New Delhi: For the BJP, Arun Jaitley was a man for all seasons — a strategist who crafted its rise in many States, a suave and moderate face who won the saffron party new allies and an articulate champion of its cause whose persuasive skills were a valuable asset for its leadership.
For almost a decade-and-a-half, more so after the death of Pramod Mahajan in 2006, Jaitley was the last port of call for the party to help it out of any crisis.
Jaitley’s skills were on full display in the first Narendra Modi government when he framed its and the BJP’s response to the opposition’s charges of corruption, especially in Rafale deal, and crony capitalism and led the counter-assault against the Congress-led UPA with his regular social media posts during the recent general election despite.
Jaitley died at AIIMS on Saturday after battling health issues for months. A member of the BJP core team for many years, the senior lawyer was probably the only party bigwig who not only made a smooth transition but also grew in stature as LK Advani was eased out to make way for Modi as its prime ministerial candidate in 2013.
A keen political mind who was always observant of the shifting strands of politics, Jaitley was an early supporter of Modi within the party. He deployed his political acumen and legal might to help Modi, the then Gujarat chief minister, and his confidant Amit Shah, now Union home minister, to come out clean from 2002 riots allegations and fake encounter charges respectively.
A quintessential moderate who was never associated with the hard edges of Hindutva politics, Jaitley became a trusted friend of Modi — feted by the party’s rank and file for his unabashed support to the hardcore saffron agenda — as he smoothed the path for the Gujarat leader’s rise in the BJP.
Unsurprisingly, when Modi led his party to its maiden majority in Lok Sabha in 2014 and he rewarded him with the coveted finance portfolio.
Jaitley himself had lost the Lok Sabha election but it had little impact on his fortunes as Modi trusted him with key ministries, from defence to information and broadcasting,
whenever the need arose.
The former Delhi University Students Union president was a rare politician who could be as much at home in a parliamentary debate, holding a full House in thrall with his exposition on issues as varied as the Rafale fighter aircraft deal row and the triple talaq bill, as in a press conference where he, unlike most politicians, relied on reason and not rhetoric to articulate his party’s position. BJP spokespersons would never miss to join his press conferences in the audience seats to learn the finer crafts of their work.
A gifted raconteur whose interest spanned from politics to Bollywood to sports, Jaitley’s informal gatherings were always a full house as journalists, friends and politicians enjoyed his wit, sarcasm — which singed his colleagues and adversaries alike — and grasp of issues that he delivered in his ever relaxed and warm demeanour.
Jaitley was the bridge that the BJP used to win over new allies, and also its warm, affable and persuasive face to bring opposition parties around on key issues. A BJP ally like JD(U) president and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was his personal friend for decades after he played a key role in ensuring that he is projected as their alliance’s chief ministerial candidate. Even when Kumar snapped ties with the BJP in 2013, he made it a point to visit him whenever he came to the national capital. He joined hands with the saffron party again in 2017, with Jaitley playing an instrumental role.
As general secretary of the BJP, Jaitley was pivotal to the party’s rise in several states, including Bihar, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. He was also a fine administrator who brought solid and steady hands at the helm.
As finance minister, Jaitley was pivotal in ushering in the Goods and Services Tax, hailed by Modi as an economic unification of the country, and clearing the path for long-pending reforms in the defence sector during his short stint in the ministry.
Jaitley enjoyed such warm relations with the media that his critics at times called him the “chief of bureau” for the easy way with which he could set the political discourse with a briefing. But those who knew Jaitley believed that he was the most sought after face of the party for journalists for the simple reason that nobody articulated its position better than him. And that he had matchless interpersonal skills only helped.
That in his long political career Jaitley kept clear of any serious personal or political controversy is a tribute to his legacy.
It is a cliche to say whenever an important public figure dies that the void created by his demise will be hard to fill but the BJP may find it rather difficult to have somebody as good at so many things for so long as Jaitley was.