The veteran leader with friends across party lines would be remembered for spotless career
Ajay Singh | August 25, 2019 | New Delhi
Sometime in 1999, I took Arun Jaitley out for meal for the column, “Lunch with Business Standard”. As is his wont, he chose his own place for lunch. It was at the Chambers at the Taj Mansingh hotel, an exclusive domain of the high and the mighty Delhi.
As we sat down for the meal, it was a spritely Jaitley who surprised me with an unlikely question. “Can you guess my age?” he asked, obviously proud of the way he looked after his health and fitness. “You must be around 40,” I stammered more because of the suddenness of the question than its complexity. “No, I am close to the 50s,” he said with a glint in his eye. At 47, he hardly looked like the person who would be picked by providence to be subjected to multiple morbidities in later years.
It was a treat for journalists to talk to Jaitley. At the Taj Mansingh’s exclusive club, he talked freely and with passion about his politics, past and future. In the course of the conversation, he narrated many anecdotes, some personal and mostly political.
One anecdote that I still remember vividly was related to his incarceration during the Emergency. Luckily, his jail mate was his senior in the party KR Malkani, probably one of the few authentic Anglophiles in the Sangh Parivar then. Malkani liked Jaitley because they both liked good food and Jaitley could also cook well. This prompted Malkani to remark one day, “I have rarely seen in anybody a combination of a glutton and a gourmet. You are both.” Recounting those days, Jaitley had told me how he got associated with the movement for civil liberties in the post-Emergency phase only to realise subsequently that they are the “over-ground face of the underground”.
Jaitley had a unique gift of the gab. He would borrow from the best traditions and debates in the British parliament and elevate the discussion to a sublime level where personal prejudices or rancour would give way to richness of content. In his role as the leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha during the UPA-2 years of Manmohan Singh, he would marshal facts and arguments that would make those in the treasury benches squirm in their seats. He would take on Ram Jethmalani and Kapil Sibal with an ease and equanimity that used to be the envy of even his peers. Perhaps he drew strength from the transparent and honest public life he led. In a political career spanning about 40 years, Jaitley's name was never associated with any scam. Arvind Kejriwal, who mounted an offensive against Jaitley alleging corruption at the Delhi District Cricket Association (DDCA), had to eat humble pie and apologise in court before the veteran leader dropped the defamation case.
In both his conduct and conversation, Jaitley would make it clear that he was not into politics for money. When his name was announced for inclusion in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led cabinet, I went to his home for an interview when he remarked in a jest, “The amount of money people think they may earn by becoming a minister, I will be losing that much amount by being a minister.” And that was absolutely correct. Jaitley’s roaring practice as lawyer came to an end when he took over as the minister.
But unlike a professional lawyer who can argue according to the brief he holds, his politics was always consistent with his ideology and conscience. Though he was not a trained pracharak, he was steadfastly committed to the Sangh Parivar’s moorings, which he imbibed in his student days in the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS. He had friends across the political spectrum and it was well-known in political and media circles that he would go to any extent to help friends.
Nobody would know this better than prime minister Narendra Modi. In 1996, in wake of the Shankarsinh Vaghela rebellion in Gujarat, Modi was exiled from the state, and he spent his days in the outhouse of the bungalow of Dilip Sanghani, Lok Sabha MP from Amareli. Those were really tough times for Modi as he was not very conversant with the life in Delhi. The central leadership ignored him for months, almost forgetting his existence in the party and in Delhi. Jaitley took utmost care of Modi then and turned out to be Modi's closest friend in Delhi.
To clear all doubts, let me recount the events related to the Godhra and post-Godhra phase of Gujarat politics when Modi became the target as much within the BJP as without. Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sent Jaitley to persuade Modi to resign as the chief minister in wake of the riots. Vajpayee came to believe that Modi’s resignation would probably assuage a powerful section of opinion-makers who blamed Modi for the communal violence. Jaitley’s obvious brief was to extract Modi's resignation and come to BJP’s national executive at Goa where it would be announced.
Jaitley found his brief inconsistent with the Sangh Parivar’s ideology and the mood of the BJP at the grassroots. Much before he reached Gujarat, he mobilised a strong opinion against any move to topple Modi. At the Goa national executive, an emotional Modi surprised everyone by offering to resign at the very beginning of the session. The entire national executive unanimously disapproved of any move to unseat him, prompting Vajpayee to retrace his steps. Jaitley was believed to be the chief strategist who pre-empted Modi’s removal in 2002. Since then, Jaitley played the role of a key strategist in all the elections that Modi won in Gujarat.
At the 2013 national executive of the BJP, where Modi was declared chairman of the campaign committee for the 2014 Lok Sabha election – a precursor to declaring him as prime ministerial candidate – Jaitley’s imprint was quite evident. Though BJP patriarch LK Advani stayed away from the meeting, the declaration signalled the arrival of a new BJP. Jaitley lauded BJP president Rajnath Singh for having taken the decision to declare Modi as numero uno in the party at a public meeting. In the five years of Modi’s regime, Jaitley put up a stout and most cogent defence for Modi, whether by the sheer genius of his articulation in parliament or by writing Facebook blogs.
Such tragedies are grim reminders of the fragility of human life. As I heard of his demise, his words are still ringing in my ears: “Can you guess my age?” I got it wrong then, Sir, but now I know you are 66. And it is no age to go.
[This article has appeared on FirstPost.com]
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