As Jaitley retreats, the 'bureau' misses its 'chief'
Jaitley, fondly called ‘the Chief’ by reporters, leaves behind the legacy of an intimate bond with the media -- the kind no other political leader in present times can match.
When BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley promptly vacated his sprawling Krishna Menon Marg bungalow to spend time in his Kailash Colony permanent residence days back, he proved his own dictum true. He says politicians must never shift to their official residence but should maintain their independent private house in Delhi while in power.
Till he was the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha during the Manmohan Singh regime, Jaitley's official residence was used by party full-timers. The outhouse of the bungalow -- 9, Ashoka Road -- was the lawyer-politician's meeting place with journalists. And it was also the place from where many newspaper headlines and 'breaking news' emanated.
Jaitley, fondly called ‘the Chief’ by reporters, leaves behind the legacy of an intimate bond with the media -- the kind no other political leader in present times can match. Many were uncomfortable with such "access journalism", but no news organisation could afford not to have its man in Jaitley's media interactions.
While he opted out of the Narendra Modi 2.0 government citing serious health challenges, it is now sure that he may not be a regular in Parliament like before. Union minister Thawarchand Gehlot has replaced him as Leader of the Upper House. His anecdotes of Lutyens' Delhi and his gossip about contemporary leaders were a regular feature of his conversations with assembled journalists almost every afternoon.
A senior journalist in Delhi would call him "single-window clearance" for news on the BJP and also other political parties.
Kahwah was the regular drink served when he sat with journalists. This writer avoided participating in his journalistic interactions till a day when on a late night call, before disconnecting, Jaitley politely reminded him that “Kahwah is devoid of namak (salt).” This was his way of conveying that drinking tea at his place and doing stories against him will not amount to ‘namak harami’ or breach of faith/'duty'.
There were many journalists who kept away from the regular ‘bureau meetings’. For some, attending the gathering was part of office instructions.
He seamlessly switched from one topic to another and had the habit of ignoring any question which he did not wish to answer in the open. To avoid answering, he would sometimes stare at the TV screen, feigning deep involvement in some developing news story.
His Leader of the Opposition office in the Rajya Sabha substituted the Ashoka Road gathering when Parliament was in session. He sometimes served journalists with lunch cooked at home here. The door to his office was kept ajar to let journalist glance in. Ensuring political consensus on crucial issues was Jaitley’s responsibility even while in opposition and most of the ‘bureau’ scribes had some idea of at least some of these deliberations, as he shared some details in encrypted gestures over lunch.
He would engage journalists in discussions ranging from a mansion of a celebrity going under the hammer to politics in his Delhi University Students Union days of the 1970s.
Jaitley was the media boss of the pre-Modi BJP, irrespective of the party president above him. While Delhi media went on to coin the term ‘D4’ for four senior BJP leaders in 2009, he once said to journalists: "I am trying to figure out which D am I, the first one or the last one?"
His official residence was alive with visitors every hour of the day. While his supporters waited in the queue, he would diligently head his regular ‘bureau meeting’ even at the height of election time.
He was a politician but an altruistic one to some extent. There are many journalists who may not be in touch with him, but if they needed legal or other help, he happily helped and a third person would hardly know it. Sometimes, he would throw a hint in a gathering, but only enough not to let any details out.
As Narendra Modi and Amit Shah became the BJP's prime leaders in 2014 -- plugging leakages of information to journalists -- Jaitley's 'darbar', as it would be called in media circles, continued when Parliament was in session. But now, not just BJP beat reporters but also Finance Ministry beat reporters would see him at his chamber in the afternoon.
Many politicians believed he 'planted' news, but many bureau chiefs told their reporters that Jaitley was a single source of information regarding a thousand developments in Delhi's power corridors. One should just be attentive enough to decode what he said, they would add.
The coming session of Parliament will in all likelihood no longer witness the media 'darbar' of the BJP's most accessible leader, who would take mobile phone calls from beat reporters even as Finance Minister.
While he recuperates from his ailment, the 'bureau' misses 'the chief'.