Arun Jaitley: Reformist, political FM the NDA will now have to do without

Topics Arun Jaitley

Arun Jaitley
For the time being, Arun Jaitley will not be available to the Narendra Modi government for hands-on intervention in running the administration. 

As Finance Minister (2014-19), his contribution was political much more than economic. After a two-term tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) when L K Advani seemed loath to leave the spotlight and the BJP seemed to be staring at a political dead end, Jaitley was one of those who pushed and propelled Narendra Modi centre-stage, edging out his former mentor. Little wonder then, that not only was he given the most important portfolio in the Modi government — finance — but his protégés, Piyush Goyal, Nirmala Sitharaman, Prakash Javdekar, Ravishankar Prasad and many others, also got important positions. 

His friends and followers in government reflect a conviction he has held all his life: the talent available in politics is inversely proportional to the power politicians wield. Because parties are — mostly — deficient in internal democracy, people coming into politics are subject to no quality control. 

They form political parties that have no quality control systems. These parties became one-person operations at best; and caste-driven set ups at worst. Caste provides legitimacy to anti-social behaviour through bogus kinship appeals. Naturally, governance-related issues get a short shrift. 

Caste is a peculiar problem in India and it provides an additional twist in the tale. Criminals in politics are defended through caste appeals. Jaitley has never been against affirmative action-type of politics, only its fall-out — the rise of caste-based parties, which seem to have no superstructure of governance or ethics driving it. “I am totally opposed to non-ideological politics,” he told Business Standard in an interview a few years ago. 

Because of this conviction, Jaitley has nurtured professional talent, protected it and pushed it to its full growth potential. 
This is because he has seen his own growth being nurtured by his seniors – both in the family and in politics. He had no inheritance: he comes from a family that was based in Lahore and Amritsar. During the Partition, his mother, who was expecting her first child, Jaitley’s elder sister, had come to her parents’ home for her delivery. His father would visit but when the family’s first daughter was born in June 1946 amid the raging riots of the Partition, they decided to stay on in India and moved to Delhi in a house abandoned by a Muslim family and declared evacuee property.

His family are Brahmins from Punjab. As elsewhere in India, in Punjab too, the caste had little land but placed a tremendous premium on education. Opportunities did not exist for exalted university education. But schoolteaching, law and science were considered respected streams. Jaitley’s seven uncles were educated by his grandmother at a time it was both expensive and hard to educate. So the extended family grew up to value good grades, but more than that, contributed to educate each other. All the brothers helped to fund the education of one of them who trained as a psychiatrist in the UK, studying in England to become an FRCS. But mostly, they studied and practised law.

As part of this value system, their father did not stint on education. The three children were sent to the best schools, boy and girls alike. Jaitley studied in a missionary school — St Xavier’s — and while in school, although he opted for the science stream believing ultimately that engineering was what he wanted to study, he joined the Bachelor of Commerce programme at Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) under Delhi University. 

This was the India of the Nehru-Indira era, of big dams, abolition of privy purse and bank nationalisation. It was also the time of extended famine in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) rationing in India (remember the controversy over whether Sanjay and Menaka Gandhi’s wedding was consistent with the Guest Control Order?). But poverty and hunger persisted in India. Locked as the country was in the non-aligned-but-sympathetic-to-the-Soviet Union syndrome, entrepreneurs were rich if they had cash. Credit was expensive, labour was highly unionised, jobs, even for professional engineers were scarce. India’s ambitions soared when its people went abroad. But here, they had to be kept in check. Jaitley’s well-wishers, while sympathetic to his desire to become an engineer, urged him to study commerce and become a chartered accountant instead: that was a profession much in demand those days.

That is why Jaitley joined SRCC, considered a top of the line business school. He could hardly have known how useful the skill of reading a balance sheet would be in the future. 

By this time, Jaitley had already become an activist of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the youth wing of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. He had contested the local college union elections and ABVP was trying to persuade him to contest the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) election. 

In 1974-75, this counted as an act of subversion. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, but around her, all she saw was people threatening her authority and trying to undermine it. A national Emergency (June 26, 1975) was imposed to help her cope with the challenging circumstances and most political leaders were sent to jail. For 19 months, Jaitley, the promising young boy who seemed to have such a nice safe, middle class future was pitchforked into the hurly burly of underground politics. Rather than dodge the police, he opted for arrest in 1974 and was locked up for 19 months. 

During his stint in jail, Jaitley developed a taste for good food. “One of my senior colleagues described me as both a gourmet and a glutton,” he had told Business Standard. During the 19 months in jail, he got a first class in his second year of law and decided to make law his career. 

Between 1977 and 1979, he came close to many stalwarts of the JP movement. He was also put on the Janata Party’s national executive. 

In 1980 elections, the Janata Party was defeated resoundingly. By then, Jaitley had already bid temporary adieu to politics and decided to concentrate on his legal career and left the ABVP. 

Jail taught him something: a strong bias in favour of strengthening existing institutions, reform and rectification rather than abolition. But most of all, Jaitley has stuck to one principle throughout his life: never, ever, to be a political activist who lives well without the means or the income to live well. “There are people who change parties to save the roof over their heads. The political system does not pay you enough to live properly. Salaries are not enough to maintain the standard of living you get used to. Most politicians have learnt the art of living well without working. I haven’t,” he said, “and I never will”. 

Law and politics taught him a lot. But when Vajpayee became Prime Minister, his appointment as minister for information and broadcasting (for a short period), disinvestment and law prepared him for the Finance Ministry in 2014. Most people forget that he was the only person whom Modi appointed a minister despite losing the Lok Sabha election in a Modi wave. What Pranab Mukherjee was to UPA, Jaitley was to NDA — and now it will have to do without him.

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