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Arun Jaitley, every big man's friend, passes away at the age of 66-- leaving behind lessons in the 'art of the possible'

Arun Jaitley, every big man's friend, passes away at the age of 66-- leaving behind lessons in the 'art of the possible'
  • The former Finance Minister of India succumbed to sustained illness today (August 24).
  • For a politician who never won an election, Jaitley remained largely relevant and influential throughout his career spanning decades.
  • Jaitley famously backed Narendra Modi in his early days and even when the party's leadership denounced the latter, he stoody by Modi.
  • In a world where friendships are forged with secrets and power, Jaitley was everyone’s confidante, philosopher, and guide.
India’s former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley passed away after sustained illness at the age of 66 after an impressive political career spanning decades when he never won an election but was always relevant and maintained his deep influence in Indian politics. Jaitley, along with the former Foreign Minister, the late Sushma Swaraj -- who passed away earlier this month-- were instrumental in keeping the Bharatiya Janata Party relevant, as an opposition party, in the ten years preceding 2014 when Narendra Modi swept to power as India's Prime Minister.

Modi himself owes a lot to Jaitley for his rise to political prominence in India. Not just Modi, even the BJP's harshest critics found it way easier to deal or negotiate with Jaitley. A very apt example of Jaitley's realpolitik, his ability in the 'art of the possible', is the rollout of the complicated Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2017, through the GST Council-- which Jaitley led until May 2019-- where Jaitley had to convince state governments with conflicting interests to find a common ground.

It is not possible to be a successful politician or a lawyer without making a few enemies. But the smooth-talking Arun Jaitley, who studied at St Xavier's and Shri Ram College of Commerce, wore both these hats causing little or no animosity around him.

Paradoxically, Jaitley was also sharp-tongued and temperamental by nature but he dictated his mood and not the other way around.

When the Supreme Court struck down an Act which intended to break the age-old collegium system of appointing higher judiciary, Jaitley was quick to call it the “tyranny of the unelected”, something he knew it will be thrown back at him for his electoral failures. Jaitley remained an nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Indian Parliament, from 2000 to 2018 as he never won an election.

The Former Chief Justice of India, RM Lodha, did taunt him in a televised national debate in 2015. But Jaitley was prepared and he knew how to direct the debate in the direction he wanted. That was his skill, the ability to know the strengths and weaknesses, not just of himself but of his rivals too, like few else can.

Watch the riveting debate between Arun Jaitley and Former Chief Justice of India RM Lodha over the National Judicial Appointments Commission in 2015.

Jaitley could see the future and he placed his bets, and made friends, accordingly right from the days as a student politician, to when he became a lawyer and later, the member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Jaitley was Vajpayee’s man who stood by Modi

Years before Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister and was barely a politician of any significance, Jaitley became his friend. Modi was living out his exile from Gujarat politics in 1995 at the BJP party headquarters in Delhi, when he met Jaitley--who was then called ‘Vajpayee’s man’. Jaitley had lobbied for Modi and turned instrumental in making him the chief minister and later the country's Prime Minister.

And his ability to network was so slick that even when he chose sides, he made no foes. For one, he chose Modi over LK Advani as the Prime Ministerial candidate in 2013, and yet remained close to the latter.

Years later, everyone came to know Jaitley as Modi’s man. The current Prime Minister had so much confidence in Jaitley that during the first five years of the Modi government, Arun Jaitley held the portfolios of Finance, Corporate Affairs, Defence, and Information and Broadcasting-- and at times he was in multiple important portfolios simultaneously.

A similar friendship forged with Rajat Sharma, the founding editor of India TV, one of India's most influential television channels, lasted Jaitley's lifetime. Sharma reportedly used to drive Jaitley around the Delhi University on his scooter while the latter was campaigning as a student politician in the 1970s.

Jaitley represented both Coke and Pepsi as a lawyer against each other at different times

He could have even written the famous book ‘How to make friends and influence enemies?’ if Dale Carnegie wouldn’t have beaten him to it.

Jaitley had represented two of the world’s most bitter rivals—Coca Cola and Pepsi as a lawyer. He was Coca Cola’s lawyer for a case against Pepsi and vice versa. Though many would have rolled their eyes at this feat, for him it was a small game.

Jaitley's frienship with rivals Sonia Gandhi and P Chidambaram

In the long list of unlikely friends is Sonia Gandhi, the head of the rival Congress party, and former Finance Minister, and a lawyer turned politician just like him, P Chidambaram. Jaitley seemed to have gotten through his life keeping all his friends along with a successful career.

But many of his friendships were tested, in court as well as Parliament. In 2012, Jaitley was a part of the Opposition party, and he was chosen to question and grill P Chidambaram, the home minister of the ruling Congress party about the Aircel-Maxis deal.

Chidambaram started answering the question by saying that he was happy that “a friend of 22 years has questioned him.” Though later through the session, Chidambaram turned emotional and “felt as if someone plunged a dagger into him.” Their friendship withstood the barbs, the scams, as the Congress politician continued to attend Jaitley’s annual lunch parties which also doubled as his birthday celebration.

Jaitley's rivalry with Subramanian Swamy and Ram Jethmalani

Two of Jaitley’s most vicious critics are country’s top lawyers Ram Jethmalani and BJP leader Subramanian Swamy. Both have passed vitriolic comments against Jaitley and they both had old beefs to settle.

Jaitley was once the legal assistant to Jethmalani. Yet, the camaraderie did not last long. Jaitley is known to have influenced Vajpayee to push Jethmalani from his position as the law minister unceremoniously. The fire-breathing lawyer had never forgiven Jaitley nor forgotten the slight, and had used every excuse to criticise him. He also went back to court as Delhi chief minister Arun Kejriwal’s lawyer in a libel case, just for the pleasure of cross-examining his old adversary. But Jaitley was not a man to be easily undone either and kept his cool, passing the bitter examination with flying colours.

Jaitley was also not undone even as Swamy questioned his every move. This rivalry too started when he found a legal loophole to deny the payment of his dues over a case he argued. Ever since, he accused Jaitley of being a Congress insider, instigator or a coup and much more.

When Jaitley did try to clamp him over discipline, Swamy retorted, “People giving me unasked for advice of discipline and restraint don’t realise that if I disregard discipline there would be a bloodbath.” Jaitley wisely never rose to the bait, like a seasoned solider who picks his battles.

Jaitley may be no more but the way he deftly maneuvered India's labyrinth political space will provide lessons in the art of the possible. In a world where friendships are forged with secrets and power, Jaitley was everyone’s confidante, philosopher, and guide.

India's 'supermom' Sushma Swaraj, the lady who redefined the country's Foreign Ministry, is no more