Arun Jaitley: the politician whose power went far beyond electoral politics
Jaitley, who loved conversing with people, had terms across the political spectrum and was well-connected in the judiciary, media circles and big industry
Arun Jaitley meant quite a few things to Indian politics and his party. And he alone in the BJP could tread the path he did.
He emerged as the face of the BJP as its spokesperson at a time when the party and news television were both coming into their own in the 1990s. And he brought to the table something none in the BJP had at that time: an ease with spoken English. While there were others in the party who could speak English, he sounded more of a native speaker than all of them.
His training as a lawyer also offered Jaitley a space that the party badly needed. He could at the same time defend the controversial positions that the party sometimes took and attack the Congress on corruption charges. And he was also the person party leaders facing court cases reached out to.
He came from an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) background – and was thus an insider in many ways since the 1970s – but could talk in a manner more acceptable to liberal opinion in India. He did come across as more cosmopolitan than other BJP leaders and was conscious – sometimes even proud – of this.
And, finally, as a person who had wide networks and loved to talk to all sorts of people on matters ranging from the economy and foreign policy to eateries in Delhi and London, Jaitley was the man who could reach out to NDA allies and also the Congress and the Left.
Arun Jaitley – the student leader who cut his teeth in politics in the JP movement and went to jail – never won an election as a BJP politician. He lost to Amarinder Singh of the Congress when he contested the Lok Sabha poll from Amritsar in 2014 even in a Modi wave.
Yet, he had a presence where his power as a politician went far beyond electoral success. He had wide networks among judges, lawyers, media house owners, editors, reporters and corporate houses. And this is something he had cultivated over the decades as someone who became the Lutyens’ insider par excellence in the BJP. None except him in the party could mingle with the Delhi elite the way he did.
One instance of his usefulness for the BJP in the years of its rise was the ease with which he had excellent relations with Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar when the two did not see eye to eye in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
He would proudly tell BJP correspondents that Kumar always met him and had food with him when he came to Delhi. Once I asked him during a chat on Modi and Kumar which model of the economy – Gujarat or Bihar, which were both claiming high GDP growth rates, albeit from very different bases – did he believe to be better. Jaitley struck a fine balance, replying: “Both are good, and are based on opposite philosophies: one is top-down and the other is bottom-up.”
Despite being a consummate political strategist and a well-informed politician, Jaitley had wide-ranging interests. He would tell reporters to have Dal Meat at the Embassy Restaurant in Connaught Place and enjoy the delicacies at the Gulati Restaurant. He would also love the Chhole Bhature of Kwality Restaurant at Parliament Street.
Jaitley enjoyed wearing western outfits but rarely wore them because he felt they did not sync with the RSS’ sense of the ideal dress code. Ironically, RSS favourite in the BJP Nitin Gadkari did.
Once when I was asked to interview Jaitley at a hotel – and we were sitting in an open space in the precincts – two women complimented him, saying he looked good in western wear. As soon as they left, Jaitley said many had complimented him when wore such dresses, but he deliberately avoided them as a politician.
He had a deep love for his alma mater Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) and Delhi University in general. He would often discuss the Mukherjee Memorial debates, offering details of who won it in which year during his college days.
Jaitley himself was a good debater. And while he stood out when it came to English oratory within his party, his right-wing connection had made him a decent Hindi speaker over time. He would particularly admire Vajpayee’s diction and recall the latter’s 1980 speech when the BJP was founded: “Andhera mitega, sooraj ugega, kamal khilega” (The darkness will end, the sun will rise, the lotus will bloom). “You cannot replicate this voice,” he would tell journalists. However, his rise in the BJP had happened under LK Advani’s guidance.
Many close to him recall Jaitley fondly as someone who helped people he liked. However, he also held strong personal dislikes, ranging from politicians, lawyers and journalists he did not like. He was partisan, but willing to go the extra mile for those he valued.
At heart, Jaitley wished to be seen as a liberal within a conservative BJP. He would reserve his “hard line” to issues like Kashmir and terrorism, something that kept his association with the BJP intact. He once wrote after the 2009 election debacle of the BJP that vitriol would not sell and people were looking for a more liberal politics. Yet, he adjusted to the new, strident, BJP of the Modi-Shah years with great ease. In the days of his legal troubles in Gujarat, Amit Shah would be seen sitting in Jaitley’s chamber each day when Parliament was in session.
None ever saw Jaitley make a communal or casteist remark even in private. “Caste is weak among Punjabis,” he would say. When people used to discuss a decade back whether the BJP would be able to discover a new Brahmin leader post-Vajpayee to improve its standing in Uttar Pradesh, a journalist jokingly asked him whether he – a Brahmin – would want to project himself as that. Pat came Jaitley’s reply: “For that, one has not merely to be a Brahmin but also Brahminical.”
Except health and the voters of Amritsar, nothing ever beat Jaitley as a politician because of his unmatched networks. He was powerful as a young minister in the Vajpayee government – even JNU students would come in droves to hear him speak on campus before university elections in the late 1990s – and remained more influential than many, if not most, ministers as an opposition leader during the Manmohan Singh years. And he remained the one BJP leader who freely interacted with journalists even in the guarded Modi years.
He liked positive coverage in the media and got mildly displeased with negative coverage, which was rare in his case. Yet, he did not mind unless he was personally attacked.
When I wrote that BJP workers were expecting the party to lose the last Bihar assembly elections, Jaitley called me up on phone and said: “What have you written? My inputs are different. What will happen to your credibility if the BJP wins?” I gave a polite, one-line, reply, “My sources in the Bihar BJP aren’t optimistic.” He disconnected the phone with a terse “okay”. But neither of us called each other when the BJP indeed lost Bihar.
Even for young journalists, Jaitley stayed the most accessible political leader, taking calls on his mobile even as Finance Minister, when many of his junior colleagues had handed over their phones to their staff.
Many reporters would use him as a single source for BJP stories. Some others would take other perspectives, too, for greater nuance. Yet, he generally did not mind it and was accessible to all.
Without Arun Jaitley, political reporting will never be the same again. Nor will the BJP.