The Importance of Being Arun Jaitley

Amidst the stream of Arun Jaitley stories shared by his vast circle of friends and acquaintances, here is one of my favourite memories of the late Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader. In November 2014, I invited Jaitley and another lawyer-politician, P Chidambaram, to launch my 2014 election book. Both agreed but then, just 48 hours before the launch, I got a call from a slightly anxious Jaitley. “There are some BJP supporters who have rung me up advising me not to attend. Have you written anything controversial about Prime Minister Modi?” he asked. “Sir, it’s a fair and honest account of the 2014 election is all I can say. Besides, I don’t think any of those advising you have even read the book,” was my response. Jaitley laughed, “Yes, we politicians usually don’t read books when we seek a ban on them! Don’t worry, I will be there.” Sure enough, the ever-eager Jaitley was part of the book launch.

It is a story which is relevant to the times in which we live, a period in which, like so much else in our society, politics and newsrooms too are sharply divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between ‘nationalists’ and ‘anti-nationals’, between ‘liberals’ and ‘pseudo-liberals’. Are you pro or anti-Modi is no longer just a question, it’s a mirror to a polarised universe where the notion of ‘samvad’ or dialogue is reduced to a noisy and relentless cacophony that threatens basic civility in discourse.

This is where the erudite intellect of Jaitley stood out, almost sui generis within the contemporary BJP pantheon of netas. He was never close to being a mass leader like Modi; he may not have matched Sushma Swaraj’s fiery oratory; he didn’t even have Amit Shah’s single-minded political obsession since he enjoyed law, cricket, books and so much else to ever be unidimensional. But he had one quality that most of the others in his generation lacked: the ability to rise above narrow ideological divides by separating the political from the personal.

This might explain his extensive circle of friends from Naraina to North Block. A Jaitley birthday lunch every year was a reminder of an ‘old’ India where those with left, right and centrist viewpoints would happily congregate. In today’s era, many of those present would be labelled the Khan Market or tukde-tukde gang, and rapidly ostracised. It isn’t as if Jaitley didn’t have strong views on his ideological adversaries. I recall him writing a controversial blog last year after the arrest of a group of a human rights activists for alleged Maoist activists, dubbing them ‘half-Maoists’. I rang up to strongly object to this blanket labelling of individuals, many of whom had a stellar record of community service. We debated the issue for half an hour, at the end of which Jaitley offered a solution: “If you feel so passionately about the issue, why don’t you write a counter-blog!”
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It was this willingness to engage and contest the world of ideas with his opponents,without resorting to rancorous abuse, that made Jaitley such a sought-after political figure in television debates where sense mattered more than sensation. In the late 90s and early 2000s, whenever I needed panelists on ‘The Big Fight’, I would call up Jaitley, Kapil Sibal and Sitaram Yechury for an old-fashioned TV joust. It made for great viewing but I don’t think any of these fine speakers ever derisively asked their opponents to ‘go to Pakistan’, a land which as Jaitley would often remind us, his family originally came from.

To that extent, Jaitley was one of the last links with the gentler Vajpayee-Advani era of the BJP where politics was practised in the shadow of fierce anti-Congressism but rarely with the toxic edge of populist, muscular nationalism. He was perhaps the last bridge-builder between the much-reviled Lutyens elite and the aspirational neo-middle class that now seeks greater space in the political sun. The Modi-Shah way has been to threaten to dismantle the old order in a fractious, confrontational manner that only exposes the deep cleavages in society: Kashmir is the latest case in point. The Jaitley way was to do it through gentle persuasion not diktat, which is why the Goods and Services Tax will remain his abiding legacy. This is also why Modi 2.0 will miss a Jaitley-like consensual figure, someone who conferred an optical gloss of an English-speaking sophisticate even while always staying true to his West Delhi Punjabi migrant roots.

Post-script: I met Jaitley just days before he was re-admitted to hospital. He was visibly ill, kept coughing, but hadn’t lost his penchant for storytelling. I was about to leave when he shifted the conversation from politics to cricket. “I think Virat is now the greatest Indian player of all time, I hope you agree.” A fresh debate broke out even as more kachoris were brought in: the doctor wouldn’t allow him to eat them, but like a generous Punjabi host, he wasn’t going to let me leave without plenty of food on the plate!

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