When the architect of Modinomics, former finance minister Arun Jaitley died fighting a series of serious sicknesses last week (August 24), the print, broadcast and social media was flooded with personal stories about him from a variety of people: politicians transcending party rivalries, lawyers, associates, friends, journalists.
Every obituary exposed a new layer of Jaitley’s personality. Stories of Jaitley having helped friends and colleagues – and sometimes even strangers – buy homes, own cars and finance higher studies for their children; stories of him having sent children of his domestic staff to the same school that his own children went to; stories of him having appeared in court to help journalists even in high fever; stories of his love for food; stories of gossipy, social mornings at Lodhi Garden; stories of so many other things. Because he had the means to do all this: prosperity, power and a fine brain. The only thing he was short of was good health.
In a short period of 15 years – from when he was 55 to death, when he was 66 – he suffered a multitude of health problems. He had four heart surgeries, a crippling chest infection following bariatric surgery to reduce weight and control diabetes, a kidney transplant and a cancer surgery. The sicknesses took away from him two of his favourite things: food and visitors.
“I have to carry my own food even on aircrafts because of health reasons,” he told writer Patrick French for a profile he wrote in Hindustan Times. For visitors, he met only four people a day during the last few months before he died. He had already withdrawn himself from active politics after he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister in which he opted out of Modi 2.0 cabinet on health grounds.
According to French’s account, Jaitley’s father, Maharaja Kishen Jaitley, moved to India from Lahore during Partition and like all Partition families, his was conventionally Jan Sangh voter. Like all Partition families, Jaitley’s father was critical of Nehru and thought they suffered because of him. Jaitley’s father got an office in Chandni Chowk as a lawyer practicing in the high court in Shimla.
Jaitley began his politics as a students’ leader. He was instrumental, as president of students’ union at Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in 1973, in longest students’ strike from November 1972 to January 1973. In 1974, he was elected the president of Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU), and was picked by Jayprakash Narayan or JP as the convener o of his youth committee.
Jaitley went to jail for 19 months during the Emergency, and when he was released in January 1977 he plunged into the election campaign and travelled across the country with the likes of Lalu Yadav, Sharad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Advani, Vajpayee and JP himself.
The same year he began practicing law in the Supreme Court and the Delhi high court. In 1980, when Jan Sangh gave way to BJP Jaitley became the president of the Delhi unit. In 1989, VP Singh, who had ridden on Bofors scam to the Prime Minister’s office, made Jaitley the additional solicitor general. In 1999, Vajpayee inducted him in his cabinet as the minister of state (independent charge) for information and broadcasting.
His debating skills came from college days. Jaitley had a sharp legal mind and gift of the gab. As party’s national spokesperson, he forcefully – and successfully – defended even the indefensible and explained the incomprehensible during party’s press conferences.
He was elected to the Rajya Sabha four times (2000, 2006, 2012 and 2018) and lost the only Lok Sabha election that he fought, from Amritsar in 2014. BJP insiders say Amit Shah broke down on hearing this.
Jaitley’s friendship with Modi is from the 1990s when Jaitley was “struck by his organizational competence”, as described by French. Jaitley told colleagues as early as in 2011 that Modi will become the PM. As a matter of fact, in the parliamentary board meeting before 2014, Jaitley was among those who proposed Modi’s name as the PM candidate.
Shekhar Gupta, Editor of The Print, wrote that Prime Minister Modi called to check on him almost every evening, no matter in which time zones he was.
Apart from politics, Jaitley loved to talk about cricket and personalities, Hindi films, songs, to detoxify primetime claptrap he told his visitors to not watch primetime news and instead tune in to Sony Mix, between 9pm and midnight. “They run this fantastic programme called Raina Beeti Jaaye where they seamlessly play old Hindi songs,” he would say.
Rest in peace, wherever you are!