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A brief biography
Arun Jaitley's politics with a personal touch earned him friends across political spectrum
NEW DELHI: It was January 5, 2018, the last day of a raucous winter session of Parliament which witnessed a slugfest between the BJP and the Congress-led opposition on the triple talaq bill, when a cake was ushered into Arun Jaitley's chamber that evening. It was Congress deputy leader in Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma's birthday.
It reflected how Jaitley pursued his politics with a personal touch. He would vociferously oppose the stands of rival parties, but would never forsake individual niceties, which helped him build bridges and make friends across the political spectrum.
His rapport with opposition leaders was such that during the debate on demonetisation in 2016 in Rajya Sabha, then Samajwadi Party MP Naresh Agarwal in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said he did not take even then finance minister Jaitley into confidence.
"If Arunji had known, he would have whispered about it in my ears. He knows me,” Agarwal had said in the House.
The son-in-law of a senior Congress leader from Jammu and Kashmir, Jaitley was among the sharpest legal and political brains with a great sense of humour and repartee.
"I once referred to him as Bedi+Pras(anna)+Chandra+Venkat for his extraordinary spinning abilities and he enjoyed it hugely. The GST Council may be amongst his most enduring contributions," Ramesh said.
Shashi Tharoor, while condoling the demise of Jaitley, said he was his friend and Delhi University senior.
"We first met when he was at DUSU and I was President of St Stephen's College Union. Despite political differences we enjoyed a healthy mutual respect and debated his budget often in Lok Sabha," Tharoor said.
Another friend of Jaitley, senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal said Jaitley was an old friend and a dear colleague who will be remembered for his seminal contributions to the polity and as finance minister of India.
"As Leader of the Opposition he was without match. He always stood steadfastly for his friends and for his party," Sibal said of Jaitley.
When it came to cornering the opposition, Jaitley never hesitated.
During the Congress-led UPA-2 government when a section of BJP leaders in Lok Sabha was hesitant to raise the Robert Vadra land deal issue arguing it would get too personal to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Jaitley stuck to his guns and mentioned it in Rajya Sabha, where he was then the Leader of Opposition. Vadra is Gandhi's son-in-law.
The BJP later took up the matter.
He was also the go-to man for allies whether it was JD(U) or SAD. It was Jaitley who finally sealed the seat-sharing arrangement for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Bihar between all the three allies — the BJP, JD(U) and the LJP.
A brief timeline
Down The Decades
1970s | Student Days & Emergency
After completing his schooling from St Xavier’s School in Delhi, he joined SRCC, from where he passed out in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in commerce
In his college days, he was a member of the R S S-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. In 1974, he became president of the Delhi University Students’ Union. He received his LLB degree from Delhi University in 1977
He was jailed for 19 months during the Emergency years (1975-77). He joined Bharatiya Jana Sangh after his release from jail
1980s | Politician, Husband, Lawyer
He was made president of the youth wing of BJP and secretary of the Delhi unit in 1980
Married Sangeeta, daughter of former J&K finance minister Girdhari Lal Dogra, in 1982
Began practising law in high courts and the Supreme Court in 1987 At the age of 37, he was appointed additional solicitor-general of India by the VP Singh regime. During his tenure, he played a role in putting together the papers leading to the Bofors investigation in 1989
1990s | Senior Advocate, Junior Minister
In 1990, he became a senior advocate in Delhi high court, and in 1991, became a member of BJP His clients included political figures like Sharad Yadav, Madhavrao Scindia and LK Advani. He also represented large corporations like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Was appointed minister with independent charge of I&B. He was later put in charge of disinvestment, a new ministry, in 1999 when Vajpayee was Prime Minister
2000s | Cabinet Berth, Leader Of Opposition
Elevated to the Cabinet as minister of law, justice and company affairs after Ram Jethmalani resigned in 2000. Also, became the first minister of shipping
In 2003, he was appointed minister of commerce & industry and minister of law & justice
Became BJP general secretary after NDA lost the 2004 polls
In 2009, he was chosen leader of the opposition in RS, after which he stopped practising law
2010s | Mr Finance Minister
In 2014, he first contested an election — and lost – from Amritsar LS constituency, against Capt. Amarinder Singh. He became an RS member from Gujarat and was made finance minister in Modi’s Cabinet
During his term as FM, demonetisation was executed, and GST rolled out
In 2018, he was re-elected to RS from UP
The same year, his health took a turn for the worse. He underwent a kidney transplant at AIIMS
After Modi won a record mandate for the second term, he opted to stay out of government because of his poor health
Jaitley won arguments, and friends, with ease
Prison is an unlikely place for a political education but for a young law student, it proved to be an important learning experience. In a blog many years later, Arun Jaitley would recount the story of that ominous 2am knock on his father’s door and his subsequent arrest on June 26, 1975 for leading a demonstration against the Emergency as president of Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU).
The 19-month incarceration was spent in “activities” that ranged from running the prison kitchen (that was the food-loving Punjabi in him), physical exercise and long discussions with seniors like K R MalkaniAon the political situation although cut off from the outside world.
Known for his sharp political insights, Jaitley would point out the Indira Gandhi government’s failure to anticipate that forced co-habitation would foster an unlikely partnership between disparate opposition groups and help form the Janata Party that unseated her in 1977.
He was nominated at Jayaprakash Narayan’s instance to the national executive of Janata Party along with opposition stalwarts much senior to him in age and experience. He quit following R S S’s objection that it alone could decide who would represent Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of BJP.
Many years later, his social skills and ability to get along with people would see him play mediator between warring seniors at a time when BJP was out of office post-2004, and embroiled in seemingly endless factionalism. It was during the post-Emergency years that he came to form an important friendship, one that would last a lifetime and prove crucial to his fortunes as well as those of BJP. He came to be well acquainted with an upcoming BJP leader named Narendra Modi. They were, on the face of it, rather different. Modi could be reticent in contrast to Jaitley’s gregarious ways. But the two hit it off, often exchanging notes on their long walks together in Lodhi Garden. Jaitley would go on to play a crucial role in defending Modi against those seeking his resignation from the post of Gujarat CM after the riots of 2002.
Then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee had made up his mind to ask Modi to quit but rearguard action from Jaitley and leaders like Venkaiah Naidu — with the support of LK Advani — saved the day. Jaitley argued that Modi was being held personally culpable with no evidence, and most of his critics were politically motivated ideological adversaries.
In the winter of 2013, with Lok Sabha elections due the next year, Jaitley was again a key mobiliser for Modi’s candidacy as PM. After winning a third term as CM, Modi had captured the imagination of a large section of the population not otherwise enamoured of BJP. Backing Modi, however, put Jaitley at odds with his one-time mentor Advani who felt he should be the PM candidate. Advani eventually boycotted the meeting of the parliamentary board that selected Modi.
Jaitley lost the only Lok Sabha election he contested in 2014 from Amritsar but Modi appointed him the finance minister anyway with additional charge of defence. R S S, which had earlier objected to Vajpayee making Jaswant Singh finance minister as he lost in the 1998 Lok Sabha election, not only concurred but worked on persuading Jaitley to accept the job.
Jaitley proved to be more than a finance minister, with Modi seeking his opinion and trusting his insights on a range of political issues. Jaitley had a good equation with his righthand man Amit Shah as well and did his best to help him out with legal opinion and assistance.
Despite his early immersive experience, Jaitley wasn’t quick to enter full-time politics, focusing on his legal career and swiftly making his way through the Delhi high court before emerging as a top-notch Supreme Court advocate. However, he remained connected with BJP when it came into existence after the fall of the Janata Party government in 1980. He was a long-time member of the student wing of ABVP and the connections with the Sangh Parivar only deepened with time. He became the go-to man in saffron circles for advice on legal and constitutional issues.
On a personal level, he was an excellent conversationalist, his knowledge spanning the oldest traditional eateries in Delhi, the history of the city’s havelis and the finer points of law. His vast array of interests extended to cricket as well and he became chairman of DDCA and an influential figure in sports administration. A generous host, his kitchen supervised by wife Sangeeta, better known to friends as Dolly, could at short notice cater to a dozen or so guests. His engaging ways led to lasting friendships across political parties and professions.
His debating skills – he won many a competition at his alma mater SRCC – along with his legal acumen ensured that he had a quick grasp of issues and could make forceful arguments. These skills came in handy when he began to speak and write on issues like Article 370, the uniform civil code and the Ayodhya dispute at a time when it was considered utterly unfashionable and ‘retrograde’ by the Left-liberal intelligentsia, which often allied with Congress in propounding a ‘secular’ view of Indian history and culture. It was in such a challenging environment that Jaitley came into his own, arguing deftly, with a rapier-like wit, to make his point. Years later, he was the legal brains in the defence of Advani and other Sangh leaders in the Babri Masjid demolition case.
In the second version of the Janata Party government, when the VP Singh-led Janata Dal assumed office in 1989 with outside support of BJP and the Left, Jaitley was appointed additional solicitor general. He played a leading role in the investigation into the Bofors defence scandal that had brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government. In 1991, he became a member of the BJP national executive and was often involved in the drafting of political and economic resolutions. His progression to the post of BJP spokesperson seemed only natural and though he was not made a minister when the Vajpayee government was formed in 1998, he became minister with independent charge of information and broadcasting in October 1999 when the NDA returned to office in mid-term polls. In December 1999, he was given additional responsibility of disinvestment, playing a key role in settling regulatory and political issues relating to sale of PSUs at a time when privatisation was a politically tricky term. He was soon elevated to Cabinet rank and handled the portfolios of law & justice and commerce and industry.
After NDA’s defeat in 2009 elections, he was made leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha as part of an exercise initiated by R S S to bring second-generation leaders centrestage. He shone in the role and the post came to be called ‘leader of the opposition’ , though Rajya Sabha, unlike Lok Sabha, had no such formal position.
But his punishing schedule despite being a diabetic and heart attack survivor did take a toll in the end. In the past few years, there were more than a few bouts of ill health. A bariatric surgery was followed by a kidney transplant in May 2018, which led to complications. He seemed to be recovering from his sarcoma surgery in the United States, but a couple of months ago a lung infection developed that proved stubborn.
Jaitley’s long record in public life will be the envy of most politicians. But what really set him apart was the ease with which he could perform different roles and the lasting personal associations he forged.
In the last few weeks, in seclusion for treatment, Jaitley would call friends for the odd chat. The reassuring rumble of his voice, though it sounded a little tired, gave little indication of what he was going through. It was a battle he ended up losing. But in death, as in life, it was one hell of a fight.
As Finance Minister
Ahead of the 2019 elections, the finance ministry brass was pushing for a vote at the GST Council on the tax rate for real estate, while doing away with input tax credit, as some of the opposition-ruled states had been holding up a decision. Arun Jaitley, who chaired the council, did not deny the plan on the eve of the meeting. But a day later, he announced the council had “unanimously” cleared the proposal. Officials and state ministers who were part of the GST journey testify to Jaitley’s ability to evolve a consensus across the political spectrum and how this helped usher in the biggest tax reform in independent India.
Very early on, the lawyer-politician realised consensus was needed to push through decisions in the GST Council even if it meant delays. After all, it would set the precedent for decisions in the years to come, Jaitley said after a meeting at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan. Yet, while he could be patient, he was firm in ruling out Congress’ demand that an 18% rate be written into the law, pointing out that every subsequent change would require parliamentary approval. Hundreds of rate changes that followed proved him right.
For the Modi government, Jaitley was not just finance minister. He acted as a bridge between NDA-1 and 2 and was the chief troubleshooter. Be it trade or textiles, steel or spectrum and coal auctions, he had a say in all matters. He used lessons from NDA-1, when he was appointed India’s first disinvestment minister, to advise against an across-the-board strategic divestment policy. Yet, when it came to taking a tough call on the sale of Air India, he went public with the need to sell off the cash guzzler, arguing money saved could be used for welfare schemes.
While GST was his biggest achievement, Jaitley is also credited with ushering in the Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code, something he thought of during his first ministerial stint in the Vajpayee cabinet. As a lawyer, he saw how unscrupulous promoters misused the Sick Industrial Companies Act to hold up bank dues. As the minister for law, justice and company affairs, he worked on repealing it.
But it was only after he returned as minister a decade later that he got NDA-2 to complete the loop. He had the law amended and issued an advisory to RBI, paving the way for action against a dozen high-profile loan defaulters. This was months before the government’s showdown with the central bank, probably triggered by then-governor Urjit Patel’s repeated attempts to undermine North Block. While Jaitley may have been tolerant, often accused of giving a long rope, he abhorred an attack on institutions. Soon, Patel was replaced by former finance ministry bureaucrat Shaktikanta Das. Earlier, despite the government’s exasperation with Raghuram Rajan, both sides maintained decorum.
Unlike many of his “hands-on” predecessors, Jaitley believed in delegating responsibility and fully backing finance ministry bureaucrats, earning their trust in the process. His tenure was also marked by a period of low inflation. While critics would say that low global prices helped, Jaitley’s close eye on inflation was a key element of his governance style.
He was a surprise fiscal hawk, blocking attempts to relax deficit targets year after year. Like on several other issues, Jaitley and Modi were on the same page despite political pressure. He was also conservative on relaxing the external commercial borrowings rules that would have allowed companies to access overseas funds but would have bloated foreign liabilities.
Jaitley, realising that reforms are the art of the possible, didn’t push a bad position, choosing instead to bide his time.
Shah broke down when Jaitley lost his only election
In 2014, on the morning of May 16, Amit Shah was glued to the television screen in his rented accommodation in New Delhi’s Jangpura. Soon, it was clear BJP was sweeping UP — a feat that was attributed to Shah’s micro-management as party general secretary and state incharge. It should have been time for celebration, but there was one thing that wasn’t quite right: Arun Jaitley was trailing Amarinder Singh in Amritsar. This was Jaitley’s first electoral contest, and it was becoming clear the Modi wave that had swept most of the country had not made much impact in Amritsar. Shah, still, was hopeful. Till he called some grassroots-level workers in Punjab. It was all over, they said: Jaitley was losing. As per insider accounts, Shah then broke down, and so did his wife Sonal.
The camaraderie between Shah and Jaitley was fortified in July 2010, when Shah was put behind bars after being charged by CBI in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. Jaitley, who maintained Shah had been framed because of his closeness to Modi, visited him in Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati jail to show solidarity — a gesture Shah won’t forget.
Jaitley was vocal about his admiration for his younger colleague’s intelligence, his “unique” ability to master new concepts, unflagging energy, and commitment to the party ideology. So, on October 30, 2010, when the Supreme Court gave Shah 24 hours to leave Gujarat, Jaitley was livid. He immediately had his house in New Delhi’s Bengali Market cleaned, stocked it with provisions, and offered that Shah move in. Shah didn’t have to take up the offer finally, but he was touched by the generous gesture.
It was the strength of this connection that helped them work together to overcome the resistance across party ranks when Modi was projected as PM candidate. It was also this proximity that helped Shah persuade Jaitley, despite the Amritsar loss, to head the finance ministry in the newly formed government.
Over the years, the Shah-Jaitley affinity made many, both within BJP and outside, envious. There were attempts to drive a wedge between them. Political circles buzzed with gossip about Shah chafing at Jaitley’s “restraining” presence. But there was hardly any truth in it. While Jaitley acknowledged in public the authority of ‘adhyaksh ji’ , in private, the voluble leader didn’t keep silent about his fondness for ‘Amit bhai’.
There were times, too, when the two didn’t see eye to eye on certain decisions but Jaitley never doubted Shah’s prerogative or intent. Shah found Jaitley too soft when it came to judging people, almost “too naive” for his own good. While Shah would keep himself away from the “Lutyens’ elite”, many of them were friendly with Jaitley. Still, Shah gave Jaitley latitude he would not extend to others. Till Jaitley’s last breath, India’s new home minister trusted him for advice on crucial issues.
On the intervening night of September 25-26 in 2014, Jaitley was in a hospital in New Delhi for complications following a bariatric surgery. Shah had just been made BJP president and was wrestling with the thorny issue of whether the party should contest assembly elections in Maharashtra without allies. Shah went to the hospital to check on Jaitley who, defying the doctor’s advice, began discussing politics with Shah. More recently, Shah called Jaitley to seek his “ashirvaad” soon after Rajya Sabha cleared the way for the voiding of Article 370 and reorganisation of J&K.
A Legal luminary
If imprisonment for 19 months during the dark days of Emergency catapulted a 25-year-old student leader to the national political theatre, a 1980s case involving the Indian Express building land on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in Delhi brought Arun Jaitley, then a 33-year-old lawyer, into prominence in the legal world.
In the Express case, he drove home the point before the Supreme Court that right to freedom of expression, intrinsic to publication of newspapers, needed to be protected from the machination of tyrannical forces wanting to harass newspapers into submission. Jaitley won the case for the Indian Express and a portion of the building was saved from being demolished as the SC on October 7, 1985, struck down an order from then-Lt Governor Jagmohan to cancel the lease agreement for alleged violation of floor area ratio (FAR).
Less than two years later, after the Bofors pay-off scandal shook the Rajiv Gandhi government and their very own defence minister, V P Singh, fought elections and became PM, Jaitley was appointed as additional solicitor general of India in 1989. Jaitley was designated senior advocate at the young age of 38 years in 1990. Decades later, some claimed he was designated senior advocate to facilitate his appointment as additional solicitor general in 1989. Nothing could be further from the truth.
No one knew more than Jaitley about the Bofors pay-off scandal and the players behind the alleged middleman Ottavio Quattrochi. As additional solicitor general, he headed a high-powered team that visited Switzerland and Sweden to unravel the components of payments made to middlemen in the purchase of 155mm howitzer guns. In 1998, the President had sent a reference under Article 143, raising questions about the procedure laid down by the SC for appointment of judges to the high courts and the SC. This reference, known as the Third Judges case, firmly entrenched the collegium system for appointment of constitutional court judges and the SC opinion records Jaitley’s contributions.
In the aftermath of 2002 post-Godhra riots, then-Gujarat CM Narendra Modi recommended dissolution of the Assembly and the governor accepted it. Since the last sitting of the Assembly was on April 3, 2002, and the Constitution did not permit a gap of more than six months between two sittings, polls were required to be held and results declared before October 3, 2002.
But Election Commission expressed its inability to hold free and fair elections prior to October 3, 2002, citing law and order issues. The President sent a reference to the SC. Jaitley argued for BJP and the SC accepted his contention that the EC had to hold polls and ensure that not more than six months lapsed between two sittings.
The EC was forced to hold elections. Modi romped home and went on to win the next two elections before moving to the national stage in 2014. Jaitley’s legal acumen continued to work for Modi and his associate Amit Shah, when both faced the wrong end of the stick from CBI relating to post-Godhra riots cases and, later, encounter killing cases.
As a senior advocate, he leaves a long list of juniors who learnt the art of advocacy from him. Even his detractors agree he took personal interest in looking after juniors and ensuring they got established as legal practitioners. He had his share of detractors but never held a grudge against anyone. The legal world will be poorer for his absence.