Arun Jaitley: His many roles in politics and beyond

Last Updated: Mon, Aug 26, 2019 16:42 hrs
Arun Jaitley Health

Former Union minister and senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley was cremated with state honours on Sunday, a day after he passed away at AIIMS hospital, where he was admitted earlier this month after complaining of breathlessness.

Earlier this year, in January, he was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma, a form of cancer. He had decided to take a step back from politics and wasn’t a part of the Modi 2.0 government. From the world of politics across party lines, to sports, entertainment and the legal fraternity, many paid their respects to the former Union Minister.

He studied law and became President of the Delhi University Students Union. He practised law in the aftermath of the emergency. Vibha Datta Makhija, Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court, in an op-ed for Live Law, writes on Jaitley’s impact on the judiciary –

A facet of Mr. Jaitley which is not fully recognized was his egalitarian existence. It is, however, the legal fraternity that will miss him the most. It was in the law courts that he was at his best, at his most comfortable. Each lawyer was a friend or a follower. Judges and lawyers alike loved him for his legal finesse, or hated him for his guts”.

His time as a lawyer was one where he mentored many who had the opportunity work with and for him. Abhishek Sharma, Partner, Link Legal India Law Services, in an op-ed for Bar & Bench, writes on being mentored by Jaitley –

While he was a leading commercial lawyer, he never shied away from taking up pro-bono briefs. He never lectured his juniors on the importance of hard work and integrity. We learnt the value of these virtues by observing him practice them. While his preparation for a hearing was never lacking, what made him stand apart in court was his wit, charisma, presence of mind”.

Post emergency, while practising law, his road to becoming one of the youngest additional solicitors general was eventful. In 1980, he challenged the move by the then Lieutenant Governor of Delhi to demolish the Indian Express building. An association with Fali Nariman and Arun Shourie brought him to the notice of Prime Minister VP Singh. Arghya Sengupta, Research Director, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, in a column for the Times of India, writes on this case and Jaitley’s involvement –

Fighting for the press in the Supreme Court came naturally to Jaitley. After all, having been jailed during the Emergency, he was familiar with governmental coercion to silence its critics. Those days shaped him fundamentally. A healthy but self-realised pride in his achievements was a hallmark of Jaitley’s personality”.

As Jaitley’s name gained prominence among party members in the late 1990’s, and the NDA came to power in 1999, Jaitley was appointed a minister by Vajpayee and was in charge of various portfolios including shipping & Industry and Information & Broadcasting. As his career in politics went further, he made friends across political lines. Congress leader Kapil Sibal, in an op-ed for the Indian Express, writes on their shared history, friendship and differing political ambitions –

Though we were both in the legal profession, we were poles apart when it came to politics. I do not think that the Rajya Sabha has seen many Leaders of Opposition of his calibre. He will always be remembered for his sense of balance for he never crossed the Lakshman Rekha in politics. His commitment to democratic norms was quite evident. The nation has lost a great son”.

Like many BJP stalwarts, Jaitley has his roots in the party and remained one of its loyal members and leaders. His relationship with Modi goes back to the late 90’s and helped Modi and Amit Shah in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Jaitley was a sort of legal counsel for the party at a time of turbulence. Being a core member and senior leader of the party in power comes with a responsibility of defending colleagues and policies. The Indian Express editorial summarises his stint with the current BJP –

He became the virtual number two in the Narendra Modi cabinet. As an organisation man, he was the one his party turned to, more often than not — to strategise for important elections, and to put out the fires within and without. He helmed many crucial portfolios, with distinction and poise, and his contributions, like the GST and IBC frameworks, will endure”.

Jaitley and his relationship with Modi and Shah would come to define the current government and their policies, at least in terms of the economy.

However, Jaitley is among a few who have deftly transitioned from the Vajpayee era BJP to its current day form headed by the Modi-Shah partnership. Jaitley didn’t miss a beat when it came to defending the government and its controversial policies; the scrapping of Article 370 was lauded by Jaitley in his last blog post. Anand Kochukudy, editor at Kochi Post, writes on Jaitley’s ability to defend the BJP in times of trouble –

It was Jaitley who played a massive role during Modi’s initial days in Delhi as PM, and pretty much the only person Modi took counsel. Jaitley’s extraordinary talent to rationalise the most difficult of arguments with utmost conviction, perhaps honed through his long stint as a lawyer, came to the BJP’s aid in many situations”.

Arun Jaitley, during his time as Finance Minister was associated with two of the most consequential economic policies of the last 5 years – demonetisation and the implementation of the GST. He had to strike a balance between the government’s intentions and the needs of the corporate world. Former Steel Secretary Aruna Sharma, in an op-ed for the Financial Express, writes on his legacy –

What made Arun Jaitley different from his contemporaries? I would say his willingness to listen and openness to ideas different from his own. No wonder he could achieve momentous tasks such as GST and the Bankruptcy Code. To convince all state governments was the toughest of jobs he undertook in GST. Yes, it is evolving, but a beginning could be made because of his relentless discussions with all stakeholders”.

GST and demonetisation continue to dominate conversation when it comes to talk of the Indian economy. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) is another one of his accomplishment which required consensus. Anil Padmanabhan, in a column for Livemint, writes on this –

While GST was 17 years in the making, the IBC was introduced and passed within a year. And the bulk of the credit for this has to undoubtedly go to Jaitley. Without Jaitley shepherding it, it’s unlikely they would have been green-lighted by Rajya Sabha where the NDA was outnumbered”.

His career did not just take him into law and politics. He was an avid lover of cricket and followed the sport closely. He served as the president of the Delhi & District Cricket Association (DDCA) from 1999 to 2013 and as Vice President of the BCCI from 2008 till 2013. Amrit Mathur, a former colleague from the BCCI, in an op-ed for Hindustan Times, writes on his support in the initial stages of the IPL –

In the 30 odd years I knew and worked him in cricket, Mr Jaitley’s love for the game always came through. To the IPL, he was a huge support, deftly navigating it in the initial period, getting permissions and approvals. Delhi is not the easiest place to work in but, to the franchise, Mr Jaitley was a friend, an ally, a protector and an unfailing insurance cover”.

As the BJP moves forward, it has lost some big names over the past few months and those who were household names have passed on. The party now has in some ways changed; a more hard-line nationalistic posture. The legacy of past BJP leaders however is something that according to Praful Shankar, who writes in Swarajya states shouldn’t be left behind –

The soaring oratory of Atal Behari Vajpayee, the composed arguments of Arun Jaitley, the incisive speeches of Sushma Swaraj and the endearing spirit of Pramod Mahajan should never be too far away from the minds and memories of any supporter of the BJP”.

More columns by Varun Sukumar