Arun Jaitley was BJP’s Pranab Mukherjee, a formidable political strategist
Except good health, Arun Jaitley had all that he could attain or destiny could bestow: prosperity, power, fame, and above all, a fine brain. He knew it, and would lament often that painful reality of his plentiful life.
I remember vividly his spontaneous remark while asking a major domo to fetch the home-cooked, olive oil paranthas he would share with others over lunch in Parliament house. He said God had given him everything except health (“Ishwar ne sab kuch diya hai sehat ke alava.”)
I couldn’t but help recall our conversation in Parliament House when he spoke to me last on phone from his sick bed. That was the day after he wrote, and made public, a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in which he opted out of his Cabinet on health grounds.
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Didn’t I do the right thing, he asked about his letter to the Prime Minister. I replied in the affirmative, saying he has put at rest the speculation over his inclusion in the ministerial team of Modi 2.0. How is your health, I asked. “I have faith in God and in my doctors,” he replied. The comment summed up his persona: the modernist with faith in science, the traditionalist with obeisance to the divine.
Such blend of belief along with a rare streak of generosity fetched him friendships across class, societal and political divides. He would often joke that he was more popular outside the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) than within.
There was an element of truth in what Jaitley said. His indispensability in the BJP was the cause of envy among several of his peers. He was to his party what Pranab Mukherjee was to the Congress: a formidable political strategist, draftsman, parliamentarian, and a media interface with an astute legal mind.
His debating skills and knowledge of the law made him the best defender of the BJP’s political line and policies. His cerebral combats in Parliament with peers such as Mukherjee, P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Singhvi and Sitaram Yechury added lustre to the proceedings. He excelled in the Rajya Sabha in the debate on the Office of Profit controversy over which Sonia Gandhi had to resign and re-contest from Rae Bareli in 2006.
At the height of the see-saw over the Indo-US nuclear deal, LK Advani was asked whether he had studied the pact. He replied in the negative, saying the matter was left to Jaitley, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie as they had better grasp of the issues under debate. After the Sinha-Shourie duo drifted away from the BJP, Jaitley became the party’s all-purpose debater, be it defending the indefensible or explaining the incomprehensible.
Mukherjee and KC Tyagi of the Janata Dal (United) were among the parliamentarians for whom he had high regard. He often talked about the former President’s exceptional parliamentary skills and his contribution -- as chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs -- to legislation-making during AB Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime.
He never hid his clout in the media and would often laugh off the jibe that the only doctrine for which he would be remembered would be the “spin” doctrine. His repertoire of anecdotes was limitless; his storytelling skills peerless.
That’s what made him the favourite of media persons and morning walkers at the Lodhi Gardens he’d frequent even as a minister. Barring a few aberrations, he never gave up on associates from his days as president of the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU), which overlapped with the imposition of Emergency in 1975. He was among the founders of a platform that helped Old Political Individuals of the University Meet (OPIUM). The composition of the group was eclectic, comprise as it did of politicians of varied hue active on the university campus from 1969 to 1974.
It was perhaps in the fitness of things that the last OPIUM gathering was at Jaitley’s official Krishna Menon Marg residence on January 1 this year. He recounted at the meeting the bungalow’s history and the additions made to it by its earlier occupants, including Mulayam Singh Yadav, who got a Hanuman Temple built on the premises.
There are countless stories of Jaitley having helped friends and colleagues buy homes, own cars, and finance higher studies for their children. He never sold old vehicles. He gave them away to deserving associates. Several lawyers owe their careers to him in the courts of Delhi. So does Mahesh Pandit, a young man from Bihar’s backwoods whose oil-on-canvas hyper-realistic paintings caught the finance minister’s eye and opened for him the gates to the who’s who of politics, including President Ram Nath Kovind and PM Modi.
He willingly walked the extra mile for people genuinely in need of help. He once made three rounds of a court in high fever to get a journalist’s nephew the relief he had sought. It is thanks to Jaitley that the young client he represented has a prosperous business now.
A Good Samaritan for those he liked, Jaitley once called me late in the night after not having seen me in Parliament for a few days. “I’m fine,” I said. And he rang off saying: “I was worried whether your secular badge has led you into any trouble…”
Friendships for him were on as-is-where-is basis.