Arun Jaitley’s demise a debilitating blow to India’s body politic; the intellectual giant leaves behind a void difficult to fill
Jaitley was a Colossus among men, a towering intellectual, one of the first satyagrahis against Emergency, a scholar, legal luminary, philanthropist, a cricket enthusiast who took keen interest in the game’s administration
The former Union minister was a Colossus among men, a towering intellectual, one of the first satyagrahis against Emergency, a scholar, legal luminary, philanthropist, a cricket enthusiast who took keen interest in the game’s administration
Among the staggering losses that the country in general and the BJP, in particular, have suffered one after another of late, Arun Jaitley’s demise on Saturday after a prolonged battle with illness is probably the cruelest and most debilitating of all.
The former Union minister was a Colossus among men, a towering intellectual, one of the first satyagrahis against Emergency, a scholar, legal luminary, philanthropist, a cricket enthusiast who took keen interest in the game’s administration, an efficient public servant who handled several Union ministry portfolios with élan, a riveting debater in Parliament, an orator par excellence, a politician for all seasons and the NDA-1’s chief troubleshooter who enjoyed wide respectability across party divides.
He was a master of all that he surveyed. And he surveyed a lot, letting his wisdom and intellect shine through.
Jaitley was on life support and his condition steadily deteriorated since he was admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi on 9 August due to breathlessness and restlessness. He was on life support since Tuesday. The AIIMS released a statement announcing Jaitley’s demise at 12.07 pm on Saturday.
— Doordarshan News (@DDNewsLive) August 24, 2019
The former Union finance and defence minister had been keeping indifferent health since undergoing a renal transplant in May 2018 and his Cabinet colleague Piyush Goyal had to fill in for him in the finance ministry.
Jaitley returned to assume office in August but it was evident that his health was posing a number of challenges in discharging his responsibilities.
Jaitley’s chronic diabetic condition had caused multiple issues, also necessitating a weight-reducing bariatric surgery in 2014. Jaitley had refused to contest the 2019 elections ostensibly on health grounds and had requested the prime minister to relieve him of all responsibilities when Narendra Modi returned to power.
Even when he was indisposed and unable to carry out the demands of his job, Jaitley’s intellect remained sharp as ever as he was often the tip of government’s spear in battling political rivals and refuting Opposition’s allegations of corruption through reasoned and logical commentaries in public domain.
A prolific columnist, Jaitley’s widely followed blog and Facebook page carries the imprint of an intellectual who held forth on wide variety of topics including articulating the government’s positions on crucial issues such as triple talaq, abrogation of Article 370, GST as well as spirited defence of the Rafale deal against Opposition’s charges of graft.
But to reduce Jaitley to the sum total of his intellectual contribution would be misleading. He was, in true sense of the word, an allrounder.
Jaitley’s political career started early, and it was a trial by fire. As a leader with ABVP, BJP’s student wing, and an alumna of Delhi’s St Xavier’s School and SRCC college, Jaitley became the president of the Students Union of Delhi University (DUSU) in 1974 and spent 19 months in jail during the Emergency. In his own words, he was the “first satyagrahi” against Emergency imposed by former PM Indira Gandhi on 25 June, 1975, when “constitutional provisions were used to turn democracy into a constitutional dictatorship,” wrote Jaitley in a blog.
Jaitley has written extensively about the darkest period of India’s democracy and his involvement in the period — when all democratic institutions in India were either under assault or had “collapsed on their own” — and it evidently shaped his own political future. Jaitley has termed the proclamation of Emergency by Indira Gandhi as “phoney” and pointed out that the former prie minister’s dictatorial ways left a gangrenous wound on India’s body politic where one person’s lust for power “created an environment of tyranny and fear in the society.” The fact that Jaitley’s own political career was coincidentally just taking off may have left a lasting impression.
In his three-part blog recounting the early days of Emergency, Jaitley writes how he escaped from his house on 26 June, 1975, when cops came to arrest him as part of a maneuver to detain all political leaders opposed to Indira. The electricity connection was snapped at Bahadurshah Zafar Marg – Delhi’s Press Street — to “ensure that no newspapers were published” and an official installed in every newspaper’s office to ensure media’s compliance with Indira’s orders.
“I led a protest of Delhi University Students where we burnt effigy of the Emergency and I delivered a speech against what was happening. The police had arrived in large number. I got arrested only to be served a detention order under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). I was taken to Delhi’s Tihar Jail for the purpose of detention. I thus got the privilege for organizing the only protest on the morning of 26th June 1975 and became the first Satyagrahi against the Emergency. Little did I realize that at a young age of 22 years, I was participating in events which were going to be a part of history. For me, this event changed the future course of my life. By late afternoon, I was lodged in Tihar Jail as a MISA detenu.”
Jaitley would later go on to use the experience garnered during this turbulent time not only as the cornerstone of his political career but also use Emergency as the dipstick against which careers of politicians are to be measured. While refuting frequent charges of ‘Undeclared Emergency’ leveled against the Modi government by political opponents, Jaitley, in a 2017 blog post wrote: “It has become customary for the critics of any Government in India to casually use an expression “Undeclared Emergency”. Those making these exaggerated comments need to introspect their own roles during the Emergency. Most of them were either supporting the Emergency or were absent in any protest against the Emergency.”
As a lawyer, Jaitley’s career took off after Emergency as he first practiced in Delhi High Court and then as senior advocate in Supreme Court before joining BJP in 1980 and becoming the Additional Solicitor General of India in 1989. Jaitley did the paperwork for the infamous Bofors scandal that singed Rajiv Gandhi in 1990 and also represented Government of India at the United Nations General Assembly Session in June 1998.
Jaitley handled various portfolios during the two stints of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministership and as a Rajya Sabha MP, left a lasting impression as a Parliamentarian and Leader of Opposition during UPA-2 years. Among all the heartfelt messages from politicians across the board, perhaps the most touching one came from Kapil Sibal, senior Congress leader and Jaitley’s political rival.
"Very sorry to learn that Arun Jaitley is no more . An old friend and a dear colleague will be remembered for his seminal contributions to the polity and as FM of India . As Leader of Opposition he was without match . He always stood steadfastly for his friends and for his party," Sibal tweeted.
During Modi’s first tenure as prime minister, Jaitley’s contribution in rolling out the GST — India’s biggest tax reform — will remain seminal. It won’t just be because of the complexities involved and his role as an economic reformer but equally for the fact that Jaitley succeeded where previous leaders failed: in creating consensus and unanimity for the politically sensitive project.
That said, the gamut of Jaitley’s contribution in nearly all walk of public life is difficult to capture. He inspired a generation of leaders within BJP and played mentor to a host of others, as Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta has noted, left his mark as a statesman and consensus builder and was also a philanthropist — a little-known aspect of his life.
Arun Jaitley was more than a friend since 1972. He was my political mentor, a sounding board & a man could laugh with & see the funny side of politics. His death is a national loss; to me it is the loss of someone who I could go to always. Be happy my dear friend. I will miss you
— Swapan Dasgupta (@swapan55) August 24, 2019
Really sad to hear this. Arun Jaitley supported lawyers across the political spectrum. He was so generous to his team that a staff member's child went abroad to study with Mr. Jaitley's support while his own child chose to go to a Delhi college. Rest in Peace. https://t.co/kmusrU4uA8
— Karuna Nundy (@karunanundy) August 24, 2019
The greatest tribute to him was perhaps given by the prime minister himself. Away in the UAE on an official visit, Modi posted a series of tweet highlighting Jaitley’s contribution and the nature of the void that has been created. At 66, Jaitley departed relatively early but leaves behind a legacy impossible to fulfill. To quote from Tennyson’s Ulysses, Jaitley followed “knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
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