Arun Jaitley: The Insider Who Solved BJP's 'Image Problem'

Over his 40-year-old public career, Jaitley has worn many hats: politician, lawyer, quintessential Delhi insider and cricket administrator.

One way of looking at former finance minister and senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley, as many do, is to count the ways he stood out. 

A high-profile ‘moderate’ face in a party that has over the last 30 years moved from the conservative fringe to becoming a mainstream right-wing political force. 

The consummate Lutyens insider in a party which currently distrusts anything they perceive as the ‘liberal establishment’.

A minister whose personal office reportedly has no photos of gods and goddesses, but instead is decorated with legal certificates and mementos from cricket associations.

Also read: Former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley Passes Away

An urbane, missionary-school educated lawyer, Jaitley is often described as a surprising and unlikely convert to the Jan Sangh cause.

In interviews that he has given over the years, the former finance minister has brought up his very brief flirtation with Marxism and left-wing politics, but is quick to add that he never seriously entertained the idea, finding the violence of the Naxalite movement abhorrent. 

Emergency days

Jaitley’s right-wing roots instead extend back to his college days, where he was a member of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

After graduating from Shri Ram College of Commerce, his next stop was Delhi University’s law school and the presidentship of the Delhi University’s Student Union in 1974 – the only election, Jaitley’s critics often point out, that the senior BJP leader would ever end up winning.

The first turning point in his life was the Emergency and Jayaprakash Narayan’s Navnirman movement, where he eventually became the national coordinator of the committee for student and youth organisations.

There are different versions of the story of how he was arrested and sent to jail for nearly two years. But most of them go like this: on the night of June 25, 1975, Jaitley returned home when he spotted a policeman speaking to his father in the courtyard of their Naraina Vihar house. His father, also a lawyer, was able to distract the officer long enough for Jaitley to slip out the backdoor.

The next day, as president of DUSU, Jaitley organised what he says was one of the only protests across the entire country. “We had 300 people. At that time, I did not even know the Emergency had been declared,” the former finance minister told Patrick French in a 2016 interview.

The same day, Delhi’s police made widespread arrests across the city and Jaitley was eventually detained for 19 months, split between Ambala Jail and Tihar Jail.

Tihar Jail  in particular, at the time, effectively became a hostel for hundreds of political prisoners.

In interviews and articles, Jaitley has managed to look  back at those times with a certain sense of fondness: “Jail is a state of mind. If you’re too anxious to be released, it impacts on your mind and body. If you’re in the struggle mode, you don’t give a damn. You read a lot, play volleyball, badminton. We had a few hundred political prisoners and were all segregated. You eat together, develop relationships. It’s like being in a hostel together.”

Released eventually in January 1977, the experience cemented his turn to politics, even though he would spend most of the next decade mostly building his legal career.

“I was released and plunged into the election campaign. I was the national convenor of the youth and students. I travelled around India. Lalu, Sharad Yadav, Nitish, Karat, Yechury, Parkash Singh Badal, JP himself, Acharya Kripalani, George Fernandes, Advani, Vajpayee, Nanaji Deshmukh – I have dealt with almost every one of them. I’m one of the few eyewitnesses in the present government of what happened.”

Legal battles and slow rise to the top

While Jaitley joined the BJP in 1980, and was made the president of the party’s youth wing and the secretary of its Delhi unit, his path within the saffron party was not always smooth. It was once described as Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta as a “tale of near misses”.

Writing for IndiaToday in 1999, Dasgupta, then a journalist, attributed to this the manner in which Jaitley interacted with his colleagues:

 Blessed with an acid tongue, he has spoken his mind fearlessly in party circles. This didn’t win him brownie points and from 1989 to 1998 Jaitley’s political career was a tale of near-misses. 

But in a decade of constant elections, he became an integral part of the BJP election set-up. As TV grew in importance, so did Jaitley. In a party plagued by an image problem, he made the BJP respectable among the chattering classes and was rewarded with a ministerial berth in 1999. As the BJP moves from the fringes to becoming a liberal, right-wing party, the Sangh Pari-var will look to him as a winning face of the next century.

Indeed, Jaitley’s rise to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s came as a result of his legal career fusing with politics nicely. His role as Indian Express proprietor Ramnath Goenka’s lawyer and his part in helping defend political leaders in the Jain hawala scandal put him on the map.

He, along with economic commentator and chartered accountant S. Gurumurthy, drafted the ten key questions that senior advocate Ram Jethmalani confronted the Rajiv Gandhi government with every day after the Bofors scandal broke out.

All of this led to his appointment as additional solicitor general in the V.P. Singh government in 1989 and national spokesperson of the BJP just before the 1991 Lok Sabha elections.

Hindutva and Modi

A constant question regarding Jaitley’s political career is how a seemingly moderate and liberal politician like himself reconciled himself with the company of people that brought down the Babri Masjid in 1992 and later side comfortably with Narendra Modi in the decade after the 2002 Gujarat riots.

BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi hugs Narendra Modi, while Arun Jaitley looks on, before the oath taking ceremony of Modi as Gujarat chief minister in Ahmedabad in 2007. Photo: PTI

The former finance minister has had different answers over the years. In the late 1990s, in a Rediff.com chat session, someone asked him: “Mr Jaitley, how can a so-called educated man like you be a member of an obscurantist, fascist organisation like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?”

He replied sharply: “I reject your understanding of the BJP. Nehruvian thought, which regarded everything that was Indian, ethnic, traditional and cultural, as obscurantist and fundamentalist damaged the Indian ethos. We are criticised because it is said we are pro-Hindu. The threat to global secularism doesn’t come from either Indian nationalism or Hinduism, it comes from elsewhere – you know where. I think you and I need to re-discuss political definitions.”

However, at other times, and in other instances, he has described himself as being “very uncomfortable” with hardline religious positions when it “leads to violence, deaths and human misery”.  When asked about the RSS’s positions, he usually parried with a defence of his own record on issues like homosexuality and inter-caste and inter-religion marriage.

Also read: Timeline: Arun Jaitley, PM Modi’s Go-To Man in New Delhi

In a 2014 IndiaToday profile on Jaitley, Sitaram Yechury, who has known Jaitley since the 1970s, described it more simply: “Arun is extremely sharp and articulate,” says the senior CPI(M) leader, adding, “He has never been a core member of the RSS, although to be fair to him, he has neither criticised them publicly.”

Jaitley’s mixing and matching of liberal politics with astute centre-right political positions has paid off. Once an acolyte of BJP leader L.K Advani, Jaitley was among the first group of people who called for his demotion after the former’s pro-Jinnah comments in Pakistan.

Similarly, Jaitley’s friendship, and later legal and political defence of Narendra Modi after the 2002 riots worked out well for both men.

Business Standard: Time in Vajpayee government

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister in 1998, Jaitley was made a minister. He made no bones about what portfolio he liked and what he did not – the law ministry was his least favourite.

“You are required to give legal opinion on a couple of cases,” he once said. “But 90% of your time is spent meeting brief-less lawyers who want to be appointed state counsel.”

He was also the information and broadcasting minister briefly; he described the experience in a sentence: “It’s a ministry for Doordarshan that nobody watches anyway.” As commerce minister he did not have enough time to remove the Congress stamp, but it was the disinvestment ministry that really occupied his attention.  He vowed to make a real  change if the National Democratic Alliance ever came to power again, he said in 2004.

His track record on the same once he became finance minister in 2014, however, has been shaky at best.

Lutyens connections and NDA-II

When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, Jaitley became a key part of his cabinet, but has also been widely described as the BJP’s Lutyens link. The man who helped Modi and BJP leader Amit Shah get a grip on the behind-the-scene politics in Delhi.

What has obviously helped are Jaitley’s deep connections in the legal, media and business community – he counts Rajat Sharma (India TV chairman), Shobhana Bhartia (Hindustan Times chairperson) as close friends, in addition to some of Delhi’s top lawyers like Rajiv Nayyar, Rain Jaranjawala, Mukul Rohatgi and Anip Sachtey.

Also read: Arun Jaitley, BJP’s Man for All Seasons

Most senior journalists speak of the manner in which the former finance minister often held court, more so than any other BJP minister.

A 2008 Telegraph profile of Jaitley describes his average interaction with chosen reporters:

“My appointment is clearly jinxed as 56-year-old Jaitley leans against the arm of the sofa and puts his feet up, settling down for his ritual informal chat with journalists after the daily press briefing. That’s when the gregarious college boy in Jaitley comes to the fore. His sharp political insights are then peppered with pithy one-liners, jokes which have him convulsing with laughter more than his assembled audience. He occasionally mimics other politicians.”

His widespread acceptance amongst ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ made him a politician who played many roles over the last five years, allowing him to stand apart from his party colleagues.

In the last five years, Jaitley has also stood out in the NDA-II government in a cabinet that has otherwise been criticised broadly as lacking in talent.

Two of the NDA-II’s biggest reform measures – the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy (IBC) code – were carefully trouble-shooted and shepherded by Jaitley through the finance ministry.

“The deft manoeuvring with opposition politicians in the Centre and politicians of all stripes in the states, enabling the GST to be passed into law. The patient presiding over long and tedious GST meetings that helped build the tradition of decision-making by consensus in the GST Council,” former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian wrote in a tribute after his passing on Saturday afternoon.

(With inputs from agencies and Business Standard).