm and consummate people management. His chosen constituency were the people of Delhi, all of Delhi, left, right and centre and he nurtured them all equally, with his characteristic unfailing civility.
That Jaitley had a powerful aptitude for governance was evident in his tenure as minister in charge of challenging portfolios over the years but what is often not discussed enough is his carefully cultivated constituency. His constituency was not marked by an obscure geographical boundary. His constituency was the people he met and influenced.
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Despite being in the thick of politics, Jaitley was accessible, sensitive, protective and trusting. Perhaps his tendency to trust and befriend easily came from his childhood in the streets of Delhi, which thrives on abiding friendships and jugaad. The quintessential aloofness that surrounds those close to 7 Race Course Road (now, 7 Lok Kalyan Marg) never came in the way of Jaitley and his old pals or even those who knocked the door of the mai baap. I remember when I had gone to meet him in his plush office in North Block, Jaitley’s day was packed. There was an unexpected agricultural crisis and his intervention was sought. That didn’t allow Jaitley to forget that he had a visitor waiting. Without wasting much time, he called me in the middle of his high-level brainstorming session, and in an extremely warm and helpless tone, he said, “Beta, if you don’t mind, can we meet tomorrow? Something urgent has come up and I don’t want you to wait indefinitely.” He earned my loyalty and affection with that simple act of civility and grace. And this civility he extended to all who reached out to him. That’s how he expanded his constituency.
He was a curious phenomenon who could be, on one hand, the poster boy for Lutyens’ Delhi, and on the other, the chief troubleshooter and input provider for the saffron brigade, and this he did with utmost dexterity. If there was one guest list that could rival the one for the recent Ambani wedding, it was the one for the wedding of his daughter, Sonali, in 2015. And the power lay not in the numbers of the attendees, but in the goodwill he amassed over the years. Jaitley’s entire constituency was present and cheering!
An important lesson that Jaitley taught me in one of his interviews for my book was that success was never individual. Success meant that one’s family and friends were also successful. It was never a private affair. I did believe him when he spoke those words -- after all, he was the reference point for thousands in the city. Jaitley liked to help, whether it was his business or not. And he not only helped, he ensured a follow-up. He built people, their careers and endorsed their credentials. He was always available to put in a “good word”. In this complex and competitive world, he walked his own path.
While we talk about his constituency, one cannot oversell the impact Jaitley had on his own party. He was often referred to as “the right man in the wrong party”, a phrase that greatly displeased him. For Jaitley, this was a far cry from the truth as he was fiercely committed towards BJP’s national acceptance. His profile provided BJP a necessary facelift. His moderation, nuanced rhetoric, impeccable articulation, wisdom and judgment was the perfect counterbalance to the incendiary divisive voices which sometimes emanated from the BJP. His detailed, meticulously crafted blogs put forward BJPs ideology to the world. He was a key figure, who stayed with the BJP and shaped it, with his colleagues, in the years between 1984 till 2014 where it went from two to 282 seats in the Lok Sabha. He was the one who created and set the narrative for the diaspora and for those who could not identify with Nagpur. Jaitley’s political acumen, coupled with his unshakeable loyalty to the BJP, is the stuff of political legend. Jaitley was the Sudama everyone wanted to befriend.
Jaitley had learnt the value of both consensus and harmony in proximity with Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As BJP’s new consensus man, Jaitley proved his unmatched political acumen when he brought a tectonic shift by introducing the Goods and Services Tax without any social or economic collateral to his party. A miracle was executed. One of independent India’s most significant economic reforms, the passage of GST demonstrated once again that Jaitley is the master of negotiation and concord.
Jaitley may have lost the only election he ever contested, but his constituency cannot be claimed by another. And that shall be always his. It is difficult to imagine Delhi politics without Jaitley. Delhi will mourn its modern-day Kautilya for a long time to come.
(Shweta Bansal is an Indian Foreign Service Officer of the 2013 batch. She is the author of Courting Politics - a book which profiles India’s top lawyer-politicians. The views expressed are personal.)