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Arun Jaitley was everyone’s favourite politician: Sanjaya Baru

Jaitley was a journalist’s delight, a genial giant always surrounded by friends and a generous FM who shared his crowning glory of policy making, GST, with four state ministers.

ET CONTRIBUTORS|
Aug 24, 2019, 11.30 PM IST
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THE ECONOMIC TIMES
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It was the all-round nature of his grasp of the intricacies of governance and of how to handle the levers of power that made him an indispensable colleague of PM Modi.
By Sanjaya Baru, Writer and distinguished fellow, Institute for Defence Studies & Analysis

It was a measure of Arun Jaitley’s friendship, liberalism and sporting spirit that even when I wrote a column in July 2014, critical of his very first annual Union budget, he did not hold it against me. As editor of three different financial newspapers in the previous decade and a half, I had become used to finance ministers disliking critical editorials. Sometimes it even became difficult to secure an appointment with the FM after a critical column appeared. Jaitley smiled and took the knocks on the chin. He was a journalist’s delight. Never providing more information than what he wished to, but never offending even his worst critic.

Arun ji, as I came to refer to him, and I were student contemporaries on rival campuses and on opposite sides of the political spectrum in the early 1970s. He was in Delhi University and an activist of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party. I was at Jawaharlal Nehru University and affiliated to the communists. We met for the first time, 20 years later, in the lunch room on the fourth floor of Times House. He was at the time just another successful lawyer that my employers, the publishers of the Times of India and the Economic Times, would occasionally invite for a wholesome vegetarian meal at Times House. Arun ji was a foodie and enjoyed the meal on offer.

It was during his tenure as a minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government that I began meeting him on a regular basis. However, it was during his brief tenure as Union minister for commerce and industry in 2003-04 that we became close. Trade policy was a subject on which I had written often and ended up doing a note on India’s strategy towards the Doha Development Round of trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation. When Arunji took charge of the commerce portfolio in 2003 he would invite me for conversations. I was then chief editor of the Financial Express.

By then our formal association had been cemented into a friendship, thanks to a mutual friend who built a relationship of trust between us. When Arun ji was in Cancun at the WTO ministerial, the Financial Express engaged the services of two trade policy experts, Bibek Debroy and Pradeep Mehta, to write extensively on trade issues. Mehta filed a harshly worded column critical of India’s stance at Cancun. Arun ji called from Cancun to protest and suggested I stop publishing Mehta. I heard the minister out but did not take his advice. Arun ji never held my refusal to follow his instructions against me.

Politicians like that are rare to find these days. In the hours following the announcement of his passing away, Twitter has been flooded with warm remarks about Arun ji from many journalists. The media loved him because he treated them with dignity, recognising that they too had work to do. That did not mean he did not have strong views about some of his critics, but he rarely made a public display of his dislikes.

Even though Arun ji was Union finance minister through the entire first term of the Modi government, it was only towards the end of his tenure that he drew pride in his contribution to policy in that capacity. I believe he saw the successful voting in of the goods and services tax (GST) as his crowning glory. He shared that glory with the four state finance ministers who helped him shape GST policy — Trinamool Congress’s Amit Mitra, J&K’s Haseeb Drabu, CPM’s Thomas Isaac and his own party’s Sushil Modi — when he addressed a special session of Parliament at which GST was unveiled. That greatly endeared him to all political parties.

If he had contested for a seat in the Lok Sabha from New Delhi rather than Amritsar in 2014, he would have won handsomely. His party took a wrong call sending a quintessential Dilliwala to Punjab. Delhi loved Arun ji much the same way as it loved Sheila Dikshit. A self-made success in the legal profession, a familiar face at public parks and on television, a man always found surrounded by friends, Arun ji was everyone’s favourite politician.

Till he had something to show as his own contribution in finance Arun ji claimed credit only for what he had done as Raksha Mantri — opening up defence manufacturing to domestic and foreign private investment. More than finance and defence, his passion lay in law and judicial reform, a subject he never tired of speaking about. It was the all-round nature of his grasp of the intricacies of governance and of how to handle the levers of power that made him an indispensable colleague of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Anyone who had the opportunity to get anywhere close to Arun ji would very quickly know he loved good food. He enjoyed eating as much as he enjoyed feeding his friends and visitors. Returning from a visit to Washington, DC, when I was secretary-general of FICCI, I found myself on the same plane as Arun ji. He was returning home after attending the annual meeting of the IMF and the World Bank. A couple of business leaders from FICCI were also on board. As lunch time arrived, we had a message from Arun ji — don’t bother eating the Air India meal. He had brought along packets of potato curry, pickle and ghee-paranthas. To the amusement of some co-passengers, the FICCI delegation stood around Arun ji chair with paranthas in hand, digging into curry and pickle.

I went to look him up at his home a couple of days before he was admitted back in hospital. He looked tired and weak but did me the honour of summoning all his energy to have a brief chat. Gup-shup is what he always loved. His ears perked up, he would have that typical smile as his eyes brightened. He devoured gossip as heartily as he would a samosa. Even as he bravely battled bad health, he found time to write a foreword for a book of essays put together for me by some friends earlier this year. His words of friendship I will cherish all my life.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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