April 05, 2020
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Jack Of Clubs And The Cardsharps

It’s reshuffle season. His grip over ministry, party, boss and khakidom has slackened. Even so, the loose cannons may not get Arun Jaitley.

Jack Of Clubs And The Cardsharps
Chidambaram and Jaitley in 2012. The RSS abhors their affable ties.
Photograph by Getty Images
Jack Of Clubs And The Cardsharps

Even in the best of times, writing about Arun Jaitley is a treacherous exercise—like walking into a landmine an advance party has marked out. Last year, when a less-than-flattering profile of the portly Union fin­ance minister appeared, the few advertisements the publication received from PSU banks apparently started drying up bec­ause someone made phone calls from North Block. There is, of course, nothing to prove gossip like that. And Jaitley himself, as a raconteur who loves a good story—a ‘neta’ who cut his teeth during Indira Gandhi’s emergency—would be loath to having his name associated with such perfidy. After all, he is also the I&B minister, and has been reassuring the nation that censorship would be impossible today. But gossip has a strange way of revealing the Freudian part of truth.

And, as the gossip mills start whirring with news of a cabinet reshuffle, the buzz is if the RSS was sending signals to Narendra Modi on the man it has always considered a bit of an interloper in the BJP. The PM’s televised rap on  Subramanian Swamy’s knu­­ckles may have resulted in a cessation of hostilities in Twitterdom. Jaitley might yet retain his main job when portfolios are rejigged, but, clearly, the leader of the house in the Rajya Sabha, who often rants against the “tyranny of the unelected”, has had to rely on the PM to yank him out of the line of fire of an ‘unelected’ RS colleague—and his ‘unelected’ RSS backers.

“In his choice of television station to give an interview and in his choice of words, Modi has shown that in the battle betw­een Jaitley and Swamy he will back Jaitley,” says a North Block official.

Id est: Jaitley will stay as Fin Min and Swamy should be happy with a bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi, and Z-category security. But the attacks on at least two worthies, seen as Raghuram Rajan’s potential successors as RBI governor (chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian and economic affairs secretary Shaktikanta Das), with another 25 ‘Congi saboteurs’ in the queue, show that something about the finance ministry doesn’t quite sit well with the Sangh parivar, starting with the ‘mantri’.

“We are all with him. If the other person doesn’t understand what the party is saying, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Sidharth Nath Singh, BJP spokesperson Oxford

The RSS’s distrust of Jaitley, due to his pre­sumed political, corporate and media networking, is as old as the hills (see gra­phic). If that could survive Vajpayee and Adv­ani, the pragmatic side of the Sangh par­ivar believes it will survive Modi too. So it tolerates the excesses by averting its eyes. But it is Jaitley’s proximity to his predecessor, P. Chidambaram, both Supreme Court lawyers, which seems to have become the lightning rod for the latest ambush.

There are two reasons for this. One, the RSS hasn’t quite forgiven Chidambaram, who was home minister after 26/11, for sending some of its best students like Indresh Kumar and Sadhvi Pragya to jail in the name of ‘Hindu terror’. And, two, it bel­ieves officers close to Chidambaram in the UPA regime have been bequeathed to Jaitley under the NDA, some of whom even  seem to be enjoying a good run. Result: it believes all the thoughts, attitudes and imp­ulses that drove Manmohan Singh’s government are guiding Modi’s too.

Swamy, a ‘virat’ Hindu with a soaring ima­­­gination at 76 (sample: “I just saw a picture of an Uzbekistan street crowd. Many had a resemblance to PC—why?”), has gone one step further to fuse the two for his “Patriotic Tweeples”. He believes there is a grand conspiracy afoot to save Chi­d­ambaram and his son Karti, and the Maran brothers. And guess who is helping whom?

Raghuram Rajan’s exit may have been a common goal for Jaitley and Swamy

Photograph by Jitender Gupta

Says former law minister Veerappa Moily: “The personal attacks are unf­ortunate. Arun Jaitley is not just an individual, he’s also the finance minister.” BJP MP Kirti Azad disagrees: “I don’t think exposing corruption brings a bad name to the party. The allegations Swamy is making should be probed.”

Key wings of the Union finance ministry (like the ED) are not under Jaitley’s charge.

Truth to tell, with three lacklustre budgets, the ‘indispensable Mr Jaitley’ appears increasingly dispensable. Key wings of the FinMin (like the Enforcement Directorate) are not under his charge. All policy is driven from the PMO through the PM’s trusted aide, Hansmukh Adhia. And, two years on, Modi, who needed Jaitley to understand the ways of Delhi initially, seems to have come into his own, with BJP president Amit Shah stepping up to the plate after the Assam assembly victory.

Even so, there is such a thing as trust and loyalty. If Modi is PM today, a fair bit of credit should go to Jaitley for hauling him out of the coals in the post-2002 cases. Modi is unlikely to forget that ever. Moreover, the RSS may have its ‘ideal’ worldview, but the real world is different, and Jaitley knows it a lot better than the men from Nagpur. So, the buzz in New Delhi is that Jaitley, bolstered by the PM’s intervention, will ride out the storm.

Raghuram Rajan’s exit may have mom­entarily achieved a common goal of both Jaitley and Swamy, but the real test will come in an unsure, post-Brexit world. Even some of Jaitley’s friends suggest he has been ‘less than spectacular’ as finance min­ister. He seems shoddy in public finance, while sluggish investment, no perceptible change in ease of doing business, food inflation, a looming banking crisis and failure to bring back black money from abroad have left him vulnerable to criticism.

Swamy, for his part, doesn’t let him forget that as a Harvard PhD in economics he is infinitely more suited for the job than a Delhi University grad. A few days before the PM spoke in Jaitley’s defence, Swamy reiterated his populist demand to abolish income tax. “I will do it in three months if I am in the government,” he said, “and in three years if I am not”. Jaitley, being a lawyer, he suggested, had natural sympathy for those who pay and also evade taxes.

This is not to suggest that Jaitley will complete a full five years as finance minister. While Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh were at the helm of the ministry during NDA-I, UPA juggled the ministry between Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and P. Chidambaram. “All fin­ance ministers find themselves at the rec­eiving end of attacks, media trials and scandals,” points out a North Block babu. But while people may complain about the economy, he claimed, Jaitley could not be accused of encouraging power brokers. “You no longer see the safari-clad bunch in the visitors’ room and the FM’s phones to bank chairmen are rare, if any,” he added.

“The personal attacks are unfortunate. Arun Jaitley is not just an individual, he is also the country’s finance minister.”
Veerappa Moily, Former Union law minister

Jaitley’s bureaucrats swear by him, upsetting his critics. “He is too bureaucratic and allows civil servants to dictate to him,” complains one. “Modi stormed to power raising hopes that he would be able to take on the establishment in Delhi and change the rules of the game,” carps another. But Jaitley is seen as too much of an ‘insider’ and too invested in the capital’s power games. “He is like a Congress minister in a BJP government,” says an observer.

That may not be an accident. Hardcore RSS activists claim that Indira Gandhi att­ended Jaitley’s marriage and that his fat­her-in-law, Girdhari Lal Dogra, was a prominent Congress leader. In a profile published in Caravan last year, Jaitley’s batchmates recalled that it was the Congress which was wooing Jaitley to contest DUSU election as an NSUI candidate when the RSS was persuaded overnight to declare him as the ABVP nominee.

Some believe Jaitley was an ‘accidental fin­­ance minister’. Till the 2014 polls, it was understood that Arun Shourie would have the post. But Shourie, they claim, spoilt his chances by behaving on television as if he was already the minister. Thus, Jaitley landed the job, along with defence and cor­­porate affairs. While the last two were later taken away, he was put in charge of I&B.

On paper, home min­ister Rajnath Singh is the official No. 2, but Jaitley appears to be the second most powerful Union minister. While he remains among the most important fund-raisers, his importa­nce to the party, government and to the PM himself appears to have declined. With Amit Shah overhauling the organisation, Jai­t­ley’s contribution to party strategy has reduced. With Jayant Sinha as his junior minister in finance and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore in I&B, his responsibilities are shared. And the PM himself is believed to have had the measure of Lutyens’ Delhi and no longer requires Jaitley to hold his hands.

Modi felicitates Swamy during JP’s birth anniversary celebrations in Delhi

Photograph by Getty Images

“The PM has no reason to be beholden to Jaitley any more,” says someone who has interviewed Modi. When Jaitley failed to get the required relief from courts in some of the Gujarat cases, he recalled, Modi had to seek the help of Ram Jethmalani and had to get him elected to the Rajya Sabha from Rajasthan.

Jaitley was reportedly not consulted on recent RS nominations, including Swamy’s.

While Jaitley is seen to be unf­airly criticised, there is little explanation why he went out of his way to have Mukul Rohatgi as the attorney-general and Ranjit Kumar as the solicitor-general, besides Pinky Anand, Maninder Singh, P.S. Narasimha and Neeraj Kishan Kaul as ASGs. “They haven’t been able to even secure a bail for Pragya Singh Thakur in the Malegaon blast case, despite the National Investigating Agency giving her a clean chit,” complains another critic.

But, the PM and Jaitley share an undeniable chemistry. Modi had been a frequent visitor to Jaitley’s house in the 1990s. And Jaitley went against Vajpayee to support Modi following the 2002 post-Godhra riots. Outlook’s former editor-in-­chief, the late Vinod Mehta, wrote that Jaitley possibly was Modi’s only ‘friend’. That sentiment is echoed by someone close to Swamy. Nothing, he predicts, would hap­pen to Jaitley because “the prime minister is in love with him and love can be blind”. Others demur. “The PM is a loner and is incapable of blind love,” says a Modi biographer.

The feeling that Modi is no longer influenced by this ‘friendship’ is borne out by a series of political decisions, most notably the nomination of Swamy and Navjot Singh Sidhu to the RS. Jaitley blames Sidhu for not campaigning for him hard enough in Amritsar in 2014, an election he lost despite the Modi ‘wave’. And he wouldn’t have approved of Swamy’s nomination to the RS, where he is leader of the House. According to the grapevine, Jaitley was not consulted on the nominations, but informed about them. Similarly, the appointment of Vijay Sampla as the Punjab BJP chief did not have his stamp.

Jaitley also appears vulnerable because of his fragile health. He went through a triple bypass surgery in 2005 and a gastric surgery he had left post-operation complications in 2014-15, rendering him inactive for months. His friends confide that these days he lives on medicines and yet suffers from irregular bowel movement and is unable to sit or stand in any position for long. His feet get swollen if he has to and he gets exh­austed after long, official meetings.

Above all, there is consensus that Jaitley has been his own worst enemy. He missed out on being the party president because of his fondness for high living, costly watches, shawls and pens. More importantly, his penchant for bad-mouthing everyone and sharing intimate details to ridicule or denigrate others meant that few could bank on his loyalty or trust him. Even Narendra Modi reportedly told the FM, “Aap ke pet mein kuchh pachta nahin hai” (you can’t keep anything to yourself).

“Arunji is a very important part of the government, with great intellect and integrity. What Dr Swamy says is his personal opinion.”
Gopal Krishna Agarwal, BJP spokesperson

Scholar Madhu Kishwar, who intervie­wed Modi in 2013, admits to have told the then Gujarat CM that in Delhi he should be wary of Jaitley. “Nahi Madhuji, ve mere acche mitr hain” (No, Madhu Ji, he happens to be a good friend), Modi retorted. But, in 2016, PM Modi clearly does not want any of his ministers to feel too secure.

“It’s his Standard Operating Procedure,” chuckles a journalist in Ahmedabad. “The PM will give ministers a long rope but would expect they fall in line quickly,” he explains, adding that he wouldn’t think twice before pulling the rug under their feet if they don’t. “He has put Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhararaje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Rajnath Singh and Raman Singh in their place and he would repeat it with others. Modi has defended Jaitley, but he has let him know that he has to be on his toes.”

That leaves two questions to be ans­w­ered. Can Modi rein in Subramanian Swamy and steer him to attack the Gan­dhis and not his own top ministers when Parliament opens soon? And does the PM see Jaitley as a threat? After all, at least four finance ministers have gone on to become prime minister of the country. The answer is in the air.

By Uttam Sengupta with Anoo Bhuyan and Bula Devi in Delhi, and R.K. Misra in Ahmedabad

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