Arun Jaitley was the jailed president of the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) when I entered the university. That was in 1976, during the Emergency, almost all 19 months of which saw Arun in prison.
After his release in 1977, I often ran into him at demonstrations, at Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) meetings, in the course of the election campaign and, of course, in DTC buses.
With the outspokenness of a pesky teenager, I felt the need even at that time to stress my disconnect with the Jana Sangh and the ABVP.
One day, when I found him in the long rear seat of a 210 (the bus route from the university to the Central Secretariat, rather definitive of DU life then), I brought up the point entirely without provocation. He retorted with disdain, with some cracks on upstarts from the elitist St. Stephens. He also had trenchant remarks on the socialists.
Quite accurately, he pointed out that the Congress in Delhi would be defeated only on the strength of the Jana Sangh. My later interactions with him were marked by affection, even when he had moved away from the PUCL way of looking at things. As is now history, his equation with some socialists changed for the better, but that really is more about them.
Arun was often on the dais in the public meetings of 1977 and his speeches in Hindi were fluent and impressive.
In my early years at the bar, he took a lively interest in my work, and he would say that trial court experience was essential in the profession. If his political speeches in Hindi were fluent, his courtroom arguments in English were often smooth, but emphatic.
We have been on opposing sides many times. Once, when he was delayed in parliament, his instructing advocate sought time, showing so much reverence for Arun that he resorted to the plural, a variant of the royal pronoun in the third person, to say “Mr Jaitely, they are in parliament please adjourn!”
While arguing, Arun demonstrated a complete faith in his case, as if to say, “can’t you see it can be no other way”. As I recall, he would sway to the front and to the back at appointed moments and speak some words very fast, some others with deliberation and then pause, with a jerk of his head. His emphasis used to be on the middle syllable of any word, a mannerism that struck me as quaint.
I lost my father in the year 2000, when Arun Jaitely was, I think, the Union minister of Information and Broadcasting. He learnt of the death from someone and called, only to be told that I was too devastated to speak. Within days of that, the clemency petition of a death row prisoner was rejected and a reconsideration was in order. Although I was still in too bad a shape, I called him to say that some PUCL activists would like to meet him regarding this. He immediately gave them an appointment and I have no doubt that his intervention helped in the commutation of the sentence that eventually came about.
As happened with many who were on the same side of the divide during the Emergency, the divergences in the later years between Arun Jaitely and myself were irreconcilable and ironic. I found his position unacceptable and I make no bones about it.
Cricket, however, remained a bond. He met my sons at a gathering and was heartened at their interest in cricket. He promised them seats at matches. He said to them, “Everyone is terrified of your mother”. His later comments, when we met, were even less complimentary, as they would invariably begin and end with, “Why have you turned so grey? Do something about your grey hair”.
I have hardly seen or talked to him in the last five or more years except during his appearance in court as a complainant in his defamation case against Arvind Kejriwal, when I was against him. Even on those occasions, we met with warmth and friendliness.
Looking back, I think of him, of Sushma Swaraj, and others and wonder how it is that a fight for liberal values during the Emergency could have left them untouched while being part of a government that contravened every one of those values. I realise that something else is also untouched or at least is capable of being revived. The memory of an equation long past is revived at the passing of someone like Arun. Sometimes it is a dispassionate wonder at the turn of events. However, my abiding personal memory of Arun will be that of affection.
Nitya Ramakrishnan is a lawyer.