Former FM Arun Jaitley, BJP's key troubleshooter, passes away

Arun Jaitley, former finance minister and a key troubleshooter for the Narendra Modi government, died on Saturday at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in the national capital. He was 66.

A press statement from AIIMS, where he was put on life support after being admitted on August 9, announced his demise at 12.07 pm.

Jaitley, the principal architect of the Modi government that took office in May 2014, had been in poor health for the past few years, which took a turn for the worse since January when he was diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma, a rare cancer, and travelled to the US for treatment.

As finance minister, Jaitley oversaw the roll-out of the goods and services tax (GST) — probably the biggest tax reform since Independence — and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC). Also, it was during his tenure in North Block that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the controversial decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on November 8, 2016.

Jaitley officially retired from active political life on May 30, but falling weight, low immunity, and fear of infection had forced him to avoid public places in recent months. He, however, continued to comment on political developments in his tweets and blogs. His last post was on Parliament scrapping provisions of Article 370 of the Constitution. Jaitley had undergone a kidney transplant at AIIMS in May 2018. In September 2014, he had bariatric surgery to control diabetes-induced weight gain.

During the tenure of the first Modi government, Jaitley had handled the portfolios of defence, information and broadcasting, finance, and corporate affairs. He was also the chief troubleshooter of the government, a vacuum that the government could find difficult to fill.

Jaitley was serving his fourth term as Rajya Sabha MP, was the leader of the Opposition in the House from 2009 to 2014, and the leader of the House from 2014 to 2019.

The prime minister, currently on a three-nation tour, tweeted: “With the demise of Arun Jaitley ji, I have lost a valued friend, whom I have had the honour of knowing for decades.” He said he had spoken with Jaitley’s family members.

Jaitley and Modi had known each other since the Emergency days. With Modi as Gujarat chief minister, Jaitley helped him and Shah with litigation and central government probes in cases related to an alleged fake encounter in Gujarat as also into the communal rioting in the state in 2002.

Jaitley mentored two generations of BJP’s younger politicians, including Union ministers Piyush Goyal, Nirmala Sitharaman, Prakash Javadekar, Anurag Thakur, and ministers in Uttar Pradesh Shrikant Sharma and Sidharth Nath Singh.

He is survived by his wife Sangeeta, daughter Sonali, and son Rohan. Both his children are lawyers.

From AIIMS, Jaitley’s body was taken to his residence in South Delhi’s Kailash Colony, where hundreds paid their tributes to him. He will be cremated on Sunday afternoon. Sources said the PM was unlikely to cut short his foreign visit and stick to his itinerary of returning on Tuesday.

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Home Minister Amit Shah, and politicians cutting across party lines condoled Jaitley’s death. Senior BJP leader L K Advani said Jaitley was “inducted into the BJP core team” when he was party chief. He said Jaitley was “someone who valued and nurtured his friendship with people across the political spectrum” and “a food lover, he never failed to recommend good restaurants to me”, Advani said.

Starting his career as a student leader in the 1970s and a lawyer by profession, Jaitley emerged as a quintessential Delhi politician in his 45-year public life. He had scores of friends and admirers across the political spectrum, in the legal profession, media, and industry. 

Jaitley never had a mass base, losing the only Lok Sabha election he contested, but his colleagues and political rivals alike acknowledged his qualities as a keen political strategist, and benefitted from it.

Ill-health forced Jaitley to opt out of the Cabinet of the second Modi government, which took office on May 30. He continued to tweet on political developments and penned his last blog on August 6. Titled “PM Narendra Modi and HM (Home Minister) Amit Shah Achieve the Impossible”, Jaitley lauded the government for getting Parliament to scrap provisions of Article 370.

Jaitley was born into a Punjabi refugee family from Pakistan, in Delhi on December 28, 1952. His father was a lawyer, and mother a homemaker. He started his political career as a student leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student outfit, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

In 1974, he was elected president of the Delhi University Students’ Union. On June 26, 1975, hours after the Indira Gandhi government had proclaimed the Emergency, Jaitley led a protest of Delhi University students, the first protest against the Emergency in the entire country. He was arrested under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act, or MISA, and spent the next 19 months in jail.

On the anniversary of the Emergency last year, Jaitley wrote that he “got the privilege of organising the only protest on the morning of June 26, 1975 and became the first satyagrahi against the Emergency”. “Little did I realise that at a young age of 22 years, I was participating in events which were going to be part of history. For me this event changed the future course of my life,” he said.

Jaitley earned his law degree in 1977. After the BJP was formed in April 1980, Jaitley was active in its youth wing but decided to focus on his legal practice. In 1989, the VP Singh government appointed him additional solicitor general and tasked with the probe in the alleged Bofors scam.

In 1991, the BJP inducted him into its national executive. During the tenure of the second Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1999, Jaitley was inducted into the Union council of ministers and elected to the Rajya Sabha. He was elevated to Cabinet rank a year later. Jaitley handled the portfolios of information and broadcasting, shipping, law and justice, and the newly created disinvestment. The party appointed him one of the general secretaries in 2002.

After the Vajpayee government lost power in 2004, Jaitley resumed his legal practice but remained active in the party. With the death of Pramod Mahajan in 2006, Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, who passed away on August 6, emerged as the BJP’s key leaders in Parliament. He was also associated with Delhi’s cricket administration. In 2009, he was elected as vice president of the BCCI.