Arun Jaitley: From 19 months in prison to the high table of Indian economic affairs

Man of many hats.
Man of many hats.
Image: REUTERS/Saumya Khandelwal
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India’s former finance minister, and one of the most prominent leaders of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), Arun Jaitley passed away in New Delhi today (Aug. 24). He was 66.

Jaitley was admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) on Aug. 9, after he complained of breathlessness and was on life support ever since, according to media reports.

Jaitley headed India’s finance ministry between 2014 and 2019, during the Modi government’s first term, where he anchored key reforms, including the goods and services tax (GST).

His knack for building a cross-party political consensus came to light during the heated parliamentary debate on the GST bill in 2017. The landmark legislation was passed despite the Modi government’s lack of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament.

Not surprisingly, Jaitly was widely seen as Modi’s chief troubleshooter.

However, he was constantly constrained by ill-health.

On May 14, 2018, he was hospitalised for a renal transplant and the then railways minister Piyush Goyal filled in for him in the finance ministry. In February this year, Goyal even presented the last budget of the previous Modi government. In September 2014, Jaitley had undergone bariatric surgery to correct the weight he had gained due to chronic diabetes.

Following Modi’s re-election, Jaitley wrote a letter to the prime minister on May 29 this year, opting out from the new government. “…I would in future, for some time, like to keep away from any responsibility. This will enable me to concentrate on my health and treatment.”

He, however, remained connected to politics through his blog posts. On Aug. 6, he had written hailing the centre’s move to revoke Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir and termed it a “monumental decision towards national integration.”

Student leader to successful lawyer

Born in 1952 in New Delhi, Jaitley followed his father’s footsteps to become a successful advocate.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Delhi’s faculty of law in 1977. He also had an honours degree in commerce from Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce.

Jaitley plunged into politics during his college days through the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In 1974, he became president of the students’ union of DU.

He was active in politics during the years of India’s internal emergency between 1975 and 1977, and the Indira Gandhi government put him under preventive detention for a period of 19 months

Jaitley reminisced those years in a three-part blog series titled “The Emergency Revisited – The Tyranny of Emergency” published in June 2018. In the post, he compared Indira Gandhi with German dictator Adolf Hitler, and said both used “a republican Constitution to transform democracy into a dictatorship.”

In 1980, when he formally joined the BJP, he was appointed as the president of the party’s youth wing—the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM).

Jaitley was also known for his sharp skills as a lawyer and had a lengthy list of clients mainly from across the Indian political spectrum. He was appointed additional solicitor general by the VP Singh government in 1989, and did the paperwork for the investigations into the Bofors scandal.

He practised law before the supreme court and various high courts in the country from 1987 till 2009, when he quit to focus on his political career.

Minister Jaitley

Jaitley became a central minister for the first time in 1999 when he was put in charge of information and broadcasting (I&B) by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In November 2000, he was elevated as a cabinet minister, and simultaneously made minister of law, justice, and company affairs and shipping.

Jaitley became the BJP’s general secretary in 2002, but in May 2004, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) lost the general elections. In 2009, Jaitley was chosen as the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, where he was nominated in 2006.

In 2014, he contested and lost his first parliamentary election, from Punjab’s Amritsar constituency, to the Indian National Congress’s Amarinder Singh.

Even then, Jaitley remained a key player within the BJP. He was an important factor in the elevation of Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014.

Following the BJP’s victory, Jaitley was entrusted with key cabinet roles. Besides the finance ministry, he was also in charge of defence for a few months. Jaitley also headed the I&B ministry between November 2014 and July 2016.

Yet, it is for his stewardship of India’s economy in 2014-19, that he’ll be most remembered.

A mixed bag

As a former finance minister, Jaitley leaves behind a chequered legacy. While he engineered major economic reforms, his tenure was also marked by slowing growth.

Among the many big-ticket reforms, the GST rollout in 2017 was the most significant. The credit for the insolvency & bankruptcy code (IBC), an orderly time-bound framework for dealing with firms’ bankruptcies, also goes to Jaitley. In financial year 2019, Rs70,000 crore  ($9.74 billion) was recovered through the IBC, according to credit ratings agency CRISIL.

The merging of many loss-making public sector banks also happened under Jaitley’s watch.

He can also be credited for sticking to the path of fiscal consolidation, despite economic growth losing steam. One of his biggest achievements was pruning the centre’s fiscal deficit from 4.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013-14 to 3.6% in 2017-18.

In his first budget speech in July 2014, Jaitley said the government would retain the fiscal deficit target for 2014-15 at 4.1% of gross domestic product (GDP) and reduce it further to 3% by 2016-17. “My predecessor (P Chidambaram) had set up a very difficult task of reducing the fiscal deficit. The target is indeed daunting. Difficult as it may appear, I have decided to accept this target as a challenge,” he said.

However, there were many misses.

Despite the introduction of the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Amendment Act in 2016 , and the Black Money (Undisclosed Foreign Income and Assets) Imposition of New Tax bill in 2015, experts complained about the government’s failure to corner the big fishes with unaccounted wealth.

The dramatic demonetisation—invalidation of two high-value currencies accounting for an overwhelming amount of money in circulation by value—in November 2016 is widely acknowledged as the debilitating disruption that threw the economy off its track.

Reports of his rift with former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan had also made headlines in May 2016. However, Jaitley refuted the reports calling them “conspiracy theories.”

“I think whether it is North Block or whether it is the Mint Street, these are responsible institutions. There are a lot of people who are level-headed and who work with a sense of propriety because their priorities are clear,” the minister had then said.

For better or for worse, Jaitley’s years at North Block were eventful. And fittingly, a wide range of people and institutions condoled is passing away.