Arun Jaitley: A diamond who shall live on forever
Arun Jaitley’s departure has left a deep void in the lives of many, including mine. I was, for long, privileged to share a deep bond of affection, love and friendship with him. He shaped many lives in multiple ways and gave me an impetus and purpose in difficult times. It is difficult to rationally articulate his multiple facets and achievements.
There are, however, four dominant characteristics which come to my mind very readily of his iconic career as a politician, a lawyer and a friend whose advice you sought in distressing times. He was with you in your moments of joy but, more importantly, in your moments of grief.
First, for several years, we were in the Rajya Sabha together. As leader of the Opposition, he had the rare ability of commanding instant respect from across the political spectrum. No other leader enjoyed either this rapport or this ability to convince and convert even those who began with initial hostility. Whenever he rose to speak in the Rajya Sabha, he was listened to in silence and with respect and awe even from those opposed to his views.
He did this in the Opposition and even more so as a member of the treasury benches, both during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government and, thereafter, during the first term of Narendra Modi in office. How can I forget that any time I made a worthwhile intervention in the Rajya Sabha, I would invariably get a handwritten slip from him appreciating and encouraging me. He was a Parliamentarian par excellence.
Second, there are very few like Jaitley with an innate instinct to reform and change things for the better. A liberaliser by temperament, he believed in the power of competition, enhanced productivity and overall national gains. This was so even when he was the minister for commerce. He looked at avenues for deeper trade liberalisation, and his negotiating skills with other trading partners left his negotiating detractors from developed countries gasping for argument. Even when he conceded a small argument, he won the war on the bigger issues. He never mistook the forest for the trees. As finance minister, he will go down as someone who negotiated a comprehensive Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime. Equally, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code was a complex piece of negotiation and the centrepiece of the architecture on which the banking reforms rested.
As I look through my past notes, the GST, in another shape and form, began as early as 1992. It took the iconic negotiating skills of Arun Jaitley a quarter century down the line to implement the most radical change in India’s taxation policy. It had taken many countries much longer. Achieving the ‘Grand Bargain’, so to say, of getting all the states to accept the major constitutional amendments, and getting it through both Houses of Parliament will be his lasting legacy and testimony to his political acumen.
Third, in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there is no one like him who can play the role of a guiding star, a mentor, a spokesman, a lawyer or in helping the leadership of Narendra Modi to consolidate and flourish. Jaitley saw Modi through an earlier difficult phase in politics and helped inculcate the skills of managing the governance of a complex rubric in the national architecture of governance. The BJP has no second Jaitley and my party will miss him every moment.
Fourth, few can combine the compulsions of official duties with warmth and affection for his family and those who were near and dear to him. Style, elegance and appropriateness of behaviour are characteristics which do not come naturally to people. He was, no doubt, in the rare group of men, not merely a Chanakya or a precious diamond, but in a lighter vein, illustrated the saying that a “diamond is forever.”
His friendship and legacy will transcend a life prematurely cut by successive bouts of illness which he fought with unbelievable courage. He had the courage of conviction. He fought his health issues and whenever he would get somewhat better, his focus on his work remained undiluted. Whenever anyone went to his room to discuss complex issues, even in the shortest possible time, he would succinctly sum up and give you a precise decision which had eluded you for a while. This is easier said than done. Most of us suffering from serious ailments are not able to focus on our work. He was a rare exception in this regard as in so many other ways.
I never found him tense, much less flustered, no matter how difficult the circumstances were. It was under his leadership that after talking to Modi, I joined the BJP, which gave me a new identity and purpose. The Indian political system has lost an irreplaceable man with a belief in values, in courtesy, in generosity and in the principles which are integral to a healthy democracy.
Haruki Murakami has rightly said, “Death is not the opposite of life, but part of it.” It is never about the length of life but the depth of life and the ripples and waves that you have created, and which live on indefinitely. And to the well organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.