Modi’s Master

What remains to be seen now is how actively he would be involved in formulating strategies for 2019 Lok Sabha elections to ensure Modi’s return as Prime Minister

By Anil Anand

Emerging stronger after a crushing electoral defeat, that too in the midst of a strong Modi wave, distinguishes Arun Jaitley from the vast league of Indian politicians with the exception of the indomitable Indra Gandhi. By remaining indispensable, irrespective of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being in power or sitting in the opposition, he has clearly established a niche of his own. Further regardless of who leads the BJP regime, be it Atal Bihari Vajpayee or Modi, his position has not only remained secure but has continuously increased in importance.

He has many friends and sympathizers, but the list of his detractors is also spread far and wide both within the BJP and elsewhere. He might not be one of the most influential leaders, in terms of electoral base, of the party but those in awe of his multi-pronged capabilities are a sizable chunk. Not being able to match him move by move, his critics are often seen whisper and squirm, which is no less a compliment. This is Arun Jaitley for you.

There were many, more within the BJP than outside it, who had confidently written his political obituary after he lost Lok Sabha elections from Amritsar in 2014 by over 1.25 lakh votes. The defeat came at a time when candidates from his party as well as other coalition partners romped home, riding the Modi wave. The core reason for his Lok Sabha defeat still eludes many. 

Possible causes range from Shriomani Akali Dal’s Badal duo coming to an agreement on the common cause of plotting Jaitley’s defeat with Congress candidate Captain Amrinder Singh, to his own party men and the RSS in the state conspiring  against him for reasons still unknown. It also remains a mystery as to why he chose Amritsar for his maiden electoral venture ignoring the seven safe seats of Delhi.

Whatever the causes for both his choice of constituency and the outcome of his choice, he incontestably emerged much stronger post his electoral defeat and there has been no looking back for him since. Many prophets of doom, mostly within the BJP, who started counting Jaitley’s days in politics after the Amritsar debacle were either left licking their wounds or are now struggling to maintain their political relevance. Many such BJP leaders, including some heavyweights, are already on the margins with little chance of their fortunes reviving.

So what explains the sustained ascendancy of Arun Jaitley — an eminent lawyer, politician, strategist, economist of sorts, sports administrator and above all a master of political machinations? 

For some sections of the media, he is an absolute darling while at the same time he is despised, with no less intensity, by others. To some in the media he is a trustworthy storyteller and a source of vital news, while other should his press briefings to be akin to one holding a darbar with media persons in attendance to carry the government’s narrative forward while there are others who wish to watch him from a distance even in the hallowed Central Hall of Parliament.

You love him or hate him but you simply cannot afford to ignore him. This dictum befits Jaitley’s multifaceted persona. Both the polarity and the intensity of views of his supporters as well as detractors ensure that the Jaitley saga lives on. It is in this backdrop that the latest chapter of his illness that led to a kidney transplant and subsequent recovery has to be viewed. Despite the fact that all, across the political spectrum, prayed and wished for his quick recovery, the army of prophets of doom did not let this opportunity slip by. However, much to their dismay, their predictions regarding Jaitley’s political future have already gone awry. Though he has still not returned to the corridors of North Block, the Finance Ministry headquarters, but he has more than made up for his absence from office through blogging, social media and video conferencing.

Was the acting Finance Minister Piyush Goel in awe of his senior colleague Jaitely when he refused to occupy the Minister’s chair and instead thought it safe to operate from a sofa-set perched across in the Finance Minister’s office? There definitely is an element of respect and at the same time strong sense of Jaitley’s indispensability that deterred Goel from moving ahead. So the theory, propounded by the prophets of doom and Delhi’s tale carriers, that he has lost confidence of the Prime Minister and that his wings might be clipped proved wrong. Goel’s style of functioning in the finance Ministry, despite being asked to step into the shoes of the Finance Minister from the PMO, shows that there is little merit in this theory or else there would have been some indications of change. The decision of Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian to step down from his position became public only after Jaitley got relived from the hospital. He took to twitter to explain the development and put it in proper perspective. The official narrative is that Subramanian is leaving due to personal commitments. Clearly this explanation was meant to quell rumours that the chief economic adviser was leaving the job as a dis-satisfied person or over a difference of opinion with the Government. The fact that Subramanian waited for Jaitley to be back in action, even if partially, to announce his decision is self-explanatory about the current power structure in BJP particularly in respect of Finance Ministry.

It is unmistakably in stark contrast to the toil faced by another BJP stalwart and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj when she too underwent a kidney transplant. While she was surely active on twitter as soon as her medical condition permitted her but her role was limited to some routine activities related to her Ministry, her involvement fell short of policy decisions and intervention on matters political. The manner in which Jaitely took to blogging and social media airing views and giving opinion on important matters related to governance and politics and regularly sniping at Congress president Rahul Gandhi, has left no one in any doubt about his significance in the present dispensation. It has definitely not diminished.

Jaitley, as is widely known is a politician without a base despite having spent a life time in Delhi’s politics and having been elected as president of the prestigious Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) long back. He was never known to carry money bags till he made it big in legal profession but still he managed to remain in the limelight and be a darling even of the veterans such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishan Advani.

His significance in Vajpayee government is well-known though he was not a senior minister at that time. Even when the two stalwarts were having strong differences on political and governmental issues, Jaitley surprisingly was in equal demand in both the camps. On any important issue confronting either the Vajpayee or Advani camp, “Arunji” was much sought after as his legal and intellectual inputs would prove handy. In turn he knew how to politically encash such a situation and create a halo of indispensability around him.

Many of us did not take Jaitely seriously when, much before 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he started talking about the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Bhai Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate in the days to come. Initially no one took this seriously but Jaitley’s persistent argument that only Modi with his “Gujarat success story” and “frugal and honest” image could bring BJP back to power ultimately prevailed.

Many would not believe that Jaitley was ready to forego his political guru and the ‘RathYatri’ who scripted BJP’s story of transformation from an opposition to a ruling party. Definitely, he was reading the political currents correctly and accordingly threw his weight behind Modi at a time when none  among the BJP’s top brass could even fathom such a scenario.  

There is considerable truth in the story of him not enjoying full support of the RSS and that Nagpur, though not daring openly knowing Modi’s backing to him, was opposed to various moves of the Finance Ministry. The irrepressible Subramanian Swamy coming out of the political wilderness to merge his one-man outfit Janata Party with BJP to ultimately bag a Rajya Sabha seat was not without a plan. And the ploy behind his political resurrection by RSS was to use him as a checkmate against Jaitley which is evident from the regular tirade and criticism that Swamy has been launching against the Finance Minister. The one possible strong ire of RSS against Jaitley is said to be his close proximity to the high and mighty corporates.

Swamy and certain frontal outfits of the RSS including Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh have been brazenly criticizing Jaitley and blaming him for certain financial policies as they dare not directly target the Prime Minister. However, he has remained unscathed and his position as Finance Minister and a think-tank of the BJP has also remained intact despite total silence on the part of Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. It is important that they have not come out openly in Jaitley’s support but it is much more significant that the duo has given no credence to anti-Finance Minister Tirade.

As a result Swamy continues his pin-pricks but has not dared to cross the proverbial limit in Jaitley’s case. Contrary to his habit of being unsparing to all and sparing none from leveling allegations, he is still guarded when publicly speaking about the PM in the Finance Ministry’s context though he keeps sniping on Jaitley in one context or the other. Interestingly, Swamy’s earlier bragging that he could have handled a particular issue better than the existing Finance Minister if given that office, seems to have lost its way. Has he realised the futility of targeting Jaitley without first forcing Modi to change his opinion about him?

Take the case of former Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan against whom Swamy had launched a vicious campaign demanding his removal.  On a number of occasions he dragged the Finance Minister and blamed him for protecting Rajan and instead of sacking him. Undeterred by Swamy’s diatribes Jaitley steadfastly stood his ground and allowed Rajan to complete his term.  

This should also be seen as an exhibition of Jaitely’s utility and strength even in the totally centralized Modi dispensation. This is despite the fact that he is disliked by many within the BJP, perhaps due to the fact that some of his own cabinet colleagues fear that they might get bad press because of his strong relations with media organizations if they dare oppose him openly. The fears are not misplaced as the past events suggest.  

It is not a hidden fact that though Modi singlehandedly won 2014 Lok Sabha elections for BJP but he recognizes Jaitley’s contribution in setting the stage from where he could take off. Jaitley had acted as the back room boy long before the run up to the elections.

He has been contributing in a major way to the BJP and the government for over two decades. His importance for the BJP and the Modi government can be counted at least on half a dozen fronts.

Despite to disliking of many of his partymen and to the surprise of entire political spectrum, Modi had at the time of allocating portfolios after being sworn-in on May 26, 2014 made Jaitley in charge of two powerful portfolios of Finance and Defense together. The significance of this arrangement can be gauged from the fact that out of the four members of the high-powered Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) two slots remained with him by dint of holding these to Ministries. The remaining two were the Home and External Affair Ministers.

This was a clear reflection of where Jaitley stood and his significance in the eyes of PM Modi and for the BJP government. It is another matter that later the then Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar became the Defense Minister after months of criticism. But the message had already been sent across about the importance of being Jaitley in Modi’s scheme of things both before and after the Lok Sabha elections-2014.

With Jaitley in the Finance Minister’s seat, the Modi government took several important economic initiatives of far reaching consequences such as demonetization, merger of Railways budget with General Budget and implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST) among others. It is another matter that he had to face lot of flak also but that was the cost he had to pay for being the Prime Minister’s close confidant.

The run which he had started by first becoming the Law Minister in Vajpayee government by replacing a more fancied and a bigger legal luminary Ram Jethmalani, is continuing towards ascendancy. Jethmalani has not till date forgiven Jaitely as he blames the latter for plotting his ouster from the Vajpayee Ministry.

Apart fromSubramanian Swamy, who came into the picture only after Modi came to power, Jaitely had already been facing the ire of Jethmalani who had been lambasting him both inside and outside the Parliament. The might of both Jethmalani and Swamy put together has been inconsequential in harming their common target in any manner. The two veterans continue to pour scorn on him without causing any harm to Jaitley.

The Modi-Jaitely relationship did not suddenly blossom on the eve of last Lok Sabha elections. Ostensibly, he is believed to have played an important role when Modi was stuck on a muddy wicket in the aftermath of infamous Gujarat riots. Probably, the shrewd Jaitely had foreseen how the future political developments would unfold. He had at the time, as the Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, led the attack from the front and cornered the UPA Government on all grounds while continuously backing Modi for a bigger role ahead.

Is it not ironic that when several senior BJP leaders including Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj were either opposing Modi as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate or were not very favourably inclined towards the idea, Jaitley went all out to support him? No, it was not pure irony by any stretch of imagination but a deftly planned political move which was to augur well for BJP and Jaitley in future.  Joining him in this endeavour, though at a later stage, was Rajnath Singh who ultimately became the Home Minister.

The outcome is that he outsmarted most of senior party colleagues and remains to be the most powerful Minister despite the current system functioning in a totally centralized. Not having any mass base seems to have become irrelevant to Jaitley’s political growth. He seems to have made up for this weakness through his deft political insight with a keen eye on future and at the same time capability to be a trouble-shooter. He had done trouble-shooting a number of occasions during the Vajpayee-Advani era with aplomb. Apparently, he as an even more powerful Minister now has been performing the same duty, though away from public gaze, with the same spirit.

In the aftermath of sudden demise of Pramod Mahajan, Jaitley emerged as the most important strategist despite many veteran leaders being around during Vajpayee-Advani era. The streak continues with Jaitley having emerged as a more-deft strategist than ever before.

Having further grown in stature, his influence and friendly relations across the corporate-media spectrum and even among the opposition parties have apparently made him more incisive a political strategist.

Jaitley will be starting a fresh innings as soon as he returns to his North Block office though he has already given a notice of his intentions through blogging and use of social media on matters political and that of governance. This is despite the fact that his friends and foes alike counseling him to focus on recouping after the surgery rather than diving headlong in political matters.

What remains to be seen now is how actively would he be involved in formulating strategies for 2019 Lok Sabha elections to ensure Modi’s return as Prime Minister? Will he confine himself, as Finance Minister, to defending the Government on the issues of demonetization and GST or will he go all out simultaneously to plan electoral strategies? This would be known once he gets back into full gear after full recovery.