Arun Jaitley: All that was good about Indian politics

In this world full of prevaricating politicians who either cannot string together a whole meaningful sentence or ones who have no substance to offer and yet are inebriated by the exuberance of their own verbosity, Arun Ji was someone who knew it all, and could persuade even a five year old (which is what more often than not he had to do in parliament) with his articulate and passionately put arguments. Although he would never die in our hearts and minds has become a part of the way we think and essential to our ideology, if there were an epitaph for him, it would read this: “Let’s be very clear about this”, as he would always say. This shall reverberate in my ears for as long as I think.

Indeed he wanted things to be very clear, that was his life and mission, whenever a decision was taken he knew exactly what he was doing and what needed to be done to make it work. This by far was the single most important yet singular quality that Jaitley Ji possessed. Public administration and governance is not only about right or wrong it’s often about order and chaos. When an organisation whether it be the party or the government “democratically” takes a decision which in its opinion would do public good, some of the consequences of that decision might not be preempted, this is what in political dictionaries is called a “brave” decision, it then becomes the “collective responsibility” of the members to do what it takes to cause minimum chaos and get the best results out of that decision. This requires the art of adaptability and moderation. It cannot be stressed enough that one needs to understand the nuances of the issue and its repercussions deeply to adapt and moderate. Arun Ji was the master of this art. His opponents might remember him for famously justifying the obstruction of parliament as a legitimate form of protest, but what they forget is his use of the word “sometimes”.

It is this art of moderation that is so difficult to inculcate. He knew best when an obstruction was constructive and gave voice to the public outcry and when it drifted towards opposition for the sake of opposition, and hence became counterproductive to the people’s mandate. Although he also knew that his understanding in such situations was subjective and would always hear the other side with an open and adaptive mind. To the contrary, on issues of fact, he was unforgiving. You could not hide behind the charade of rhetoric if you were wrong. He demolished both inside and outside parliament, the Rafale deal allegations which were based on fallacies analogous to comparing apples with oranges.

On issues of genuine concern and for the public good, he was not a trouble shooter, he was a trouble manager, he respected the gravity of situations and would never bypass the contrary opinions. Democratic to his soul, this was a man who spent 19 months in jail for opposing the emergency, yet later worked shoulder to shoulder with many leaders from the same party for public good, just because he respected the people’s mandate, and did not believe that people were stupid just because they did not agree with him.
GST was a mission waiting for the right man, and Jaitley ji’s democratic spirit made him the man for the job. It would not be a stretch to claim that no contemporary politician had the combination of intellect, adaptability, principled moderation, articulation, authority, respectability, affability and above all a strong sense of duty that could have made the GST council work and to everyone’s surprise take decisions by consensus. The variety of issues being discussed and the different vested interests of states and stakeholders made it impossible for governments of the past two and a half decades to come to an agreement, forget about a consensus, even a majority decision on most issues remained illusive. The GST law itself was a masterpiece, a great advancement over the UPA era law, allowing space for the grievances of the producer states, who felt cheated and would have never come on board had it not been the moderation, acumen and leadership of Jaitley ji.  The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code was another milestone in his tenure as finance minister, another example of his art of addressing short term crises with a medium to long term solution and not by mere reaction leading to precipitate actions.

He understood that in the long run for the economy to succeed one needs to give leeway to risk takers, encourage companies to take calculated risks. Risks lead to the creation of new niches in the economy and propels it forward creating jobs and capital on the way. When risks are taken some failures are bound to occur, the IBC would help resolve such failures where there was no negligence not via punitive action but via resolution based on a consensus of all stakeholders. The universal insurance and contributory pension schemes and the income support initiative for farmers are also examples of how he believed in strengthening the people of India rather than giving them crutches of doles and subsidies. His vision was one of a nation where individuals stood up for themselves and each other and government’s role was limited to creating the right environment for growth by ensuring national security, providing economic incentives for risk takers and strengthening democratic institutions. Whether it was accountability within the party, at the RBI or in the Supreme Court he always believed in democratic setups.

He fought for them till his last day, when he wrote supporting the government’s decision to remove article 370 and hence fulfilling its mandate, its democratic responsibility. Replying to Ghulam Nabi Azad in the Rajya Sabha he had said that when the history of Jammu and Kashmir will be told in the decades to come it will be understood that the ideology of unification and integration propelled by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee proved much more productive than Pt. Nehru’s actions of pacifying the separatists. I am sure he will be proven right.

First with Shushma Ji and now him gone, parliamentary debates will no longer be either enlightening or fun to watch. They would lack Arun ji’s punch of legal and constitutional nuances, the affable wit and humor with which he once said to Shashi Tharoor that Shashi you should know better since atleast you read before you write, will also be missed. Above all it was the substance of the debate that he always brought to the forefront, rebutting people point by point he would always make things “very clear”. I will miss him like many many Indians.

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