I can’t claim to know many senior BJP politicians well, but Arun Jaitley was perhaps the only one I could presume to call a friend.
Even when I fell out of favour with his party – and it was clear I was boycotted at the behest of the prime minister – Arun maintained a line of contact. I would SMS him and he would always ring back.
Many are the times I sought his advice, which he readily and unstintingly gave. On such occasions, he knew how to deftly handle my natural impetuousness. “Think about it overnight before you jump to do anything,” he would gently say.
He never outright contradicted what I planned but usually, a hint was sufficient. He was unfailingly right.
Few people know Arun arranged my infamous interview with Narendra Modi, when the latter was chief minister of Gujarat, in 2007. I had approached Modi several times but in vain. I then asked Arun for help and he immediately agreed. Within days, the interview was fixed. Had it not been for his intervention, it would probably never have happened.
The interview, unfortunately, ended badly. Modi walked out after barely three minutes and I don’t think he’s forgiven me. Arun, on the other hand, never held it against me. In fact, he didn’t even mention the subject. It made absolutely no difference to our relationship.
Years later, when I wrote about this in my book Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story, Arun rang to say he had read the chapter on Modi. “What did you make of it?” I asked. I feared his answer wouldn’t be approving. After all, he was now finance minister and Modi was prime minister. Things had significantly changed since 2007, whereas my account of the Modi interview was part of a bigger chapter about the way the BJP has boycotted me. It was sharply critical.
“You have every right to write as you want,” he softly but firmly replied. And then, after a little pause, added: “I wouldn’t really disagree with what you’ve said. Maybe a bit here and a bit there. But, by and large, you’ve been fair.”
Standing by his principles
This was not the only time Arun stood by his principles rather than the pull of politics. In 2009, during the run-up to the elections, an interview with L.K. Advani, then leader of the opposition, was terminated shortly after it began. Arun manfully and willingly stepped into the breach. Advani, with whom at that time I had a damaged relationship, had agreed to the interview as a way of bridging relations. That didn’t happen. Relations, in fact, plummeted. But none of this put off Arun.
I rang and asked if he would give an interview in Advani’s place. Arun laughed. “You can’t help yourself, can you?” If that was reproach it was delivered with a feather touch. More importantly, he agreed. At ten that night, he gave the interview.
When it was over, he offered green tea and asked what had gone wrong. Arun loved a good story. None was so long he wouldn’t listen attentively. He heard me in silence but the smile on his face got wider and wider. When I finished, his pragmatic response was very reassuring: “It’ll blow over. It may take a while, but these things always do.”
Today, I can look back on 22 years of knowing Arun and as many years of hosting him on my shows. It started after the elections of 1996, during the United Front government when support for the BJP was building. In those years, I would often invite Arun and Kapil Sibal to debate each other. I have a photograph of the two of them beaming with me in the middle. They may have been political opponents and even legal rivals, yet they did not hide their respect. But it also did not stop them demolishing the other’s arguments! Indeed, they seemed to revel in doing so.
In those days, I made a point of writing thank you letters as soon as the recording was over. At the time, I didn’t realise in India such notes of thanks are not customary and, in fact, looked upon with suspicion. On receiving his, Arun would ring back and tease. “Do you have a set format for these letters? They always seem to say thank you in the same language and they come so promptly.”
Interviews and jousting
After he became a minister in Vajpayee’s government, a series of one-to-one interviews began. Many were not just tough but aggressive. I have a reputation for interrupting – occasionally unacceptably – and that was frequently the case. But Arun seemed to enjoy our jousting. He saw it as a game and knew that at least some part of it was to attract attention. And he always gave as good as he got. His voice might occasionally become tense or his face acquire a stern look, but he never lost his cool.
“That was a well-balanced match”, he would say after the interview had been broadcast. “I think we both came out of it pretty well.” That was flattery. I can’t deny he usually got the better of me. But he would always pretend it was otherwise. This was the gentleman in Arun.
During my Devil’s Advocate years for CNN-IBN, we started a tradition of inviting senior politicians to interview me as a New Year Special. It began with Arun. When I put the idea to him, he thought it might be fun. “So can I do to Karan Thapar what he does to everyone else?” he chortled. “Of course,” I promptly replied. “Good,” he said. I expected to be brutalised.
In fact, Arun was gentle and ironic. He chose to draw me out rather than push me into a corner. He made me expansive, not defensive. Had he not been a politician, he would have made a great interviewer. I even pointed that out to him. “Well, I’m a lawyer. Getting people to talk is as much my trade as yours!”
A way with words
I can’t say I got to know Arun intimately but, when he was leader of the opposition, he did come over a couple of times for dinner and was delighted when I invited him to meet the new king of Bhutan. On that occasion, he didn’t thrust himself forward but stood at one end of the room chatting to Montek Singh Ahluwalia. It was only when I realised he had not spoken to the king that I effected an introduction. His hesitation was markedly different from the other guests who virtually ‘gheraoed’ the king.
Arun had a way with words and a sense of humour that was winning. He admired turns of phrase that others probably would not even recognise. He believed the witty put down was more effective than harsh criticism. His speeches in parliament were often laced with humour or, even, satire. On such occasions, he would invariably ring and chat about it.
Once he became a minister, he was usually seen in kurta pyjama. However, whenever I saw him in a suit or jacket and tie, I would text to say how good he looked in western clothes. He would always call back with a suitable bon mot. After his kidney operation, when he lost a dramatic amount of weight, he told me he was able to fit into clothes which years earlier had ceased to fit. I could tell he was pleased.
For my 60th birthday, he gave me a present that he had chosen with great care. It was a Hermes tie of a colour I would never have picked myself. Yet it was one I had seen on many people and often thought of buying, but lacked the courage to do so. Arun got it for me.
He happened to be watching television the first time I wore it. I had barely walked out of the studio when he rang. “So, you approve of my taste?” he laughed. “I think this sort of plain dark colour shows up better under studio lights than a patterned tie.” He was spot on.
My last conversation with Arun was shortly after he wrote to Modi to say he could not be part of the new government. I texted my concern and a few hours later he rang. I won’t hide his voice was weaker than I have ever heard it. But his wit and gentle teasing were undimmed. He made light of his illness. Instead, he spoke about me and my programmes. I knew he was doing that deliberately and I admired him for it.
“Come and see me sometime,” he said before the call ended. I wish I had. I shall always regret not doing so.
Karan Thapar is a senior journalist and television commentator.