reportage

Talk Of the Town

How Arun Jaitley wins friends and influences people

By PRAVEEN DONTHI | 1 May 2015

| ONE |

IN 2012, two years before Arun Jaitley became the most important minister in Narendra Modi’s cabinet, the news that the ruling United Progressive Alliance’s allocation of coal blocks may have cost the government thousands of crores and unfairly benefited private interests, incapacitated the parliament’s monsoon session. Bharatiya Janata Party parliamentarians threatened to resign en masse, and Jaitley, then the BJP’s opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha, aggressively spoke out against what he called “the biggest scam in independent India.”

As the stymied parliament session ground to a halt that August, Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, his counterpart in the Lok Sabha, released a fierce joint statement. “We used this session of Parliament to shake the conscience of the people of India,” they wrote. “This is not merely a political battle. It is a battle for safeguarding the economic resources for a larger public good.” In a press conference, Jaitley called the allocation process “arbitrary,” “discretionary,” and “corrupt,” “a textbook case of crony capitalism.” In an opinion piece in The Hindu, titled “Defending the Indefensible,” he wrote “the government was so overenthusiastic in continuing the discretionary process in allotment” that it did not institute the “competitive bidding mechanism” that would have ensured a more just process of allocation.

A few years earlier, Jaitley had offered a different type of opinion to Strategic Energy Technology Systems Private Limited, an ambitious joint venture between Tata Sons and a South African firm, in his capacity as a practicing lawyer. When applying for coal blocks in 2008, SETSPL, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the allocation process, sought Jaitley’s advice on whether it could avoid sharing a certain part of its profits with the government. Jaitley provided the company with a 21-page legal opinion, via the law offices of his college friend Raian Karanjawala, recognising that “the Govt. of India is entitled to adopt a procedure for allocation of coal blocks,” and that the company was not legally bound to share the proposed profits with the government. Jaitley’s arguments in support of SETSPL indicated that he had been well aware of the prevailing coal block allocation process despite his hue and cry about “the monumental fraud.”

Shortly after the coal scam broke, the legal opinion was made available to the press by one or more UPA ministers. As the BJP fanned the flames of protest against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—alleging that he had allowed controversial allocations under his watch as coal minister—the leaked opinion, a potential hot tip, became a hot potato. The document was passed around between journalists, including senior staff at the Times of India, the Economic Times, Headlines Today, NDTV and CNBC. But in each case, the story of Jaitley’s inconsistent outrage was withheld.

A mid-level journalist at Headlines Today said that the office of P Chidambaram, the union home minister at the time, gave the channel the story of the leak as “an exclusive,” and that it ran once before being taken off the air. The journalist was told by his senior, who said he had spoken to Jaitley, that though he believed in “the merits of the story,” Jaitley had argued the leaked document was “a private opinion.” “I have always believed what the editor thinks is right,” the journalist said, smiling, “so I said okay.”

Another journalist who had the document told me that Jaitley wrote a letter to the vice president, who is chairman of the Rajya Sabha, complaining “that the intelligence agencies were trying to tarnish his reputation. The vice president’s office had confirmed it to me,” the journalist said. “The bureau chief wanted Jaitley’s comment, but he wasn’t willing to talk about the issue at all. So the story was not carried.” Only one journalist actually spoke to Jaitley about the opinion, but colleagues who knew about the interview, which never ran, said he was unsatisfied with Jaitley’s answers. The journalist didn’t want to share details of the meeting to avoid “creating discomfort” to his colleagues. “And remember he is the finance minister,” he said. “I don’t want to upset him.”

A year later, the story of the legal opinion finally appeared, but on the non-mainstream news website Altgaze, without the impact it might have had earlier. Several journalists joked with me about Jaitley having rustled up the “Jaitley Press Corps”—a twist on the Joint Parliamentary Committee—to quell the news.

 

FOR LEADERS with mass support bases, life in the public eye is an exercise in reassuring a particular constituency of one’s ability to represent it. A leader like Arun Jaitley, whose support base is his range of contacts in the media, judiciary and corporate world, requires a different public image—in his case the portrayal of the refined, well-spoken Delhi insider who can navigate his less-polished colleagues through the shifting currents of India’s national politics as they eddy around the power centre of the capital. For four decades, Jaitley has stayed afloat on these currents, embracing the primary political imperative of change, and impressively adapting to it. Jaitley’s steady rise in what one senior journalist with a daily paper called “the limited talent pool of the BJP,” and his importance to his party was affirmed a year ago, when Modi awarded him with the high-profile finance portfolio, as well as the portfolios for corporate affairs and defence. Jaitley had charge of defence until last November, when he took up information and broadcasting.

In a notoriously tight-lipped regime, Jaitley is, to a great extent, entrusted with speaking. He has always loved to hold court, and his door is typically wider ajar than those of his colleagues in the party. The Telegraph described a typical encounter in an interview with Jaitley, freshly glowing from his success in managing the 2008 Karnataka assembly elections. Jaitley:

puts his feet up, settling down for his ritual informal chat with journalists after the daily press briefing. That’s when the gregarious college boy in Jaitley comes to the fore. His sharp political insights are then peppered with pithy one-liners, jokes which have him convulsing with laughter more than his assembled audience. He occasionally mimics other politicians.

A news editor called Jaitley “a raconteur who can regale you with great stories and nuggets of information. It can make you feel part of the club—a heady drug for all journalists and a validation that you are part of something important.” A political editor of a leading newspaper said, “he wouldn’t mind sharing very personal details of his friends for the entertainment of others.”

The political editor told me, “I am not a BJP-friendly reporter. And I have not been nice to him in print.” But Jaitley “continues to be friendly to me.” Yet access to Jaitley’s durbar comes with its own set of challenges, and some journalists argued that there is a quid pro quo involved. A veteran journalist, who has covered the BJP for 30 years, told me “Either you are with him completely and planted stories on Rajnath and Sushma”—Rajnath Singh, former BJP president and current minister of home affairs; and Sushma Swaraj, now minister of external affairs—“otherwise his doors will still be open and you can have tea but he will give you no information whatsoever.” Another political editor, who has also covered the BJP since the 1980s, noted that Jaitley’s anecdotes “may not yield a story immediately … but if you tuck it away at the back of your mind, you can join the dots and complete the picture some other time.”

The news editor described Jaitley’s slightly distracted manner of talking as a “classic power move” to disorient people and keep them guessing as to whether the information they have is important or not. “You can’t pin him down on any topic,” the senior journalist at the daily paper said. “He controls the terms and conditions of the discussion.” (Jaitley did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Caravan, nor to a list of questions sent to him.)

A journalist repeated a joke he heard from the editor and former BJP MP and cabinet minister Arun Shourie, that Jaitley is a mass leader—with a mass base of six journalists. Yet his influence belies this as understatement; only a handful of the 68 people I spoke to, most of them journalists or politicians, were willing to talk about Jaitley on the record. “Half the Delhi claims to know you,” a television journalist told me he once remarked to Jaitley, who reportedly replied, “Half the Delhi won’t be lying.”

 

I MET THE SELF-STYLED MARKETING GURU Suhel Seth in the executive lounge of Delhi’s Taj Palace hotel in early January, about two months before his paean to Jaitley, titled ‘My Friend Arun,’ appeared in Open magazine. The two first met during the 1999 general elections, when Seth was hired to design material for Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministerial campaign, and have remained close. Describing Jaitley as “the life of the party within his circle,” Seth told me about a room in his own house called Jaitley’s den, “where he meets the select few” from across professions and party lines. Among the regulars, Seth counted senior advocates Raian Karanjawala and Rajiv Nayar; Shobhana Bhartia, a former Rajya Sabha MP and the editorial director of the Hindustan Times Group; and Congress MP Jyotiraditya Scindia.

“Several times I wanted to shut the bloody den down, but he would open it again,” Seth said. “Jaitley loves to yak, Raian loves to yak,” and the friends gather to talk about “the good things in life … cashmere, holidays, food.” Jaitley has often stated that being a politician is a financial sacrifice, compared to being a full-time lawyer, but whenever his detractors make fun of his love of expensive shawls, watches and pens, his friends point out that they are all legally bought.

In a 2010 piece for Outlook, Jaitley wrote, “I am a Punjabi by birth and by culture, and as any good Punjabi will tell you—‘Changa khana te changa paana.’ (You must eat and dress well).” “It matters to him how you speak, how you dress, the address where you live, the class to which you belong, the kind of car you drive,” the political editor said. “He’s snobbish in a Delhi way.” Several people, including a former BJP general secretary, told me one reason Jaitley has never been the party’s president is the elitism he is identified with.

In the past, Jaitley’s projection of himself as modern, moderate and liberal—traits that appeal to a certain segment of Delhi’s journalistic, business and intellectual elite—have evoked suspicion among more hard-line members of the BJP, and its ideological affiliate, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In 2011 The Hindu reported a Wikileaks cable disclosure in which Jaitley was quoted as characterising the “talking point” of Hindutva “as an opportunistic issue” for his party. Jaitley issued a denial, but the idea that his attachment to the BJP is more expedient than ideological predated this controversy, and has persisted beyond it.

Yet his upper-class smoothness has also made him invaluable as the BJP expands. In 1999, the journalist Swapan Dasgupta (who declined to be interviewed, citing his friendship with Jaitley), wrote in India Today that “In a party plagued by an image problem, he made the BJP respectable among the chattering classes and was rewarded.” He predicted, “As the BJP moves from the fringes to becoming a liberal, right-wing party, the Sangh Parivar will look to him as a winning face of the next century.” Jaitley’s friend Virendra Kapoor, a journalist and an RSS loyalist, told me Jaitley hates the label, often attached to him, of being the “right man in the wrong party.”

A prominent lobbyist in Delhi, referring to Jaitley’s indignation over the coal scam told me one “part of him is public—that is liberal and modern.” The other “is the shrewd strategist side that you don’t get to see.” Explaining how Jaitley has stayed so close to the centre of power over the last several decades, the lobbyist drew a contrast between him and the prime minister. “Modi rules by fear,” he said, “and Jaitley by favour.”

 

| TWO |

 

ARUN JAITLEY WAS BORN IN NEW DELHI, in December 1952, to a family that had moved there from Lahore via Amritsar during Partition. Jaitley’s father, a lawyer, began practicing in the capital, where Jaitley attended St Xavier’s, a missionary school in Civil Lines. According to a school friend, he was an average student who wanted to be an engineer, but instead joined Delhi University’s Shri Ram College of Commerce. Karanjawala told me Jaitley was a B-plus student but an avid debater; he was captain of the debate team and won several gold medals. His image as an erudite public-school boy, refined at university, shaped the course of his political career.

In the early 1970s, India’s campuses were political crucibles for Jayaprakash Narayan’s growing movement against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s increasingly iron-fisted policies. Many politicians, including Lalu Prasad Yadav, Sushil Modi, Nitish Kumar, Venkaiah Naidu and Ravi Shankar Prasad, first emerged as student leaders, and Jaitley, too, was introduced into the world of campaigning and elections in this manner.

Jaitley was initially part of what his acquaintances referred to as the “left club.” In 1971, he met Sri Ram Khanna, a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a right-wing student organisation allied with the RSS. “We were angry young men,” Khanna said when I met him in January. “Anti-Congress-ism was the mood of the campus politics across the country those days. An entire crop of young people got assimilated in the ABVP.” Several of them, such as Naidu and Nitin Gadkari, later became top BJP leaders. Others, such as Prabhu Chawla and Rajat Sharma, became powerful editors. Khanna, now a professor at Shri Ram College of Commerce, said he “inducted” Jaitley into politics, nominating him for the post of supreme councillor—one of ten electors in charge of indirectly voting in the president of the Delhi University Students Union. In 1972, Khanna became the DUSU president, and Jaitley replaced him as the president of the Shri Ram College union.

By the next year, Jaitley had embarked upon a law degree at Delhi University—following in the footsteps of his father, uncle and two cousins. He was expected to be the ABVP’s presidential candidate for 1973, but instead the ABVP chose Alok Kumar, a member of the RSS. Even Kumar, who went on to become a BJP MLA from Delhi, told me he thought it was Jaitley’s turn, “because he was more active in politics. I was more into shakha work.” However the defection of the ABVP’s first elected DUSU president, Khanna’s predecessor, to its Congress-affiliated rival, the National Students’ Union of India, “sent panic waves. So the ABVP wanted to pick up a swayamsevak,” Kumar said.

It wouldn’t be the last time Jaitley, with his friends across party lines and a reputation for fitting in anywhere, was passed over for a candidate seemingly more committed to the ideology of the RSS and its affiliates. But eventually, the very things that made him somewhat of an outsider—“He could speak English fluently, and it wasn’t common in the Parishad family,” Kumar said—also made him useful. Khanna told me they had to persuade the RSS to give Jaitley the vice presidential ticket. “And we literally had to force him to file the nomination because he was so cheesed off,” he said. Denied top billing, Jaitley made the most of an important secondary position.

 

IN 1974, the student’s union had its first direct elections. By this time, Jaitley was considered a shoo-in for president, but the banner he would run under was an open question. Pankaj Vohra, a senior editor with the Sunday Guardian who was then a member of the NSUI, told me Jaitley “was considered to be a winner regardless of the party. The Congress also wanted to woo him.” A senior ABVP leader of the time told me it took Prabhu Chawla, the ABVP’s Delhi head, and Rajkumar Bhatia, another leader, three days to persuade the RSS to give Jaitley the ticket.

Vohra told me that “Jaitley was seen being openly approached by Bahadur Singh and Kulbir Singh of the Congress in the Law Faculty,” after which the ABVP “announced his candidature in a hurry.” According to Ravi Gupta, a businessman who was also an ABVP member, the announcement came as a surprise to the NSUI, which was supporting Jaitley. Jaitley “may dispute it now,” Vohra said, “but in 1974, he could have as well been a Congress candidate.” For Jaitley, casting his lot with the ABVP paid off, and he won the election by a wide margin.

Jaitley was an effective president, Kumar, Khanna and others told me, due to his managerial skills. “He had mastered the university calendar, including the statutes and ordinances,” Vohra said. “The university officers found it difficult to counter him.” He added that Jaitley had the patronage of AS Kukla, the dean of student welfare and staff adviser to DUSU: “As both were Brahmins, Jaitley was able to get things done.”

Jaitley also plunged headlong into Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement. He was the convener of Narayan’s Committee for Youth and Students Organisations, and travelled to Patna and Ahmedabad to attend conventions. Ram Bahadur Rai, a Padma Shri awardee and a member of the movement’s steering committee, recalled that Jaitley organised a public meeting with Narayan at Delhi University, and a two-day student conference in March 1974. According to the friend of a woman Jaitley was romancing at the time, he was so swept up that he missed his own engagement ceremony. “He came back a couple of days later and told her that his friends took him to Patna for some rally,” the friend said.

After Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, on 26 June 1975, Jaitley was in the thick of the protests against the suspension of civil liberties. Student activists were among the many dissenters arrested—Jaitley described his own experience in a commemorative Facebook post last June:

On the evening of 25th June, 1975 a massive rally was organized at Ramlila Maidan which was addressed by JP and several other leaders. After attending the rally I came back home late in the evening … At about 2 AM past midnight, I received a midnight knock at my residence. The police had come to arrest me. My father, a lawyer by profession got into an argument outside the gate of my house … I escaped from the backdoor…

The next morning, Jaitley organised what he called “the only protest against the Emergency which took place that day in the whole country,” where about 200 people gathered before the police arrived. Jaitley has also said that he “courted arrest”; a college friend remembers him running through the university coffee house shouting “Main bhaag raha hoon”—I’m running away—before being picked up by the police. “He knew he was going to be arrested,” Karanjawala told me. “But nobody really knew how long it would last. Arun may have thought that he would come out in a week.” Jaitley was sent first to Ambala Jail, then shifted to Tihar Jail in Delhi. He was imprisoned for 19 months.

Jaitley has often reflected on this time in Tihar with pride. “I was in charge of the kitchen,” he wrote in the 2010 Outlook article. “I found convicts to make us parathas for breakfast and convinced a kind jail warden to allow us meat, with the result that we got rogan josh for dinner … we all left prison looking rather plumper.” In another article, Jaitley wrote, “For us younger detenus who did not have the burden and worry of supporting families, jail became an elongated spell of a college or school camp.”

In prison, Jaitley’s political education continued as he built on the friendships he had forged earlier with RSS workers, ABVP members and socialists from all over the country. He was lodged in a ward with 13 others, including Virendra Kapoor, who is still one of his closest friends. He also met all the biggest opposition leaders, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani, KR Malkani and Nanaji Deshmukh. “His baptism was in the jail, not on the campus,” Khanna told me. It was “the biggest test he undertook. He was no more the outsider for the RSS. Probably after coming out of jail, he had the realisation that politics is his career.”

Jaitley left Tihar in January 1977 as one of the most prominent student faces in opposition politics, and became the ABVP’s all-India secretary. In March, when the Emergency was lifted and general elections announced, his name even appeared on the national executive list of the newly formed Janata Party. Ram Bahadur Rai told me that the Samajwadi Janata Party’s president, Chandra Shekhar, included Jaitley following a nomination by Deshmukh, without consulting either the ABVP or Jaitley himself. “The ABVP was neither part of the Jan Sangh nor did it want to work under its aegis,” Rai explained, so Jaitley resigned from the position. Jaitley has said in interviews that Vajpayee wanted him to contest the 1977 Lok Sabha elections, but he was a year below the minimum age requirement of 25 years. Instead, completing his law degree that year, he focussed on a budding career in the courts. He stayed involved in politics, but peripherally.

 

“OURS IS A CENTRESTAGE profession,” Jaitley told India Today in 1997, on having a legal career. “Of course, there is tremendous clout.” He reportedly told the magazine that, “unlike industrialists seeking favours, lawyers don’t need politicians, if anything, politicians need them.” While Jaitley said he “sort of evolved into law,” Karanjawala told me his college friend was practically “born in Tis Hazari,” the north Delhi district court where his father, Maharaj Kishen Jaitley, practised. Jaitley began appearing there himself in the late 1970s, specialising in cases involving the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Delhi Development Authority.

In 1979, when he married Sangeeta Dogra, the daughter of veteran Congress leader Girdhari Lal Dogra, Jaitley had a wide network among the political top brass. Both Vajpayee and Advani attended the wedding—as did Indira Gandhi. But over the next few years, Jaitley’s experience in the courts brought him closer to the inner circle of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which he joined in 1980, the same year it was established with Vajpayee as president. Indira Gandhi returned to power that year and, as payback for the Indian Express’s critical coverage of her during the Emergency, the DDA tried to revoke a building permit issued to the newspaper by the previous government. When Ramnath Goenka, the paper’s proprietor, and Arun Shourie, its executive director, approached Karanjawala for help, he got Jaitley involved, he said, “since Arun had the specialty that the case required.” The court granted the paper a stay order, and the case strengthened Jaitley’s relationship with Goenka, whom he had met as a student.

The Indian Express case was just one skirmish in a larger war, brewing through the 1980s, between politicians, industrialists and media owners. Loyalties were divided between the industrialists Nusli Wadia, the owner of Bombay Dyeing, and his rival Dhirubhai Ambani, the head of Reliance Textile Industries Limited; battles played out in courtrooms and across inches of newsprint. Jaitley had many opportunities to engage in legal jousting—especially in a supporting role to senior lawyer and former BJP politician Ram Jethmalani—while also raising his political profile. After the BJP’s colossal drubbing in the 1985 general elections, Vajpayee told India Today, “The election result gives us time for rethinking. There is need to project new faces. We have young talent in people like Pramod Mahajan of Bombay and Arun Jaitley of Delhi.”

In 1987, Jaitley was involved in a series of legal matters related to interactions between the Enforcement Directorate, under former finance minister VP Singh, and Fairfax, an American detective agency that had allegedly been hired to investigate the illegal stacking of black money overseas. In March 1987, Jaitley and Jethmalani successfully defended S Gurumurthy, an RSS ideologue and Goenka’s financial advisor, from suspicions of passing classified information to Fairfax, soon after Gurumurthy wrote a series of articles in the Indian Express against the Congress and Reliance. A commission headed by two Supreme Court judges was appointed to investigate Singh, by then defence minister, who was on the outs with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for his relentless pursuit of tax evaders, including Congress-friendly companies such as Reliance. Singh resigned from his ministerial post, quit the Congress Party and hired for his defence Karanjawala, who told me, “Arun also used to advise him.”

The next month, in April, the tide turned against the Congress when news broke that the Swedish armaments firm Bofors had allegedly paid Gandhi kickbacks to broker a deal worth $1.3 billion with the Indian government. That summer, as the Fairfax probe continued and the Bofors scandal raged, Jethmalani went on the offensive with a series of front-page Indian Express articles interrogating Gandhi. According to Nalini Gera’s 2009 book Ram Jethmalani: The Authorized Biography, he was helped in this endeavour by Gurumurthy, Arun Shourie and several BJP members, “especially Arun Jaitley.”

Jaitley contributed outside the courtoom too. Riding the wave of the Bofors scandal, in December 1989, VP Singh led the Janata Dal to power and became prime minister of the BJP-supported National Front government. India Today gave part of the credit for the dramatic improvement in the BJP’s election tally—from two seats in 1984, to 86 in 1989—to Jaitley. “The former student leader ensured the flow of funds, and masterminded the BJP’s publicity campaign,” India Today reported. (Jaitley’s college friend, Prabhu Chawla, was by then a senior editor at the magazine.)

Jaitley, then 37, was made an additional solicitor general. Karanjawala said Jaitley “was a great favourite” of Singh’s. “I might have played a small catalyst,” he said. To facilitate this appointment, he was promoted to senior advocate through the Delhi High Court almost overnight, which catapulted his legal career, according to the senior lawyer Dushyant Dave, who shared office space with Jaitley. Karanjawala said that Mukul Rohatgi, the current attorney general, was “one of our closest friends” and “had a role in that.”

With lawyers like Jaitley at his service, expectations were high that as prime minister, Singh would determinedly pursue the Bofors allegations. In January 1990, an investigative team consisting of Jaitley, the former Enforcement Director Bhure Lal, and the CBI deputy inspector-general MK Madhavan, made high-profile visits to Switzerland and Sweden to investigate the matter. Jaitley had his first prominent national appearance when photographs of the team were splashed across the newspapers.

But eight months later, there were no results. A critical MP, quoted in an India Today article, remarked that if the team “continued their investigations abroad, they would soon be entitled to NRI status.” Still, in the years that followed, Jaitley often brought up his participation in the investigation to burnish his credentials. But in 2012, Sten Lindström, the former head of the Swedish police who had leaked key Bofors documents to the journalist Chitra Subramaniam, spoke out against the team, claiming that it had actually “muddied the waters” of the investigation.

Lindström explained that while Subramaniam’s reports only mentioned five Swiss bank accounts containing Bofors payoff money, the team planted the name of actor Amitabh Bachchan, Rajiv Gandhi’s close friend, as the man behind a sixth such account in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter. The paper issued a public apology after Bachchan won a libel case in the United Kingdom, claiming it was misled “in trusting information from persons directly involved in the investigations into the Bofors transaction on behalf of the Indian Government.”

Subramaniam, now the editor-in-chief of the online portal The News Minute, told me over email, “It was plantation time galore! Almost everybody and their cousin had a theory, a list, a name.” Over ten years of reporting from Geneva, Bern and Stockholm, “one saw how governments used and abused the information for their benefit, facts be damned,” she said, claiming she had been put under tremendous pressure to implicate Bachchan and aid in the government’s investigation.

Her refusal to do so provoked a spate of misogynistic and damning articles. A senior journalist I spoke to recalled that a Bombay tabloid, The Daily, insinuated that she and Bachchan were having an extramarital affair. “The Indian Express in turn is questioning her credibility and charging her with suddenly going off on a tangent … under the influence of Amitabh Bachchan,” wrote Chawla and Tarun Tejpal in India Today, even after Bachchan had won the libel case. Subramaniam, who was “deeply disturbed” by the articles, told me “A few years later I raised these concerns with Mr Jaitley” and “he was open and welcoming of my views.” She did not accuse Jaitley of spreading the rumours, but said “He did what was expected of him politically.”

Bachchan was an MP from Allahabad at the time, and the campaign against him had at least one larger political repercussion. VP Singh’s Rajya Sabha term was coming to an end, and he wanted to contest from Bachchan’s seat in Allahabad. After Bachchan resigned in 1987, necessitating a by-election in which he did not compete, Singh alluded to the role the Bofors charges played in his own victory. “I said I would take on and defeat Bachchan who represents corruption in this government,” he said.

 

| THREE |

 

IN THE POLITICALLY tumultuous years following the 1989 elections, fissures appeared in the uneasy alliance between the Janata Dal and the BJP, which had formally adopted the doctrine of Hindutva at its national executive meeting at Palampur, a few months before it became a part of the ruling National Front. At Palampur, the BJP pledged support to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which sought to build a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. As his party’s rhetoric became increasingly communal, Jaitley walked a fine line of public neutrality.

In September 1990, when the BJP leader LK Advani kicked off his Ram Rath Yatra to Ayodhya, Jaitley “prepared very effective notes for daily press briefings to be used by Advani,” according to an RSS ideologue and former BJP general secretary. When communal riots subsequently broke out across India, Jaitley exerted pressure on VP Singh to give in to the VHP’s demands. According to Advani’s autobiography, My Country, My Life, Jaitley and Gurumurthy, the go-between the government and the VHP, held a “marathon meeting” with Singh to help the government frame the ordinance that gave part of the disputed territory to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. During a stalemate, Advani wrote, “it required Gurumurthy and Jaitley to rescue the kernel from the welter of inessential information.” Though the ordinance was later recalled, Advani called their effort “so logical and irrefutable that the Prime Minister and his colleagues had no arguments against it.”

That October, when Advani’s yatra reached Samastipur in Bihar, he was arrested by the state government, then controlled by Lalu Prasad Yadav, and the BJP withdrew its support for the National Front in protest. On 10 November, Chandra Shekhar—leading the Samajwadi Janata Party—became prime minister, with the outside support of the Congress. But, despite his party’s protest against the government, Jaitley briefly retained his role as additional solicitor general. It was only on 22 November, after economist Subramanian Swamy became law minister, that Jaitley tendered his resignation. A senior leader of the Delhi unit of the BJP told me that as Jaitley claimed he had been nominated to the post by the BJP, “he should’ve resigned immediately when the BJP withdrew its support” to the National Front. The senior leader said Jaitley disassociated himself from the BJP after the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December, repeatedly referring to it as “your party,” calling its kar sevaks “lumpen elements” and the demolition “vandalisation.”

Whatever his feelings on Hindutva, Jaitley had Advani’s approval, even if he still stood a distant second to the party’s darling, Pramod Mahajan, who had been promoted to BJP general secretary at the age of 37. In the 1991 general elections, Jaitley was one of Advani’s campaign managers, but managed to secure him only a narrow win in New Delhi over the Bollywood idol Rajesh Khanna. Jaitley had more success defending Advani in court, becoming his primary legal counsel in October 1993, after the CBI filed cases against BJP leaders for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In the late 1990s, Jaitley also defended Advani against charges in the Hawala money-laundering scam, supporting him through what the older politician called “one of the most challenging periods of my life.” The senior BJP leader from Delhi and a BJP-friendly editor both told me that Advani “promoted” Jaitley for a Rajya Sabha seat from Delhi in 1994, but was blocked by Vajpayee, who was less enthused about Jaitley than he had been about a decade earlier. According to a BJP MP, Vajpayee said in a party meeting, “Arun to ho nahin sakta, baaki naam batayiye”—not Arun, tell me other names.

The BJP-friendly editor, who had lobbied for Jaitley to become Delhi’s chief minister when Madan Lal Khurana resigned from the post in 1996, told me Advani felt Jaitley was too young for the job. “In 1994, we tried to get him the Rajya Sabha seat from Delhi,” he said, but “Vajpayee didn’t like him and Pramod Mahajan opposed his candidature.” Finally, just before the 1999 elections, Advani awarded Jaitley with the post of party spokesperson, which led neatly into his appointment as the minister for information and broadcasting in October 1999, after the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power. Karanjawala told me he thought Nusli Wadia “played a very positive, very strong, and very supportive role in Arun being made a minister.” By that time, the BJP-friendly editor said, it was clear “the party needs a minister who is articulate and good with journalists.”

JAITLEY WAS EMINENTLY SUITED to the high-visibility positions of BJP spokesperson and information minister. Sri Ram Khanna, who had drafted Jaitley into the ABVP, told me that Jaitley began making inroads into the press back then. “We would go to newspaper offices to give out press releases,” he said. “That’s how we learnt our media relations.” By the time he became minister, Jaitley’s list of friends in the press was extensive. He had built relationships with media houses, including Ramnath Goenka’s Indian Express Group and Times of India publisher Bennett Coleman and Co. Ltd, as their legal counsel, and was also on the board of the Hindustan Times.

Television news was changing the way politics was conducted. As Swapan Dasgupta noted in 1999, “as TV grew in importance, so did Jaitley.” He became such a popular guest that when journalist Vir Sanghvi interviewed him on Star TV soon after his ministerial appointment, he quipped, “It is unusual for me to have on this programme a guest who has done more television than I have.”

Among the emerging, mass media-savvy generation of BJP leaders—KN Govindacharya, Pramod Mahajan, Narendra Modi—Jaitley had the most comfortable relationship with the press corps. “Are you a harmless flirt?” Varsha Bhosle asked Jaitley for a September 1999 profile on Rediff.com. “I presume I am not,” Jaitley replied. “Which, of course, is high Jaitleyism,” Bhosle wrote, “the kind that makes us go weak-kneed. It could mean: he’s not a flirt; he’s a wicked flirt; he only supposes he’s no flirt.”

In 2000, Asiaweek magazine included Jaitley in a list of India’s most promising young political leaders, quoting a diplomat who called him “the modern face of India, a brilliant man with a clean image.” Even the rare critical article acknowledged his abilities; a November 2003 India Today article, headlined ‘Under Scrutiny,’ said, “Suave, urbane, articulate, Jaitley’s public face is mostly visible in television studios, aggressively defending the Government on a wide range of issues, where his sharp legal brain is an obvious asset.”

This public face was ballasted by a fund of private information. “No two persons can have an affair in Delhi that Jaitley won’t know about,” the veteran journalist who has covered the BJP for 30 years said. In his memoir Editor Unplugged, the editor Vinod Mehta wrote that “although hung up on upward political mobility and, possibly, the biggest gossip in Delhi,” Jaitley “likes the company of literate journalists and keeps himself well informed.” When Mehta’s Outlook magazine did a cover story on “India’s Best Gossips,” in 2009, Jaitley took top spot. “For the lawyer-politician, gossip is not just social currency or amusement, it is a genuine passion,” the piece said. “Journalists lucky enough to be invited into his inner circle say … he entertains them with his rich fund of stories about the private lives of everyone, including journalists and editors.”

Outlook’s list was crowded with Jaitley’s friends: former journalist and Congress MP Rajeev Shukla, Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh, Suhel Seth, and Virendra and Coomi Kapoor. The story characterised the Kapoors as a “gossip cartel,” noting that though “there’s not a thing that goes on in the corridors of power that either one or the other of this power couple is not privy to … Arun Jaitley is a no-no area.” Many people I interviewed insisted that journalists sympathetic to Jaitley acted as mouthpieces for the opinions he wouldn’t publicly voice.

During Jaitley’s initial years as a minister—first of information and broadcasting, and then of law and justice—these opinions contributed to the increasing alienation of Vajpayee, the prime minister, as younger BJP leaders scrabbled for proximity to Advani, who was tipped to take over the top post. In June 2002, in the aftermath of the failed India–Pakistan talks at Agra the previous year, Time magazine ran a cover story on Vajpayee titled ‘Asleep at the Wheel?’ After a colourful description of the prime minister’s dietary habits and ill health, it stated that he “is given to interminable silences, indecipherable ramblings and, not infrequently, falling asleep in meetings … an unusual candidate to control a nuclear arsenal.” The former BJP general secretary called the story as “a noticeable debriefing” by Jaitley. “That trait was noticed in him very clearly for the first time” after the Time article, he said, “and Vajpayee was very angry.” Several others also cited Jaitley’s “lack of control” as the reason for Vajpayee’s opposition to his advancement.

The BJP MP I spoke to, however, said that Vajpayee was particularly upset by Jaitley’s references to his adopted family. A senior journalist told me about a conversation that took place at a BJP national executive meeting in Bhopal, while “sitting in the Jehan Numa Palace hotel and having coffee after dinner,” with two other journalists. “Jaitley walked up to us … and immediately started bad-mouthing Vajpayee and Ranjan Bhattacharya,” the prime minister’s son-in-law. “Jaitley said, ‘He has a son-in-law who is a failed businessman. A failed businessman is dangerous because they love power.’” Vajpayee’s family got wind of this conversation: Bhattacharya later ribbed the journalist about the “long chat session in Jehan Numa.” The senior Delhi BJP leader and the BJP MP said Advani’s trust in Jaitley extended beyond professional issues, and that he sought Jaitley’s help to resolve a personal matter as well.

Mohan Guruswamy, a special adviser to the finance minister in Vajpayee’s government, has known Jaitley since the late 1980s; the two shared a closeness to Advani and met regularly at the India International Centre. He described Jaitley as a “durbar politician,” who, “after making an argument, looks at everybody for approval with a big smile. That is his characteristic habit.” Even Advani, he said, was not immune from Jaitley’s tongue. “Four, five of us would have lunch at Advani’s house,” Guruswamy said. “We would step out and Jaitley would immediately start abusing him. It was the same with Vajpayee and everybody else. You can’t have a conversation with him for more than five minutes before he starts abusing somebody.”

Political journalists thrived on the BJP’s internal mud-slinging. Dissecting the “internecine war,” in the BJP in Outlook in 2002, the reporter Saba Naqvi wrote that “the old rivalries and manoeuvrings between second-rung leaders of the BJP like Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Pramod Mahajan … operates at a very petty level, like the Jaitley camp using friendly publications to plant stories about Swaraj,” who took over as information minister in 2000, and Swaraj in turn “blacking him out of Doordarshan’s national network.” (According to the BJP-friendly editor who is critical of Jaitley, when he lost the information ministry, “Nusli Wadia helped him get the Shipping Ministry with a promise of cabinet post soon.”)

Virendra Kapoor’s gossip column on Rediff.com, Capital Buzz, typically painted Jaitley in a positive light, attacking his rivals and often singling out Swaraj. “Whenever she comes under media attack, which is quite often,” Kapoor wrote in 1999, “thanks to her talents in that direction, she starts blaming one or another BJP leader. She would not counter the report with facts, oh no, not she! Instead, she would rush to senior party leaders complaining ‘look what that man has done to me!’” Kapoor insisted to me that “Jaitley is not a politician for me, and I am not a journalist for him.” When someone recently insinuated that Jaitley had fed him a story about Modi, he said, “I felt bad that poor Jaitley is being faulted for no fault of his.”

When the Time article appeared, Jaitley had been the minister of law and justice for two years—he took over the position from Ram Jethmalani, who still holds it against him. The same month, June 2002, there was a cabinet reshuffle, and Jaitley was removed from his post. In Outlook, Arnab Pratim Dutta, a journalist who knew Vajpayee’s adopted family well, wrote that “According to sources close to him, Vajpayee, till the end of his tenure, will call the shots. Says a PMO official: ‘It is another matter that Vajpayee wants Advani to succeed him. But while in office, he’d like to prove that he’s not as ineffective as Time magazine has painted him to be.” The political editor who has covered the BJP for three decades remembered Jaitley being “very, very low—that was the lowest point in his political career.” Despite Vajpayee’s ire, however, Jaitley was brought back as law minister after six months, in January 2003; the government needed its best legal brain.

That April, Shamit Mukherjee, a Delhi High Court judge appointed by Jaitley, was arrested for exchanging favourable verdicts for material favours. A few days later, Akshaya Mukul in the Times of India noted that the arrest “has led law minister Arun Jaitley to speed up legislation to ensure transparency in appointments and check cases of improper behaviour by judges.” However, as Mukul reported, the paper had documents suggesting that, in 2001, “the Union law ministry has itself been willing to overlook questions raised by the Intelligence Bureau about the integrity of candidates.” According to the article, the law ministry had recommended Adarsh K Goel—a current Supreme Court judge and once the general secretary of the lawyers’ wing of the RSS—to the Punjab and Haryana High Court, despite an adverse finding from the Intelligence Bureau report. According to Mukul, when president KR Narayanan did not approve Goel’s appointment, Jaitley wrote “a confidential note,” dismissing “the IB finding on Goel’s integrity as a ‘slur’.” Eventually Narayanan approved the report.

Jaitley sent a rejoinder to the Times of India and called a press conference the day after the story appeared. He argued that “the Government expresses its opinion and is, thereafter, bound by the advice of the collegium of the Supreme Court. The Government in this case acted accordingly.” Mukul replied that Jaitley’s confidential note, in which he wrote that “political leanings per se should not stand in the way of a recommendee for consideration of his case for appointment as a Judge of a High Court” went beyond a government expressing its opinion.

The India Today article ‘Under Scrutiny’ accused Jaitley of various misuses of power both as the law minister and during the six months that he was not a member of the cabinet. The law ministry wrote a letter in defence of Jaitley; the magazine responded that it had on-the-record statements proving that Jaitley had been indirectly involved in several crucial appointments that he should not have had authority over. A former editor familiar with the story told me the source of these statements was Ashok Saikia, a powerful joint secretary in the prime minister’s office. He added that Prabhu Chawla himself had “got the papers from the PMO.” (Once friends, Chawla and Jaitley had by then fallen out.) Jaitley “remained quiet” after the magazine’s rebuttal to the law ministry, the editor said.

The day after Jaitley’s press conference about the Times of India article, Satyavrat Chaturvedi, a Congress spokesperson and MP, alleged in a television interview that “My information is that Intelligence Bureau did not clear” Mukherjee, either—“It was overruled by Arun Jaitley,” he alleged. When I met him recently, Chaturvedi said “Arun Jaitley never challenged me on that claim. Neither did he refuse. Silence was his only response.” He added, “Every issue has its own lifespan in politics.”

 

IN 1999, Jaitley was allotted 9 Ashoka Road, next-door to the BJP headquarters, as his official bungalow. Never one to miss an opportunity to play host to the leaders of the day, Jaitley gave up “his ministerial house to the BJP,” wrote Virendra Kapoor, “so that the party bigwigs who do not own a house in the capital would have a roof over their heads.” Besides the wedding of Virender Sehwag, the house has hosted the nuptials of the children of journalists such as the Kapoors, Shekhar Gupta, and The Pioneer editor Chandan Mitra. The senior Delhi BJP leader said that Jaitley courted Murli Manohar Joshi while he was BJP president, in the early 1990s, even offering him “a flat in trans-Yamuna area to live in.” It was after Joshi’s 1991 Rashtriya Ekta Yatra, he told me, that Jaitley also took note of Narendra Modi, who had organised the tour.

The RSS member Alok Kumar said Jaitley had “the ability to sift people according to their importance and build up on all those who matter.” Of all the relationships Jaitley has nurtured over the years, his careful friendship with Modi—going back to when Modi was an ambitious pracharak from Gujarat—has paid the richest dividends, even if it may be built on a foundation of mutual benefit rather than trust. In many ways, the two complement each other: one a popular leader, the other with an elite following; one an outsider to Delhi, the other the consummate insider. In 1995, when the BJP came to power in Gujarat and Modi was sent to work in Delhi, Jaitley was among the people he cultivated. A senior editor who considers Modi a friend told me that “Jaitley is the quintessential networker in Delhi, so he would take care of Modi like he would take care of a raft of people. But nobody else did that to Modi and nobody took him seriously at that time.” Many journalists and BJP leaders remember Modi as a regular visitor to Jaitley’s house in south Delhi. The lawyer Dushyant Dave, who shared an office with Jaitley between 1992 and 1997, told me Modi visited there as well.

In 1999, Modi and Jaitley expressed their admiration for each other on two episodes of Rajeev Shukla’s television show Rubaru. Modi dated their relationship to the JP movement, and described Jaitley as “a rare combination in politics,” an “activist, an intellectual, articulate, very clean, and also a very friendly man.” Though some had doubted Jaitley’s abilities at first, Modi said, “the best thing about Arun-ji is his total dedication to whatever work he is given. A person who has such dedication in life rarely fails.” When Shukla subsequently interviewed Jaitley about Modi, Jaitley returned the compliments, calling Modi a “tough taskmaster,” a “disciplinarian” and a “creative” politician.

Advani wrote about both Modi and Jaitley as protégés in his autobiography, though he reserved his highest praise for Pramod Mahajan, whose dominance undercut the competition between the others. The former BJP general secretary told me that “Jaitley, Modi and Venkaiah Naidu emerged as a faction opposed to Mahajan. Later, Ananth Kumar also joined them. They were closer to Nusli Wadia, and Mahajan was close to the Ambanis. First, Venkaiah led the group, with Modi and Jaitley at the flanks. Then, Jaitley led the group, with Modi and Venkaiah at the flanks. Since 2005, Modi is leading from the front.” Mahajan was murdered in 2006.

But Modi and Jaitley’s early political careers ran parallel paths. Modi became the BJP’s general secretary in 1998, and Jaitley became a party spokesperson in 1999. Neither had yet won an election, but both were poised for promotions. That year, when Jaitley became the minister of information and broadcasting, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat. Two years later, Modi became the chief minister of that state. Then, in 2002, when Modi dissolved the Gujarat legislative assembly eight months early—presumably to capitalise on pro-BJP sentiments in the aftermath of the anti-Muslim riots that year—Jaitley was made the party-in-charge for the subsequent elections.

Modi came up against the chief election commissioner, JM Lyngdoh, who vetoed polling before the rehabilitation of the riot victims. When the chief minister publicly lashed out at Lyngdoh, attempting to insult him by calling attention to his Christian name, Vajpayee condemned Modi’s speech. But Advani and Jaitley supported him, deepening existing rifts in the BJP. Calling Lyngdoh “a cowboy bureaucrat” who “thinks the commission becomes God,” Jaitley argued that the election commission was constitutionally bound to conduct polling within six months, and convinced his party to challenge Lyngdoh’s decision. He argued in favour of the BJP’s position in the Supreme Court, in September 2002.

Vajpayee was not pleased. That month, an Outlook story headlined ‘Unhappy Atal Thinks of Quitting’ quoted an anonymous cabinet minister saying, “The PM has told some of us that Narendra Modi would never have tried to pull off this stunt of resigning in between assembly terms if Jaitley had not advised him to do so.’ Every time the Gujarat issue is put to rest, the PM feels that it is at Jaitley’s insistence that it is again revived.” (Jaitley was “ballistic” over the story, editor Vinod Mehta wrote later in his memoir, and “tried to extricate the name of the source.”)

That October, when the Supreme Court upheld Lyngdoh’s decision, Jaitley didn’t emerge from the scrap looking very good. Rajeev Dhavan, a lawyer who appeared in the case, explained in The Hindu how the BJP’s “entire basic legal strategy” was based on a misreading of the constitution, and “had backfired.” But the whole affair strengthened the relationship between Jaitley and Modi.

So did another incident at the party’s national executive meeting in Goa, the April after the riots. Vajpayee planned to sack Modi from the BJP, and Jaitley, following Advani’s instructions, played a strategic role on behalf of the party’s hardliners. A day before the meeting, he went to Ahmedabad and spoke to Modi, who then offered to quit the next day. The party rejected his offer, saving face while staying intact. By the time the next Gujarat assembly elections were held in December, Jaitley was, as Rediff.com reported, Modi’s “tireless defender.”

 

| FOUR |

 

ON AN EARLY MORNING IN JULY 2005, Jaitley was walking near his home in south Delhi’s Kailash Colony with his friend Ranjit Kumar, a senior lawyer who has been amicus curiae in several Supreme Court cases, and who became solicitor general last year, when he started coughing and complained of breathlessness. Within ten minutes, Kumar had rushed him to Escorts Hospital and called noted heart surgeon Naresh Trehan. Trehan lived near enough “to reach fast, and fortunately everything worked out,” Kumar told me. A few days later, Jaitley, then 52 years old, had triple bypass surgery.

Jaitley was at an age when most Indian politicians start reaping the fruits of their careers. But in 2005, as a senior advocate and a BJP general secretary, he still had a long way to go to live up to the title of “future prime minister” that some of his friends, including Prabhu Chawla, had given him in the 1990s. In December, when Advani stepped down as BJP president, Jaitley may have felt it was his turn: after all, his contemporary Venkaiah Naidu had been elected president a few years earlier.

But the competition within the party was intensifying, as the BJP went through an organisational crisis in the aftermath of its loss in the 2004 general elections. In November 2005, after Shivraj Singh Chouhan became chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, a news report in the Bhopal edition of Dainik Jagran claimed that Uma Bharti, who had held the post the previous year, had threatened suicide over the decision. KN Govindacharya, a former BJP general secretary close to Bharti, implied that Jaitley had a hand in the article, telling Rediff.com that he had asked Jaitley to speak to Bharti earlier, “But there are certain things that are kept under wraps … I would advice [sic] Arun Jaitley to keep politics away from the personal relationship and desist from off the record briefings. If this is what happens to Umaji then which decent woman would like to join politics.” Govindacharya also told Tehelka that “Leaders like Arun Jaitley would continue to run slanderous campaigns to tarnish image of leaders with mass following.” He added, “Internal democracy is being finished in political parties.”

Passing over Jaitley, the RSS supported Rajnath Singh, a Thakur leader from Uttar Pradesh and a compromise candidate, as BJP president. The post was a crown of thorns for Singh, who soon had his hands full with squabbling leaders. He barely had a chance to settle into his position before he too was receiving negative coverage. A series of stories, painting Singh as a country bumpkin who only used Indian-style loos, appeared in the Economic Times. A senior editor with the newspaper said that Singh called him in early 2006 to complain about the “atyachar”— atrocities—being printed about him in the paper, and pointed the finger at Jaitley. “I conveyed Rajnath Singh’s message to the editor, after which a course correction was done and the frequency of Jaitley pictures and stories came down drastically,” the senior editor said. The “Jaitley spin,” he said, wasn’t subtle.

In February 2007, Singh removed Jaitley as the BJP’s chief spokesman after informing Vajpayee and Advani. He also neglected to credit Jaitley, who was managing the Punjab assembly election, for the BJP’s impressive results there. “Jaitley was not part of the bonhomie and camaraderie on display at the party headquarters,” The Telegraph reported. “He did not even shake hands with Rajnath. Since he was removed as BJP spokesperson, Jaitley has not stepped into the party headquarters and the media room except to attend meetings where his presence is necessary.”

But Jaitley’s fortunes in the party were on the rise, largely due to the unexpected death of Pramod Mahajan, who had been in charge of the 2004 general elections even though Jaitley had steered the party successfully in a couple of state elections by then. Mahajan died in April 2006, and in 2008, Jaitley’s involvement in the BJP’s historic win in Karnataka furthered the impression that he had the Midas touch when it came to campaign strategy. That June, his friend Swapan Dasgupta wrote in Tehelka, “With such an enviable track record of election management, it is only natural that many in the BJP would want him to be entrusted with the national campaign for 2009—if only to avoid the disasters of 2004.” Later that year, Jaitley was put in charge of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections by Advani, the prime ministerial candidate.

Sushil Pandit, who has devised communication strategy for the BJP since 1989, told me that Jaitley “enjoys a good contest. If he is in the middle of it all, as a captain marshalling his resources, it gives him a high.” GVL Narasimha Rao, a BJP spokesperson and a pollster, who called himself “an extension of Jaitley’s team,” told me, “The politicians always ask, after a survey, ‘how many seats are we going to win?’ But I have not come across any politician who asked me a question like Jaitley asked: ‘What is our vote share? What is our vote share gap with our political rival?’” According to Rao, Jaitley is a micro-manager. “In Gujarat, he had managed the media campaign, the advertising campaign, and all the legal issues. That’s why probably Modi-ji wanted him again and again,” he said.

Jaitley is also seen as a capable ambassador in seat-sharing negotiations. In the run-up to the 2009 elections, Dasgupta wrote on his blog that Jaitley “is the bridge to NDA partners such as Nitish Kumar in Bihar, the slippery Ajit Singh in Uttar Pradesh and the two Badals in Punjab. He is also the BJP’s main fund raiser—a crucial responsibility in these difficult times.” But beyond Dasgupta—“When it comes to the subject of Arun Jaitley, I drop all pretensions of objectivity,” he wrote in 2009— there is little consensus on whether Jaitley is a master campaign strategist, or an opportunist who picks his battles wisely. The BJP-friendly editor, who hasn’t always supported Jaitley, said, “He would always go for the state that is bound to win. For instance, Madhya Pradesh after two terms of Digvijay Singh was handed out on a platter. How can he take credit for Gujarat? He failed in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Himachal Pradesh. His failure rate is higher.” The political editor who has covered the BJP for three decades wondered “whether the situation was ripe for BJP to win or was it his clever strategy? In 2009 Lok Sabha elections he failed completely, isn’t it?”

 

A FORMER CONGRESS MINISTER I met described Jaitley’s ability to come out on top. “He first became an additional solicitor general then made senior advocate overnight. He became a minister first, and then was nominated as a Rajya Sabha MP. He lost his election in 2014 from Amritsar, but he became the finance minister,” he said. Many members of the BJP were shocked when, in 2009, even after the party’s biggest electoral loss in 20 years, Jaitley was awarded his highest position yet—leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha—rather than becoming a scapegoat as the chief campaign strategist. According to three of the BJP politicians I spoke to, the post was originally meant to go to Venkaiah Naidu, but Advani replaced his name with Jaitley’s at the last minute.

In 2009, the BJP won only 116 seats—22 less than its 2004 tally. When the party’s national executive met in June to analyse the defeat, Jaitley was holidaying in London, catching up on the India–England cricket series. Nearly everyone who spoke at the meeting attacked Jaitley. Uttar Pradesh MP Maneka Gandhi complained that he seemed to have a lot of time to talk to journalists, but would not pick up candidates’ phone calls. The BJP MP Arun Shourie suggested on NDTV that the BJP should “like once Mao Zedong said, bombard the headquarters. Clean up everybody from the top,” and allow the RSS to take charge of the party. Jaitley started openly criticising Shourie after this.

Two senior party leaders, Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha, wrote letters demanding that those responsible for the campaign also claim responsibility for its failure, as Mahajan had done in 2004. “Advaniji set a fine example of accountability by declining to take up the position of the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha,” Sinha wrote. “It appears as if some people in the party are determined to ensure that the principle of accountability does not prevail so that their own little perch is not disturbed.”

Jaitley’s critics in the party pointed out that he hadn’t shown enough commitment; he had continued to attend court throughout the campaign. A BJP leader close to the RSS told me that Jaitley “would come after court hours. Because of him the meetings started at 4 pm. He was the main reason for debacle.” In the run-up to the elections, Jaitley had refused to attend two central election committee meetings, protesting Rajnath Singh’s appointment of Sudhanshu Mittal, an acolyte of Mahajan, as the party’s man in charge of the north-east. Though Jaitley later patched up with Singh, several senior leaders felt his actions had demoralised the cadre. The political editor who has covered the BJP for three decades told me that Modi’s support was a possible reason Jaitley “escaped disciplinary action.”

Despite rumours that Jaitley would quit the party, he countered by blaming the electoral defeat on the divisive nature of the campaign. “Sober governance helps, shrillness does not. Moderation and understatement are virtues,” he wrote. This put him in a tricky position. “It’s all very well for Arun Jaitley to call for moderation and an end to shrillness but for many years now he has been Narendra Modi’s ambassador in Delhi,” Vir Sanghvi wrote in the Hindustan Times. “He has consistently defended Modi’s behaviour during the Gujarat riots, has attacked anyone who dares question Modi and during this campaign, he sang Modi’s praises.”

Other journalists close to Jaitley, including Dasgupta, exhorted the party to shun “the H word”—Hindutva—even as they supported Modi as the party’s new hope. Soon after the results, the columnist Ashok Malik called Modi’s “unqualified triumph” in Gujarat “the saving grace” of the election. “In 2009,” he wrote, “Advani led the campaign almost by default, a result of the BJP’s TINA (There is No Alternative) factor. The response to TINA is NITA: Narendra is the Alternative.”

 

PRABHU CHAWLA IS FOND OF saying that “the only election Arun Jaitley has ever won in his life was on my scooter”—a reference to Jaitley’s DUSU days. An anonymous pamphlet distributed in parliament during the monsoon session of 2012 also pointed to Jaitley’s lack of an election record as his Achilles heel. Jaitley, it said mockingly, “last won a landmark DUSU election from amongst 4000 electorate in 1975.” The former BJP MLA Alok Kumar told me Jaitley once consoled him after he lost an election in 2008 by saying “we are both not cut out for electoral politics.”

But when Modi made a serious bid for the prime ministerial post in the 2014 general elections, Jaitley faced his demons and contested a Lok Sabha seat from Amritsar. The Delhiwalla awkwardly tried to project himself as somebody with “a 100 per cent Majhhis ancestry”—that is, from the Majha region of Punjab. Jaitley told Open magazine—and every reporter willing to listen—“I belong here from all possible sides.” “Perhaps,” he said, “my ability to win polls was earlier less than my utility to organise polls. So my party decided on my political future. But I’m glad that I’m contesting at last.”

But Jaitley’s choice of constituency wasn’t well calculated. He had allied with the ruling Akali Dal government, despite a great deal of anti-incumbency against them in the state. The Congress then sprung a doughty opponent, former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh upon him. And his campaign manager, Bikram Singh Majithia, had a reputation for being corrupt. A journalist working on the desk at Hindustan Times wrote a snippet noting these difficulties. That journalist was soon fired, according to a former editor at the newspaper, who said the decision “came right from the top” and that while the journalist was sacked on grounds of “incompetence,” the editor believed this person was “competent and shouldn’t have gone.” Jaitley had his supporters—those who turned out to back him included advocates Mukul Rohatgi, Ranjit Kumar, Maninder Singh and Rajiv Nayar; Shobhana Bhartia; veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar; actors Anupam and Kirron Kher; cricketer Gautam Gambhir; and even former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa—but ultimately lost the election by over one lakh votes.

Kumar attributed the loss to Jaitley’s inability to connect with “a person on the street.” An editor who described himself as a BJP ideologue and a Jaitley critic told me, “He has managed to build up every lobby in India except for one, the voters of India.” A popular joke, attributed to the Aam Aadmi Party MP Bhagwant Mann, noted that “Jaitley is the only one who could defeat the Modi wave by losing Amritsar.”

Still, Modi had hinted at an important role for Jaitley during his campaign speech in Amritsar. Once he became prime minister, he gave Jaitley the portfolios of finance, defence and corporate affairs, overlooking his electoral defeat. These appointments followed months of speculation on the nature of the relationship between the two politicians.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections, Modi had not quite consolidated his position as prime ministerial candidate and a committed section of his supporters felt that Jaitley was holding him back. MD Nalapat, the editorial director of the Sunday Guardian, wrote in September 2013 that it was “disquiet” at Modi’s perceived reliance on Arun Jaitley “that caused Sushma Swaraj and MM Joshi to cast their lot initially with LK Advani” as the better candidate. He quoted an unnamed BJP leader who argued that Jaitley was only supporting Modi in the secret hope “that after the elections he will not get the support needed to form the government,” after which Jaitley, “the man closest to Narendra Modi,” would “step forward as the secular choice” for prime minister, as Vajpayee had once done. According to the BJP MP I spoke to, the article upset both Modi and Jaitley; Modi didn’t speak to Nalapat for a few months.

Madhu Kishwar, an academic and the author of the pro-Modi book Modi, Muslims and Media, expanded on these theories. In March 2014, she had tweeted: “BJP insiders: Jaitley belongs to 160 Club- coz he thinks he has bright chance of becoming PM if BJP gets less than 180 seats. Hence sabotage.”

“The BJP insiders those days told me Arun Jaitley was egging Nitish Kumar on,” Kishwar told me, in Kumar’s campaign against Modi, “because he didn’t want Modi to be stigma-free.” She broached the issue with Modi during an interview. “I told him, ‘One person you have to watch out for is Arun Jaitley.’ He said, ‘Nahin, Madhu-ji, woh mere bade achhe mitra hain.’ I said, ‘He might be your good friend. But as an impartial observer, I can tell you this friendship will be a millstone around your neck.’”

Jethmalani, in an interview to the Economic Times, observed that Modi “keeps his enemies closer,” referring to both Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, who had openly opposed Modi’s candidacy but was still given the external affairs portfolio. In Editor Unplugged, Vinod Mehta wrote that Jaitley was Modi’s “sole friend … if you can call him that.” Jaitley “has helped him in legal matters,” Mehta held, but “is not close in the conventional sense. Modi finds him convenient at the present time for certain tasks. However, he knows well no one covets his present job more than Jaitley.” However, several senior journalists, including both political editors, told me Jaitley had long ago accepted a secondary role to Modi.

 

| FIVE |

 

LAST NOVEMBER, in a cover story on India’s “Axis of Power 2014,” Open magazine called Modi, the BJP president Amit Shah and Jaitley “the three men who rule India.” A week later, India Today ran a cover story on “The Indispensable Mr Jaitley,” analysing the same triumvirate. “Assuming a cross-mythological referencing is allowed in this age of Hindutva,” it said, “if Modi is Ram, then Shah and Jaitley are his Lakshman and Arjun, two aides who seemingly complete him and he cannot do without.” The article said Jaitley’s “unsurpassable network of contacts across the political, legal and social spectrum makes him uniquely qualified to sit on any side of the Prime Minister,” noting that Modi needed to leverage the impressive election results “across the Capital’s several columns of clout, such as the media, the corporate and the diplomatic world.” The truth is, it continued, “that Ahmedabad is not Delhi—and certainly, Gujarat is not India.”

On the surface, these articles projected a chummy camaraderie between Modi and Jaitley, on the six-month anniversary of the BJP’s general election victory. But a month after the Open and India Today cover stories appeared, the prime minister invited several members of the press to a series of interactions. A senior journalist with a national daily mentioned the India Today story as a possible reason for the interaction he attended, which he said appeared to be the prime minister’s attempt to create his own direct line to the media. An editor of a south Indian newspaper told me he was informally contacted to attend a similar meeting, which never took place, because, as the man who invited him hinted, Modi felt “woh log to Jaitley ko pasand karte hain”—but those people like Jaitley. “It was an aside,” the editor said, “but a loaded aside.”

“After becoming PM,” the senior journalist with regular access to the finance minister told me, “Modi’s circle of friendships has multiplied so much that he doesn’t need Jaitley beyond a point.” There is still “a huge gap between number two, Amit Shah, and Jaitley,” he said, and to suggest that Modi consults Jaitley as frequently as he consults Shah is “exaggerated propaganda.”

Jaitley does have a large camp of supporters in the government: Nirmala Sitharaman, Dharmendra Pradhan and Piyush Goyal—respectively, the ministers of commerce, petroleum and power—are among his protégés. And his friends feature prominently on the government’s roster of legal officers: the attorney general, Mukul Rohatgi; the solicitor general, Ranjit Kumar; and the additional solicitor-generals Pinky Anand, Maninder Singh, PS Narasimha and Neeraj Kishan Kaul (in whose chamber Jaitley’s son Rohan worked as a junior).

In February, soon after he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, Swapan Dasgupta was appointed as an Independent Director to the board of Larsen & Toubro, a multi-national infrastructure company, in which the ministry of finance holds a stake of about 8.18 percent. Shekhar Iyer, another journalist close to Jaitley, was appointed as a member of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, which comes under Jaitley’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry, in January.

When it comes to the finance ministry, Modi appears to be keeping Jaitley on a shorter leash, and steadily placing men loyal to himself in its offices. Hasmukh Adhia, who was Modi’s principal secretary in Gujarat, was made the secretary of the department of financial services last November. GC Murmu, a Gujarat bureaucrat who handled riot-related cases for Modi when he was chief minister, and Raj Kumar, another Gujarat-cadre officer, were appointed joint secretaries in the department of expenditure and the department of economic affairs respectively. A senior journalist based in Gujarat described their absolute loyalty to Modi, and told me that “Murmu, in likelihood, will be made the director of Enforcement Directorate after he is empanelled Additional Secretary,” pointing out that “Modi has kept that post vacant for a while now.”

In a government of relatively closed ranks, Jaitley has still been the target of some criticism. His most vocal detractor is his old nemesis, Ram Jethmalani. When I met the 92-year-old lawyer, he reiterated his statements at the Jaipur Literature Festival this January, when he questioned the choice of Jaitley as finance minister. In a letter to Modi, Jethmalani hinted that Jaitley’s appointment would benefit the Congress, and in an open letter to Jaitley he wrote, “I want to show to the nation that you are determined to see that Prime Minister Modi can never fulfil his pledge to the unfortunate people of India to get back the black money”—a reference to funds illegally funnelled out of the country to avoid taxes. “You, Mr Finance Minister,” Jethmalani accused, “are the biggest obstacle.”

“I am living in the departure lounge of god and he’s the only one I don’t like,” Jethmalani told me. He is one amongst a faction of Modi supporters—some of whom were once close to Jaitley but have now aligned themselves against him—that includes Madhu Kishwar, the RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy, and, sometimes, Subramanian Swamy. This group alleges that Jaitley has supported P Chidambaram, the former finance minister, against allegations made by this group, of money laundering and tax evasion, particularly through shell companies belonging to the news channel NDTV.

Karanjawala told me Chidambaram and Jaitley were “decent friends” who had known each other since the 1990s, when both were lawyers in a succession war at the Indian Express. The anti-Jaitley contingent believes the relationship goes deeper, pointing to Jaitley’s defense of Chidambaram in a 1997 corruption case filed by Swamy. Last year, after Kishwar made some of the allegations against Chidambaram and NDTV on the website of Manushi, a trust she runs, NDTV filed a defamation case against her. Gurumurthy impleaded himself in the case, and Jethmalani has represented Kishwar in court. KPS Gill, the former director general of police in Punjab and a security advisor to Modi after the 2002 riots, also threw his weight behind the group. In a letter to Jaitley, he argued that the finance minister ought to order a special investigation into the case involving Chidambaram and NDTV and to recuse himself from involvement in it due to his previous legal support for both these parties. In other instances, as Gill pointed out, Jaitley has removed himself from situations in which his work as a lawyer might compromise his judgment as a politician.

In 2006, arguing on behalf of Sushil Modi, then the BJP’s leader of the opposition in Bihar, in a defamation case, Jaitley said that “in performing his duties and obligations, the leader of opposition is supposed to take into account not only what he is today but what he hopes to be tomorrow.” Three years later, as the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, he seemed to have few such compunctions. The industry magazine TelecomLive raised one example of this in a 2012 cover story that explored Jaitley’s position, while leader of the opposition, on the telecom company Vodafone. While Murli Manohar Joshi, the finance minister Yashwant Sinha and Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, supported an amendment in the income-tax law that could force Vodafone to pay as much as Rs20,000 crore in retroactive taxes, Jaitley and Piyush Goyal vehemently opposed it in the upper house. Citing the fact that Jaitley had appeared five times on behalf of Vodafone in the Delhi High Court in 2008 and 2009, TelecomLive alleged that “Analjit Singh, the present chairman of Vodafone Essar Limited (VEL) has a good relationship with Mr Jaitley. He has been lobbying with Mr Jaitley for his support…”

In 2014, when Jaitley became the finance minister, the case was still unresolved, and he did recuse himself, deputing his ministerial authority in the matter. “I stopped practicing as a lawyer with effect from 2nd June, 2009,” he wrote on his Facebook page.“Prior to that, I had been consulted in the matter by the company on various taxation issues. I therefore considered it appropriate not to deal with the matter as a Minister.”

Like many politicians, Jaitley sees little conflict of interest between his professional actions—in his case as legal counsel to some of the country’s most powerful private companies and individuals—and his legislative and executive roles. In 2005, while he was a member of parliament from Gujarat, Jaitley defended the stockbroker Ketan Parekh against charges of defrauding Madhavpura Mercantile Cooperative Bank in the state of R840 crore. Jaitley got Parekh out of jail on bail (he was later convicted). Angry depositors demanded Jaitley’s resignation, and some senior BJP leaders complained to Advani, who was also an MP from the state. Jaitley told the media that legal propriety forbade him from speaking on the matter. In a scathing critique, the business journalist Sucheta Dalal wrote, “Logically, politically and ethically, it would have been more fitting if Mr. Jaitley’s services were available free (pro bono) to the depositors of MMCB.” While Jaitley’s position was legally sound, it raised serious questions about his commitment, as a public representative, to the public good.

 

IN JANUARY, the former cricketer Bishan Singh Bedi and others wrote a complaint to Narendra Modi about his finance minister. Jaitley had “misused his position as Leader of Opposition to prevail upon various ministries to spare DDCA of punitive action,” they wrote, referring to the Delhi and District Cricket Association. “Mr Jaitley is now heading two important ministries (finance and corporate affairs) which are supposed to take action against DDCA for infraction of various rules and norms of the companies act, as indeed criminal law.”

As the journalist James Astill wrote in his 2013 book The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India, “No Indian cricket administration is so notorious for nepotism and misrule” as the association that governs Delhi cricket, “also known as the Delhi Daddies Cricket Association, or the Delhi District Crooks Association.” Jaitley became the DDCA’s president in December 1999, less than two years after he became a member of the association and a few months after he became a union minister. He held the post for 13 years.

Ashok Malik, the columnist and Jaitley’s friend, told me Jaitley was driven by “his love for cricket,” and the “social cachet.” As Astill observed, “There is no surer way to be seen by millions of Indians than at a televised cricket match.” To be seen “ruling over the proceedings,” he said, “is especially useful for politicians, such as Jaitley … who are not directly elected to parliament … In such cases, prominence in Indian cricket is almost an alternative to electoral prowess.”

The DDCA is a company that follows an opaque electoral system, which allows proxy voting on behalf of its members, many of whom are small-time businessmen who are never present. In February 2000, Outlook reported that this voting could be easily manipulated, and claimed to have “two proxy forms signed by the same member—one of which is obviously a fake signature but is attested by the court—used during Jaitley’s election” as president. However, the association’s two rival factions, led by CK Khanna (known as “proxy king”) and SP Bansal, both supported Jaitley over the years.

The first clear sign of rot in the DDCA appeared in August 2009, when Virender Sehwag, then a star opener on the Indian team, and other cricketers including Gautam Gambhir, Ashish Nehra and Ishant Sharma, threatened to quit the Delhi team over rampant nepotism and corruption. This portended a major embarrassment that December, during the final match of the India–Sri Lanka one-day series at Ferozeshah Kotla stadium. The match was abandoned midway after the visiting team complained of dangerously poor pitch conditions leading to injuries. The DDCA apologised to irate fans and promised to refund their ticket money. The International Cricket Council banned the venue for one year, and the Congress demanded Jaitley’s resignation from his post. Jaitley’s response to the media was to play for time, saying, “We have to analyse in a cooler environment.”

Though the Ferozeshah Kotla stadium underwent a massive renovation between 2000 and 2007, the state of the DDCA only deteriorated. The former Delhi captain Surinder Khanna told me about the muck that emerged out of the renovation—a project Malik characterised as Jaitley’s greatest legacy. “He built the stadium which nobody else could,” Khanna said, “but we had to pay a heavy price as he created a mess.” He alleged that the annual general meetings, in which the association’s accounts were put to vote, became a sham due to manipulated proxy voting. The initial budget for the project was Rs24 crore, but the eventual expenditure came closer to Rs130 crore.

For a long time, Kirti Azad, a former cricketer and a BJP MP from Bihar, was the sole voice of protest against Jaitley’s rule of the DDCA. (For his part, Jaitley tried to deny Azad the party’s ticket in his constituency for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.) But by 2011, many other former players, including Bedi, Maninder Singh, Madan Lal and Surinder Khanna, joined the chorus. Several DDCA members sent letters to Jaitley, but never received responses. “Ever since you took over … I am afraid that the general reputation of DDCA has gone southward,” the association member Dinesh Kumar Sharma wrote in 2011. “This is mainly due to the fact that … the Executive Committee … under your patronage have usurped all the financial and administrative powers … causing substantial financial losses.”

The cricket journalist Chander Shekhar Luthra told me, “I once asked Jaitley, ‘Only Rs20 crore was spent for the Dharamshala stadium and it is beautiful. How come Delhi’s stadium is so bad despite spending so much money?’ His answer was a simple one-liner: ‘People drive Maruti and people drive Mercedes.’ Till date I have not understood what he meant.” Luthra added, “But I have seen all these DDCA people from the time when they used to come on scooters to driving Mercedes today.”

In May 2012, Azad wrote a letter of complaint about the “accounting mess” in the DDCA to RPN Singh, then minister of state for corporate affairs. “The accounts are blatantly falsified and false bills are shown to account for Rs30 crore every year,” he wrote. He alleged financial fraud, illegal payments to members without proper clearances and illegal procurement without tenders. He followed this up with a letter to Jaitley that July, in which he wrote, “I wish to request you not to make snide remarks about me or wife in the manipulated leaks.”

Later, Azad raised the issue in the monsoon session of parliament, during which Jaitley was loudly accusing the UPA government of corruption in allocating coal blocks. The ministry of corporate affairs constituted a three-member team of the Serious Fraud Investigation Office to investigate Azad’s claims. Azad told me he was called “indirectly through many people,” and given “a lot of offers” to back down.

By the time the SFIO’s report was completed, in March 2014, Jaitley was no longer DDCA president; he did not contest the 2013 election, though he was rumoured to be eying the top post in the Board of Control for Cricket in India. The SFIO’s report confirmed Azad’s allegations, and indicated that the DDCA had not complied with even basic accounting standards, such as using cheques for payments of above Rs20,000. The SFIO pushed for an internal audit, which exposed even more financial mismanagement. The Registrar of Companies imposed a compounding fee of over Rs4 lakh on the DDCA and three of its office bearers—Sunil Dev, SP Bansal and Narinder Batra—plus an additional fee on Dev and Bansal. Jaitley, however escaped any indictment for the corruption under his watch.

“As a president, he can’t say ‘I didn’t know,’” Sameer Bahadur, a DDCA member, told me. During the association’s 2012 annual general meeting, recorded on video, Azad had challenged Jaitley in a heated moment. “You have sent in forged proxies here,” he said; “You file a defamation case against me.” Jaitley responded, “There are a lot of things I have been choosing to ignore, I will ignore this too.” He also called Azad and others “a complaint-filing agency,” and spoilsports.

Bahadur believes Jaitley stayed out of the 2013 elections because of a change in the Companies Act, which now recommended imprisonment, rather than relatively low fines, for fraud. While the SFIO and Azad were digging for evidence of corruption, Jaitley became its patron-in-chief, an honorary but influential position, instead of president. In August 2014, once Jaitley was finance minister with charge of the corporate affairs ministry, Azad raised the issue of DDCA corruption in parliament again. This January, the DDCA lodged a police complaint against SP Bansal, who had replaced Jaitley as the association’s president, and Anil Khanna, its general secretary, for illegally transferring Rs1.55 crore to some realty companies; both were also sacked by the DDCA’s executive committee. Because of the change in the company law, Bahadur told me, “CK Khanna’s faction has taken a stand against the president and general secretary.” Earlier, he said, “they were hand-in-glove, and would blindly sign all the accounts,” while Jaitley looked the other way.

“As they say in Bihar,” Azad told me, “saiyan bhaye kotwal to dar kaahe ka?”—when the policeman is your lover, what is there to fear? “There has been an embezzlement of Rs30 crore every year. But nobody talks about it. They will talk about the Saradha scam and other scams, but not this.” Jaitley has not been directly accused of corruption in the DDCA. But people like Bahadur hold him responsible for ignoring the warning signs. “Jaitley couldn’t run a company with an annual budget of Rs30 crore,” Bahadur said. “What can he do as finance minister of the country?”

 

SOON AFTER NARENDRA MODI was sworn in as prime minister last May, reports emerged about his stern attempts to get his ministers in line. Though tensions continued to simmer within the party, details about them rarely leaked out to the press, barring a few glimpses. Yet as the New Yorker editor David Remnick observed in his profile of Václav Havel, the former president of Czechoslovakia, “Political gossip, to say nothing of political journalism, abhors stasis.” Last August, the Economic Times reported that Rajnath Singh had complained about “malicious and false stories,” which were “the handiwork of a party rival, an influential BJP leader” to BJP president Amit Shah and the RSS. In January, Smriti Irani, Modi’s minister of human resource development, told the Economic Times that the persistent criticism she faced was “a deliberate narrative, as far as I am concerned, which has been nicely seeded into the media,” though she would not specify whether the narrative had been seeded by someone from her own party when asked that question.

Jaitley’s image in the media remains relatively untarnished. “If you do a Google search there is one politician against whom you will not find anything negative,” Kishwar said. “His own track record is totally sanitised in media despite over four decades in public life.” However, the media did pick up on friction between the finance minister and the Reserve Bank of India governor, Raghuram Rajan, over the past year—in a disagreement over interest rates that was unusually public for the two positions. This January, Open magazine wrote that both Jaitley and Rajan “were upset with the concerted efforts by a group of officials to denigrate them,” by spreading a “whisper campaign” that there was a “wedge” between them. Despite denials, and their united front during the presentation of the annual budget, reports of the rift continued. On 2 April, both Modi and Jaitley praised Rajan at an RBI function. “There is lot of similarity between the thinking of the RBI and government,” Modi said. “As a representative of the government, I express my satisfaction. RBI is performing its role and I congratulate Raghuram-ji and his team,” he added. A few weeks later, on 14 April, Jaitley was asked if he was unhappy with Rajan during an interview with NDTV, and replied, “There are no personal differences with RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan, just some conflicting viewpoints … The Prime Minister has very nice things to say about the Governor also.”

In the same interview, Jaitley also responded to the use of the word “presstitutes” to refer to journalists by minister of state for external affairs, VK Singh, on Twitter. “I personally don’t agree that he should have said that,” he said. “I am of the opinion that at times even when media commits excesses, it’s better to look the other way.” Five days later, Modi came out full of praise for Singh at a meeting of BJP MPs, criticising the media for ignoring his “good work” in evacuating Indians from Yemen “due to other reasons”—a reference to the backlash against the presstitutes remark.

Earlier this year, ahead of his budget speech in February, Jaitley was busy managing the BJP’s Delhi assembly election campaign, projecting great confidence for the party. In late January, Jaitley told Headlines Today, “My analysis is that we are comfortably ahead.” The BJP MP, who called Jaitley Modi’s “consigliere,” said that the day before the polling “Jaitley had predicted a margin of 25 seats.” A day after the party lost dramatically, winning an embarrassing three seats in an assembly of 70, the BJP MP said, “Modi called Rajnath, Gadkari, Venkaiah and Jaitley for a meeting.” The MP, who heard about the meeting from one of the leaders present, said “Modi told Jaitley, ‘Kya aap ko koi rajnaitik aakalan hai?’”—do you have any political sense?

A senior editor, who said he had been friends with Jaitley for 27 years, said after Jaitley became finance minister, he “has changed his style of functioning as per Modi’s advice. He has addressed his limitation.” The editor continued, “Modi told him ‘aapke pet mein kuch pachta nahin hai, patrakar ko bol dete hain’”—you can’t keep anything down, you talk to journalists. “‘Now you have to put a Sellotape and behave like Pranab Mukherjee.’” He added, “Vajpayee’s Arun Jaitley is different from Narendra Modi’s Arun Jaitley. Now he’s become responsible.”

Corrections

1. An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Sri Ram Khanna in place of Alok Kumar.

2. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Chandra Shekhar became the prime minster of India while he was the head of the Janata Dal (Secular). Chandra Shekhar was the head of the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP) at the time.

| ONE |

IN 2012, two years before Arun Jaitley became the most important minister in Narendra Modi’s cabinet, the news that the ruling United Progressive Alliance’s allocation of coal blocks may have cost the government thousands of crores and unfairly benefited private interests, incapacitated the parliament’s monsoon session. Bharatiya Janata Party parliamentarians threatened to resign en masse, and Jaitley, then the BJP’s opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha, aggressively spoke out against what he called “the biggest scam in independent India.”

As the stymied parliament session ground to a halt that August, Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, his counterpart in the Lok Sabha, released a fierce joint statement. “We used this session of Parliament to shake the conscience of the people of India,” they wrote. “This is not merely a political battle. It is a battle for safeguarding the economic resources for a larger public good.” In a press conference, Jaitley called the allocation process “arbitrary,” “discretionary,” and “corrupt,” “a textbook case of crony capitalism.” In an opinion piece in The Hindu, titled “Defending the Indefensible,” he wrote “the government was so overenthusiastic in continuing the discretionary process in allotment” that it did not institute the “competitive bidding mechanism” that would have ensured a more just process of allocation.

A few years earlier, Jaitley had offered a different type of opinion to Strategic Energy Technology Systems Private Limited, an ambitious joint venture between Tata Sons and a South African firm, in his capacity as a practicing lawyer. When applying for coal blocks in 2008, SETSPL, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the allocation process, sought Jaitley’s advice on whether it could avoid sharing a certain part of its profits with the government. Jaitley provided the company with a 21-page legal opinion, via the law offices of his college friend Raian Karanjawala, recognising that “the Govt. of India is entitled to adopt a procedure for allocation of coal blocks,” and that the company was not legally bound to share the proposed profits with the government. Jaitley’s arguments in support of SETSPL indicated that he had been well aware of the prevailing coal block allocation process despite his hue and cry about “the monumental fraud.”

Shortly after the coal scam broke, the legal opinion was made available to the press by one or more UPA ministers. As the BJP fanned the flames of protest against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—alleging that he had allowed controversial allocations under his watch as coal minister—the leaked opinion, a potential hot tip, became a hot potato. The document was passed around between journalists, including senior staff at the Times of India, the Economic Times, Headlines Today, NDTV and CNBC. But in each case, the story of Jaitley’s inconsistent outrage was withheld.

A mid-level journalist at Headlines Today said that the office of P Chidambaram, the union home minister at the time, gave the channel the story of the leak as “an exclusive,” and that it ran once before being taken off the air. The journalist was told by his senior, who said he had spoken to Jaitley, that though he believed in “the merits of the story,” Jaitley had argued the leaked document was “a private opinion.” “I have always believed what the editor thinks is right,” the journalist said, smiling, “so I said okay.”

Another journalist who had the document told me that Jaitley wrote a letter to the vice president, who is chairman of the Rajya Sabha, complaining “that the intelligence agencies were trying to tarnish his reputation. The vice president’s office had confirmed it to me,” the journalist said. “The bureau chief wanted Jaitley’s comment, but he wasn’t willing to talk about the issue at all. So the story was not carried.” Only one journalist actually spoke to Jaitley about the opinion, but colleagues who knew about the interview, which never ran, said he was unsatisfied with Jaitley’s answers. The journalist didn’t want to share details of the meeting to avoid “creating discomfort” to his colleagues. “And remember he is the finance minister,” he said. “I don’t want to upset him.”

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Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.

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