When Arun Jaitley spent Rs 35,000 to prep for Rajya Sabha debate
Arun Jaitley flourished in the Opposition benches between 2004 and 2014 in the Rajya Sabha, including when he was the Leader of Opposition (2009 to 2014) in the Upper House while late Sushma Swaraj was his counterpart in the Lower House.Updated: Aug 24, 2019 14:39 IST
August 18, 2011 was a watershed day in the Rajya Sabha. Soumitra Sen, a Calcutta high court justice, was on the verge of becoming the first judge in the country to be impeached. Minutes before the proceedings started on the matter, leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley entered the Upper House with a large number of books. They looked heavy and new.
Later, Jaitley told curious reporters that he spent more than Rs 35,000 on books to prepare for the debate that closely resembled a courtroom drama with frequent references to evidence, legal provisions and spirited arguments from all sides. The motion was passed by the Rajya Sabha but Sen, accused of misappropriation of funds, resigned before it came up before the Lok Sabha.
The incident underlined not just the sincerity of Arun Jaitley, an ace lawyer, but also how seriously he took parliamentary proceedings.
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When this correspondent started covering Parliament in 2002, Jaitley was the law minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government. His tenure as law minister is remembered for piloting a landmark legislation that left a deep impact in Indian politics: the 91st amendment to the Constitution that put restrictions on defections of political leaders. It was the first step to stop the so-called Aaya Ram Gaya Ram phenomena (the phrase was coined after Haryana MLA Gaya Lal changed his party thrice within the same day in 1967).
Jaitley flourished in the Opposition benches between 2004 and 2014 in the Rajya Sabha, including when he was the Leader of Opposition (2009 to 2014) in the Upper House while late Sushma Swaraj was his counterpart in the Lower House. Their ascension marked a generational shift in the BJP’s parliamentary party and the rise of a new, firebrand Opposition politics.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government faced a tough Opposition that reaped the benefits of internal contradictions in the ruling coalition and at a later stage, of several charges of corruption. Yet, when it came to the Women Reservation bill in in March 2010, Jaitley convinced the BJP to support the bill as Vajpayee too, was in support for reserving seats for women in state assemblies and the Lok Sabha.
Jaitley had been often accused by the Congress of legitimising the use of disruptions to prove a political point. In August 2012, when the alleged coal block allocation scam erupted, Jaitley justified disruptions by saying, “There are occasions when obstruction in Parliament brings greater benefits to the country”—a remark that was often used by Congress and other Opposition parties to justify their stand when the BJP wanted order in the House after winning power in 2014. But many have forgotten that after two days in 2012, Jaitley corrected his position, saying, “Parliamentary obstructionism should be avoided. It is a weapon to be used in the rarest of the rare cases.”
In the post-Vajpayee era, Jaitley emerged an erudite orator, a sharp lawmaker and a flamboyant leader of the Opposition who mixed his legal acumen with political skill. He attacked the Congress, especially the Nehru-Gandhi family ruthlessly. But he never made personal attacks. The acrimony between the BJP and the Opposition escalated over the years, but Jaitley never lost his friends in the Opposition camps. He went to invite senior Congress leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi personally for his daughter’s marriage but didn’t hesitate to dub Rahul as “clown prince” in his column. He was a vocal critic of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the scam-tainted UPA 2 regime, but after the 2014 results came out, he wrote in a blog: “Unquestionably, Dr Manmohan Singh was a very good finance minister”. He had immense respect for former President Pranab Mukherjee. During any function at the Parliament’ central hall, Jaitley could be seen taking a seat next to Mukherjee and engaged in long conversation.
He had a witty side too.
When Congress leader Jairam Ramesh claimed in his Rajya Sabha farewell speech in 2016 that former cricketer Vijay Merchant had said “You must retire when people say why and not when why not”, Jaitley stood up and said, “I have been correcting Jairam for last five years. I have to correct him for the last time. It was said by Sunil Gavaskar, not Vijay Merchant.”
During another occasion, Jaitley said since former university mate Sitaram Yechury “never had the opportunity to be in government therefore he had the liberty to make many suggestions which are idealistic but unimplementable.”
Spending many years in the Opposition as well as in the treasury benches had gifted him a holistic vision on Parliament. And that’s why, speaking on the Congress’s stance on Aadhaar in 2017, Jaitley could make an immortal assessment, “Where you stand [on the issue] depends on where you sit!”
First Published: Aug 24, 2019 13:15 IST