Jaitley: Modi's valued friend who wore many hats

Credit: www.arunjaitley.com

He was the perfect 'insider' for the 'outsider'. Had it not been for this man who knew Lutyens' Delhi inside out, the one who came from outside with aplomb may not have been able to make his mark. The handholding was not just restricted to months after May 2014. But even in the 1990s, when the man from Gujarat was declared persona non grata in his home state and stationed in distant Chandigarh, he taught the other man how to make a mark irrespective of the task assigned. Thereafter, he helped plot the quickest route to secure a shift to the Indian capital.

Till the end, he was reported to have lived up to his sobriquet -- 'bureau chief'. In news organisations, this position is reserved for the person who is always one step ahead of the reporters under him. Someone who always knows the 'khabar' that juniors mention to check if it merits a story or not. For the major part of the 13 years that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was away from New Delhi in Gandhinagar as Gujarat chief minister, Arun Jaitley acted as the former's eyes and ears. And of course, most importantly, his counsel, advising him on every step, each assertion on allegations against him over his role or its absence in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

For many writers, the temptation to draw parallels between leadership structures of political organisations with a powerful leader as its pivot and the fascinating world of Sicilian and American mafia empires of yore (popularised courtesy efforts of Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Copolla) was always too much to resist. Consequently, it was routine for journalists to label Jaitley as Modi's consigliere. For obvious reasons, parallels in the two empires ceased at the level of the Tom Hagenesque figure of Jaitley although hints were left behind.

And, not without reason. In the years when the Bharatiya Janata Party was undergoing a virtual vanvaas period after the shock 2004 defeat and when almost every leader of consequence was throwing his or her hat into the ring, Jaitley personified that famous line in Godfather -- when Hagen negotiates with a Hollywood producer to secure a role for Don Corleone's godson, Johnny Fontane: "I have a special practice. I handle one client." And Jaitley did. As long as he was able!

In a series of tweets on the passing of his long-time aide, Modi used a description that testifies to the nature of the relationship: "Valued friend". For a man who is not known to have many friends, much less admitting the relationship, this acceptance is testimony to the esteem that Modi had for Jaitley.

Being roughly the same age, Jaitley had the advantage of being in Delhi while Modi was confined to the state. However, once the former got to comprehend the calibre of the latter, alongside LK Advani, he was among the first central leaders to come to Modi's assistance when attacking the Gujarat chief minister within the party was deemed politically correct.

When the then Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh tried postponing elections in Gujarat after Modi prematurely dissolved the state Assembly in 2002, it was Jaitley who read the statues to the CEC. He put forth the argument that normalcy had returned to the state and that the BJP had not benefited due to riots but because of the "negative campaign of the Congress". The argument gave rise to the conclusion in Modi's mind that the more he was targeted, the more would his popularity soar. The prime minister's belief that "any publicity is good" is also a result of Jaitley's argument.

Although many would like to restrict the evaluation of Jaitley's career through the prism of Modi and how his departure from the political theatre would impact this government and the party here onward, only the politically naive would limit the former finance and defence minister's utility to just this. From the time that Jaitley began being seen in the shadows in the late 1980s with a word of advice for party stalwarts, then chiefly the troika of LK Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Murli Manohar Joshi, it was evident that the former student leader would play an immensely meaningful role in the days to come. In 1989, when the BJP was the 'real victor' for its spectacular two to 85 jump in the Lok Sabha, it decided that it would stay out of government except for one crucial position that would enable it to leverage the issue that the party knew would provide it with long-term political dividends -- the Ayodhya dispute or the Ram temple issue.

As a result, Jaitley was appointed the additional solicitor general, a position that enabled him to legally intervene and advise Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh on several matters including the Ram temple issue, most significantly during the weeks when Advani had embarked on the Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra. The National Front regime, with Jaitley's inputs, tried to hammer out either an improbable deal between Hindu and Muslim contestants on the issue or to consider issuing an ordinance to allow the construction to begin while leaving the disputed structure untouched at that point. Eventually, neither of the two efforts were successful but Jaitley had made his mark as an astute legal mind.

Because of his deployment in the VP Singh government, he was a late entrant in the party hierarchy and by the time the first BJP government assumed office in 1996, albeit for less than a fortnight, Jaitley lost out on a ministerial position although Sushma Swaraj made it. Yet Jaitley plugged along, emerging as an articulate spokesman, someone whose wizardry with words and turn of phrase was most appropriate for the emerging 'soundbite brigade'. In 1999, when Vajpayee assumed office as prime minister for the third time, the 'bureau chief' got the job that enabled him to influence and also somewhat 'control' the new bureau. He assumed independent charge of information and broadcasting although in the hierarchy, he remained a junior minister.

An articulate parliamentarian, as BJP's leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha during UPA II, Jaitley played no mean role in delegitimising the Manmohan Singh government while steadily making a case for Modi at the helm of the party. When Modi chose to stay away from National Executive meetings to protest the presence of his bête noire, Sanjay Joshi, it was Jaitley who plugged Modi's line on several occasions. When Modi became prime minister in 2014, there was no doubt that Jaitley would be his facilitator in the corridors of power. It was no surprise that for long, Jaitley held two taxing portfolios -- finance and defence.

Although there were many questions concerning his aptitude on financial matters, Jaitley remained a powerful personality who had the prime minister's trust. He may have been clueless about demonetisation, as his initial silence suggested, but the loyalist that he was, Jaitley never let this become evident. Post-May 23, the confidence of Modi has been all too evident. Possibly, in moments of solitude, Modi will miss the "valued friend" and discover that he is short of one person to share his happiness over accomplishments while preparing for the challenges ahead. Because nobody's irreplaceable, substitutes will be found. However, it will be a while before, or never again in the BJP, that anyone with the capacity to wear so many hats, will walk up to Modi with that amused smile.

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