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Arun Jaitley: The formidable modern politician

There was nothing flashy, forceful or confrontational about the way Jaitley managed the economy.

Updated: Aug 25, 2019, 09.38 AM IST
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Arun Jaitley
Arun Jaitley lost from Amritsar during the 2014 Modi wave but was given two important portfolios of finance and defence in the new government.
Former Union minister Arun Jaitley, who passed away in New Delhi on Saturday, rose to become one of India's most high-profile politicians by dint of an impossibly demanding career in which he excelled as a lawyer, political strategist, parliamentarian, orator, television spokesperson, sports administrator and a minister who held key portfolios in multiple governments.

He never won an electoral contest except in student politics, but became a key figure in the Bharatiya Janata Party both in the Vajpayee-Advani era as well as the current Modi era, due to his political and legal acumen as well as his powers of persuasion, negotiation and consensus building.

In Delhi, where he lived all his life, he was also a well-liked and sought-after social figure, with wide-ranging relationships and a reputation as a warm host, generous friend, foodie and raconteur. Within the party, he was an ace strategist and troubleshooter, and for long played a key role in election strategy, publicity and alliance building.

In July 2017, when fissures developed in the JD(U)-RJD government in Bihar, BJP sensed an opportunity to fish in troubled waters. Though chief minister Nitish Kumar had walked out of NDA in 2013, protesting the BJP's decision to make Narendra Modi its prime ministerial candidate, the saffron party decided to court him again. Arun Jaitley then used his good equations with Kumar to stitch together a JD(U)-BJP government within hours.

Nitish Kumar would often have dinner with Jaitley during his visits to Delhi where the latter would ensure his favourite dishes and dessert were served. The practice had become erratic but continued even after Kumar had broken ties with the BJP.

It was his easy accessibility and readiness to help those he knew that endeared Arun Jaitley to most people in the BJP, the media and the public at large. These traits made him the chief troubleshooter of the party for many years and he became a key part of BJP's strategy making, both when the party was in opposition in late 2000 and after the first Narendra Modi government was formed in 2014.

After the premature death of Pramod Mahajan in 2006, Jaitley became the main pointsman for veteran leader LK Advani to deal with political challenges. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was not very fond of Jaitley, had by then moved towards semi-retirement due to his failing health.

Jaitley was perhaps the first Delhi leader in the BJP who openly supported Modi through ups and downs during his chief ministership. He was also among the first to switch camps to Modi from Advani when the party had to choose its prime ministerial candidate in 2013.

At the BJP conclave in Goa in June 2013, when Advani decided to stay away in protest against the move to declare Modi the Campaign Committee Chief for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Jaitley was in the forefront in ensuring that the plan was carried out. While Sushma Swaraj backed Advani, Jaitley led the Modi supporters.

Among his many contributions to the BJP, perhaps the most significant is that as a lawyer. He was deeply involved in dealing with the cases against Advani in the Babri mosque demolition and the Jain hawala case, and later, the legal issues that Narendra Modi and Amit Shah faced in Gujarat.

The friendship was further bolstered when Modi became Prime Minister. New to the maze of Lutyens' Delhi in 2014, Modi needed Jaitley to make forays and familiarise himself with the corridors of power. Brought up in Delhi, the lawyer-politician had the best equation with the leaders of different hues, parties and regions.

Though a good orator who focused more on substance than rhetoric, Jaitley could never emerge as a mass leader. Many felt he was too suave and polished for the rough and tumble of electoral politics. The only election he won was that of Delhi University Students' Union president. But he made a mark there when he courted arrest during the national emergency.

He focused on his legal practice post-emergency though he continued to be a member of the BJP. It was only after he was made a union minister in 1999 that he came to the Rajya Sabha and went on to win four terms.

Jaitley lost from Amritsar during the 2014 Modi wave but was given two important portfolios of finance and defence in the new government. While Amit Shah worked on strengthening the BJP, Modi banked on Jaitley to deal with any problem that his government was faced with.

Jaitley was diagnosed with diabetes at the young age of 27 but never let it become a hindrance in his work. Perhaps it was his illness that drew him to help those around him who were suffering from any sickness. He would often call eminent doctors he knew and ask them to take care of a person in need, including RSS leaders, journalists, and junior lawyers.

He would often joke that he has more friends outside BJP than within the party. Having earned his riches, he was unapologetic about leading a comfortable life. He would go for annual holidays abroad during opposition days, talk about good food and eating joints, and always have several anecdotes from the world of cricket and life in general to share.

Ever the optimist, Jaitley would often say there is no last day in the calendar of politics. He was only 66 when he passed away.
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