Arun Jaitley, 61, is at the centre of politics in New Delhi. The most powerful leader after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he runs two heavyweight Ministries – Finance and Defence – his people are in charge of key portfolios, and he has a big say in policy and political matters. All party spokespersons flock to him for advice. He is Modi’s ace troubleshooter on almost all issues. A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker describes him as Modi’s Chanakya (like Chandragupta’s advisor, Jaitley is a Brahmin)…
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign slogan may have been Abki baar, Modi sarkar, but, as Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi jocularly told Arun Jaitley in Parliament’s Central Hall, the reality is “Abki baar, Jaitley sarkar”. Jaitley, 61, is at the centre of politics in New Delhi. The most powerful leader after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he runs two heavyweight Ministries – Finance and Defence – his people are in charge of key portfolios, and he has a big say in policy and political matters. All party spokespersons flock to him for advice. He is Modi’s ace troubleshooter on almost all issues. A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker describes him as Modi’s Chanakya (like Chandragupta’s advisor, Jaitley is a Brahmin).
Environment and Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar calls him a “super strategist”. If somebody knows how to work the levers of power in Raisina Hill it is Jaitley; Modi is still an outsider. “A precious diamond,” is how Modi described him at an election rally in Amritsar from where Jaitley contested – and lost – his first election ever. Naturally, Jaitley is busy. His office in North Block was abuzz with activity, which was not surprising because it was Budget time. And expectations were high, though the Government’s finances are in a mess.
Even otherwise, Ministerial colleagues like Nirmala Sitharaman (Commerce and Industry) and Piyush Goyal (Power) rush to him for guidance. Modi depends on Jaitley’s sharp legal mind for taking critical decisions, says a source. He has even met Delhi & District Cricket Association (he is the chief patron) functionaries six times in the last month or so. So busy is he that when Modi visited the country’s largest warship, INS Vikramaditya, in Goa, Jaitley, the Defence Minister, couldn’t play host: he was in Jammu & Kashmir to take care of some urgent matter.
His parents were from Punjab. His father, Maharaj Kishen Jaitley, a lawyer, came from Lahore, while his mother, Ratan Prabha, belonged to Amritsar. The couple was in Amritsar expecting their first child, Jaitley’s older sister, when the Partition riots broke out. The family decided to stay on in India. Later, they moved to Naraina Vihar in Delhi into a house vacated by a Muslim family that had left for Pakistan. Jaitley’s father restarted his legal practice. He sent his son to St Xavier’s, a missionary school, and later to the prestigious Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC).
“That’s where I first met him in 1972,” recalls Raian Karanjawala, senior advocate and founder of Karanjawala & Company. “We used to debate together. He was the college Union President – smart, articulate and a good debater.” From here Jaitley went on to study law and became President of the Delhi University Students Union when Indira Gandhi declared Emergency. “The day Emergency was declared I slipped out of my residence. The police took my father into detention but being a lawyer, he was released immediately,” he had told ‘Business Standard’ earlier.
The next day, Jaitley organised a massive protest at the Delhi University campus and was promptly arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. He spent the next 19 months in prison, choosing not to seek early release through an apology or assurance that he would not participate in any political activity. “He handled his time in jail in a stoic manner. The only time I thought he was a little low was when, on one occasion, he was not allowed to sit for his exams and he missed a year,” says Karanjawala. By now his mind was made up. In 1980, when Indira Gandhi returned to power, Jagmohan, the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, tried to demolish the Indian Express building. Jaitley challenged it in the courts. (On the other side was Singhvi.)
That incident brought Jaitley in close contact with Ramnath Goenka, Arun Shourie, Fali Nariman and Swaminathan Gurumurthy, Goenka’s chartered accountant and legal advisor. It was this association that brought him to the notice of Vishwanath Pratap Singh in 1986-87. When Singh became Prime Minister in 1989, Jaitley was appointed Additional Solicitor General, one of the youngest ever to hold the post. Jaitley became a Minister in 1999 when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power. He handled the Law, Information and Broadcasting, Disinvestment, Shipping, and Commerce and Industry portfolios.
He found the Law Ministry intellectually unchallenging: here, he said, one spent 90 per cent of one’s time meeting brief-less lawyers. But he did initiate the move to create commercial divisions in high courts, says T K Vishwanathan who was legislative secretary under Jaitley. Information and Broadcasting, he complained, was “a ministry for Doordarshan that nobody watches anyway”. It was as Commerce Minister that Jaitley found himself in his elements: he took on the US and the European Union over farm trade liberalisation in Doha, drew the blueprint for the Special Economic Zone Act, pushed for opening retail to foreigners, and convinced the Government and the RBI to allow Indian companies to buy land overseas. “Now as Finance Minister, it’s good to see someone with an exploring mind,” says Ajay Shriram, Chairman, Shriram Group.
He is known to take care of his staff in a way few people do. Lawyers are entitled to charge 10 per cent of their fees as clerkage (charge for clerical work) from clients. But not many share this money for their staff. “Jaitley always does,” says Om Prakash Sharma, his one-time political secretary and now a Delhi MLA from Vishwas Nagar (Jaitley is said to have got him the ticket). Through this corpus he has ensured that the children of all his staff go to good schools. Some of them have grown up to become engineers and dentists. “He also uses this money to help his employees own a house,” adds Sharma who has known Jaitley since 1972. While Jaitley lives at his house in Kailash Colony, his official residence, 9 Ashoka Road, is open for use to others. It is here that cricketer Virender Sehwag got married, as did BJP National Secretary Vani Tripathi. “He ensured that the wedding went like clockwork, helping by lending his staff and even arranging the caterer,” says Tripathi.
Those who campaigned for him in Amritsar say he ensured that even the streetplay actors called from Delhi were looked after. People also got to see the foodie in Jaitley here. “He would recommend everybody visit Surjit Food Plaza on Lawrence Road, known for its fried fish, tandoori chicken and mutton tikka,” says someone who was with him in the campaign. Known to enjoy a hearty meal, Jaitley, however, keeps his indulgence in check. His other passions are cricket and old Bollywood films and songs. If Jaitley is so astute, why did he lose the elections? On the way to a rally on the outskirts of Amritsar, the Innova in which Jaitley was travelling suddenly stopped on the highway and a new driver took over: Punjab’s Revenue Minister, Bikram Singh Majithia, brother-in-law of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.
Jaitley’s temporary charioteer is said to be one of the factors that spoilt his party, given the strong sentiment against him across Punjab. At the rallies in the villages, Jaitley would try to speak in Punjabi, but it was clear that here was a city-bred man trying to woo a different class of people. His opponent, Amarinder Singh of the Congress, harped regularly on the issue. No fewer than 40 of Jaitley’s relatives had turned their homes into campaign offices. Jaitley’s wife, Sangeeta, “Dolly Aunty” to many BJP juniors, and their daughter, Sonali, a lawyer with her own practice, also campaigned for Jaitley. Recently, the mother and daughter went back to Amritsar to feed orphans on Sonali’s birthday. Their son, Rohan, has just completed Masters in law from Cornell.
The gossip is that had he won from Amritsar, Jaitley would have become the Deputy Prime Minister. But this defeat hasn’t reduced his clout in the party, even though he does not have the kind of mass base his mentor L K Advani did. Jaitley’s unwavering support to Modi at a time when other members of the Delhi4 – Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar – were not as forthcoming has helped. “Jaitley played a key role in backing Modi as Chief Minister during the outcry over the 2002 riots in Gujarat,” says a former bureaucrat.
Jaitley has got a “steel core”, says a bureaucrat from Madhya Pradesh citing the example of how, as BJP General Secretary, he had got Uma Bharti removed as the Chief Minister in 2004. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, then barely known, replaced her a year later. “Jaitley’s assessment that low-key Chouhan would be a good long-term prospect for the party in the State has been vindicated by his stunning success in two elections,” the official says. Jaitley’s friends cut across party lines. He shares a good relationship with Congress leaders Jyotiraditya Scindia, Ahmed Patel and P Chidambaram.
It is said that for the Budget, he even consulted Chidambaram and ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But he also has bitter rivals. “They are all within his party,” laughs Congress leader Rajiv Shukla. “A rise as spectacular as Jaitley’s will lead to more heartburn within his party than outside,” adds Singhvi. “Sometimes I think I would have shared a greater rapport with him but for some political and non-political entities surrounding him.” Marketing consultant Suhel Seth calls Jaitley the “Amol Palekar of Indian politics”. Seth, who’s known Jaitley for about two decades, says, “There isn’t an iota of change in the man, whether he’s in or out of power. He’s truly a 2 am friend.”
Though a disciplined man who hates to skip his morning walk in Lodi Garden, Jaitley is known to party regularly. Besides Seth and Karanjawala, his close friends include Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, Hindustan Times Group Chairperson Shobhana Bhartia and bureaucrat-turned-politician N K Singh. He likes to collect a mehfil around him whenever possible. A journalist, when told that his star was on the rise after Jaitley became Finance Minister because they were close in the previous NDA Government, replied wryly: “But he is close to everybody.”
Jaitley, say his friends, is a man of simple tastes. His family often travels by trams and buses on vacations abroad. A friend recalls that while on a holiday in Vancouver, he chose Sarvana Bhavan over fancy restaurants. Though a workaholic, he doesn’t let work stress him, say colleagues. “You’ll never hear him shout, even if he is annoyed,” says a junior leader. “Critics sometimes suggest that he rules too much by the head and too little by the heart, but I have not found him to be a heartless person,” says Singhvi. The country had high hopes his Budget would reflect this quality.
THE SOFTER SIDE
Known to enjoy a hearty meal, he always has tips on new eating places in Delhi. Likes to treat visitors to his office with goodies, but himself often settles for green tea and fruit.
Has ensured that children of his staff are educated in good schools and professional colleges. Has helped every employee acquire residential property. Lends his official residence for use to others for free.
Has an eye for spotting and cultivating talent. Has been a mentor to Junior ministers like Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal.
Played in college, but never professionally. Was also a cricket administrator. Even as a busy Finance Minister, takes time out to discuss the game.
Has strong organisational skills. BJP kept him from contesting elections all these years because it felt it needed him to strengthen the party.
Likes to relax with old Hindi film songs or films after a hard day’s work. Carried a DVD of Waqt, a 1965 Yash Chopra film, to watch while on a cruise in Europe.