Sixty-six-year-old Arun Jaitley, who died on Saturday, was a quintessential gentleman-politician, a rare breed indeed in the present polity. A successful lawyer, he had no need to breach the moral and legal code---something his peers in the profession who double as politicians are widely known to be justifiably notorious for. He did not become a politician to make money. He became active in politics at a time when it was hard to find decent people with a promising career ahead of them to take on the might of the authoritarian regime of Indira Gandhi. One of the first to be picked up by the police on the first day of Indira Gandhi’s draconian emergency, he spent nineteen months in prison. He was the President of the Delhi University Students’ Union at the time. Given his easy grasp of legal and political matters and his superb power of articulation, the then Jana Sangh offered him the Lok Sabha ticket in the election held soon after the end of the emergency in 1977. But he was underage and therefore unqualified to contest.
But his association with the party grew steadily, even as he made strides in the legal profession. Not many people may recall that he was made the additional solicitor general by the V P Singh government in which position he did a lot to unravel the Bofors payoffs mystery. Recognizing his talent, the BJP President L K Advani groomed him further. As a party general secretary, Jaitley undertook the onerous task of overseeing elections for the BJP in key states such as Gujarat and Bihar, registering victories in both. Vajpayee rewarded him with ministership after he had done an excellent job of fronting for the party as its chief media spokesperson. Law and Justice as well as Information and Broadcasting Ministries were under his charge and both were professionally stewarded. For, his innate sense of propriety and correct decision-making never deserted him. It is remarkable that despite his long stint as a minister first in the NDA I and later in NDA II, there was not a hint of scandal about him. As Finance Minster in NDA II, he did a commendable job of keeping inflation down, ensuring a healthy environment for equity markets and growth and generally steering away from questionable decisions.
Demonetization was not his doing, having been enforced at the behest of the Prime Minster Modi himself. But what were his decisions are bound to benefit the country on a long-term basis. The first was the passage of the GST Bill, a proposal pending for years, stuck due to the lack of consensus among the States and the Centre. His reasonableness and power of persuasion brought both the States and the Centre on the same page. Despite initial glitches in its implementation, GST now is the most outstanding reform since Independence. Again, the long-pending bankruptcy law, which for the first time made borrowers from banks and other financial institutions accountable, disallowing the shoot-and-scam habit of the corporate sector to enrich themselves personally with stolen funds at the cost of the banking system. It is because of the bankruptcy law that hitherto big names in the corporate sector have had to part with their industries at the pain of penal action for not returning bank loans. But, above all else, it were his qualities of head and heart that endeared him to people across the political spectrum.
Never to attack the political rivals under the belt, and quietly rendering assistance to those under attack even from the Opposition, Jaitely thrived on consensus-building, bridge-building across parties. Despite being the most articulate and prominent face of the government and party, it speaks volumes for his ingrained sense of decency and fairness that he did not evoke hatred. In a party whose members often tend to shoot off their mouths be it on ‘gau raksha’ or love jihad, he was a moderating influence. It is hard to find another genuinely liberal-secularist face in the BJP, seeped as most BJP leaders are in the divisive narrative of the mother organization. Not only will the BJP but the polity at large will miss his sobering influence.