- Why would a man, under treatment for a serious disease, maintain such a huge public profile and meddle in all matters?
- Trouble is that, while he is an excellent parliamentarian, Jaitley practises his politics like a lawyer – hired to defend a brief.
- Jaitley – a man with a finger in every power pie in Lutyens’ Delhi, the quintessential counsellor to the dizzyingly powerful
The talented Mr Arun Jaitley is a man of many parts. Finance Minister, currently minister without portfolio, one of India’s leading corporate lawyers, cricket fanatic and administrator and a writer of blogs.
But having known Jaitley for more than a decade and having interviewed him more than a dozen times, I can truly say he has missed his real vocation in life: that of being a newspaper editor. Despite that, he is still called “Bureau Chief” for his absolute grasp over the media in Delhi. It is useful to remember that he has represented virtually all newspaper proprietors and media owners in court.
This hold has ensured that the media treats Jaitley with kid gloves. Jaitley’s kidney transplant, and the fact that he was unable before that, to go to work for nearly two months, was not considered “news”. Full disclosure, I broke the story, as I felt that the health of a public representative holding a critical portfolio such as finance needed to be reported in public interest. After the story broke, Jaitley confirmed it in a tweet.
Shockingly just ten days before the Union budget was to be presented, Jaitley left for the US for treatment of soft tissue cancer. Again, the media maintained an omertà.
When Piyush Goyal was made interim finance minister for the second time and presented the budget, most citizens would have been confused as to what was going on.
Post presenting the budget, Goyal gave the customary round of interviews where he defended the populist budget and rubbished the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) report, which said employment in India was at a four-decade low.
We then had the bizarre spectacle of Jaitley speaking to an agency in the US and eloquently making the same points that Goyal had made.
From his perch in the US, Jaitley had also issued an unprecedented warning to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to handle the criminal case against sacked ICICI Bank CEO Chanda Kochhar in a “professional” way and not to be “adventurist”. This public warning was issued on social media and to an investigative agency which does not come under Jaitley’s remit.
Kochhar was sacked the next day after Justice Srikrishna found that she had broken the code of conduct in the bank. The private bank also decided to claw back her bonuses amounting to Rupees 10 crores and all her stock options worth a huge sum.
So why would a man, under treatment for a serious disease, maintain such a huge public profile and meddle in all matters?
That in a nut shell is Jaitley – a man with a finger in every power pie in Lutyens’ Delhi, the quintessential counsellor to the dizzyingly powerful. And that is what makes him indispensable to Narendra Modi.
Consider this. The only election Arun Jaitley, Union Finance Minister, has ever won has been the presidency of Delhi University. And, the best baby contest at the age of one, as he told me. Even in the Modi wave in 2014, Jaitley lost Amritsar by a record margin to Captain Amrinder Singh. He was a reluctant contestant at best.
Senior editor and former Member of Parliament H.K. Dua described Jaitley best when he called him a “creature of the Rajya Sabha”.
Trouble is that, while he is an excellent parliamentarian, Jaitley practises his politics like a lawyer – hired to defend a brief. Which is why despite being the BJP's suave and urbane face, he is widely disliked in the party and viewed with suspicion by those in the larger parivar of the Sangh, who see him as a "quintessential Lutyens’ person”. Jaitley's detractors include cricketer and three-term Member of Parliament Kirti Azad, who has been suspended by the BJP for his colourful attack on Jaitley. And there is Subramanium Swamy, who blames him for ensuring that he did not become a minister.
Jaitley has a penchant for Jeremyn street shirts, deciding on a particular colour with his "friends durbar" every season and bespoke Savile Row suits. He loves all the finer things in life, including rare Jamevar shawls, possesses a huge collection of diamonds and watches, which he loves to show off to all and sundry. Jaitley has nearly half a dozen luxury vehicles, many of them top end BMW's and sports cars, but ironically, has never learnt to drive.
Jaitley’s legendary network ensures that stories critical of him never appear. Even in the demonetization disaster, Jaitley's run of truly poor budgets and handling of the economy you would have to look hard to find a story or analysis critical of him. While he has no mass appeal, he wields the Delhi levers of power with huge finesse for his own benefit.
Ironically, Goyal presented an election year budget packed with promises of giveaways and got lusty cheers from BJP Members of Parliament, something Jaitley could never achieve in his middling budgets.
Jaitley was Modi's eyes and ears in Delhi. His crucial outreach has heaped abundant rewards. But even Modi said jocularly at a channel’s event: "Arunjee kei pet mein koi baat nahi pachti" (Arun cannot keep a secret).
He's been extremely lucky, getting the lion’s share of portfolios. Jaitley still regularly interferes with the Law Ministry. While an objective assessment of his handling of finance would reveal a very poor performance such assessments are not made either by a Jaitley-friendly media or Modi.
Jaitley, as finance minister, refused to extend support to then beleaguered RBI governor Raghuram Rajan when he was being targeted by Swamy. The Modi government has the awful distinction of losing two RBI Governors in a single term as Jaitley did nothing to prevent the resignation of Urjit Patel. Jaitley was one of the country's highest paid lawyer's, but suspended his licence when he became leader of opposition.
Former BJP leader Arun Shourie says the BJP is a party of two-and-a-half men. The half being Jaitley.
So what next for Jaitley?
He has undergone surgery in the US and it is unclear when he will return. But Jaitley is determined not to fade from the public stage. Will he continue to write scathing blogs, which take pot shots at “urban Naxals” and all other enemies of Modi?
He’s got a brief to defend and the writing skills to spin, which most editors can only dream of.