Meet Mr Fix It
A man about town. For all seasons. Who wears many tactical hats. Meet another BJP aspirant for the PM’s slot: Arun Jaitley
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
In July 2008, in the run-up to the trust motion facing the Congress in Parliament, frantic calls were exchanged between Arun Jaitley and LK Advani’s close aide, Sudheendra Kulkarni. After the failure of an initial plan to videograph a powerful Congress functionary close to Sonia Gandhi, they were later successful with Amar Singh. Jaitley rushed to BJP MP Ashok Argal’s house and congratulated a young CNN-IBN reporter, Siddharth Gautam. The reporter later narrated that he worked on the instructions of Jaitley via channel head Rajdeep Sardesai on the sting operation. Jaitley even made him speak to LK Advani on his own phone.
Everything went as per plan. The BJP MPs marched in to the Well of the House with wads of cash; but the simultaneous project of the sting being aired on television did not take off. CNN-IBN, sensing something was amiss, backed off. The putsch to bring down the UPA government failed.
“Jaitley would complain about the channel for many days to come. The BJP literally boycotted the channel. But he knows the media’s nuisance value. He is never inflexible in dealing with the media. He patched up and is again good friends with the editor,” says a political observer. “He is smart. You just can’t match his media management skills. He skirts controversies. He maintains a clean image. That is his great quality.”
Mr Fix It. A man about town, for all seasons, who wears many tactical hats. The BJP’s backroom boy, excellent troubleshooter, articulate, a successful lawyer, influential cricket honcho: Jaitley has earned himself the envy of his colleagues in the party and outside. He has emerged as the BJP’s eternal fire-fighter and strategist. Many in the Left call him the “suave and refined face of fascism”.
Be it Karnataka, where ex-CM and Lingayat heavyweight BS Yeddyurappa made things difficult for the BJP, or Rajasthan, where the ‘princess’ was miffed over rival Gulab Chand Kataria’s Lok Jagran Yatra and threatened to resign, it is Jaitley who enters the ring as troubleshooter. Indeed, sometimes, he does it at the expense of the party, unhappy insiders whisper.
He can be acidic and sharp in private. That he loves to gossip in ‘debriefing sessions’ and runs down others in the party is not a state secret. Intelligent, pleasant, friendly, flexible, witty, with a remarkable sense of humour, ‘friends’ say, he can be equally snobbish, revengeful and arrogant.
He has a history of crafting and fine-tuning strategy for Advani and Narendra Modi — despite not appearing a hardliner. He has never been great friends with Sushma Swaraj, despite the current scenario of a reasonable relationship. He has been able to manufacture a cordial alliance with BJP chief Nitin Gadkari, despite the initial hiccups among senior BJP leaders after Gadkari was handpicked by the RSS, ignoring their legitimate claims.
He is the party’s strategic conduit to its major allies, Nitish Kumar in Bihar and the Badals in Punjab. “There are rumours that he manages Nitish’s PR in Delhi when the need arises. Watch some of those feel-good stories that come on Bihar,” say journalists on the BJP beat.
A man who has “figured out the system”, including across the party spectrum, he is reportedly good friends with influential leaders in the Congress, including a powerful Union minister and a functionary close to Sonia Gandhi. Is he also tangentially close to 10 Janpath? Cynics point to the 2004 India-Pakistan match in Karachi when that famous ‘victory catch’ by Zaheer Khan was collectively celebrated, in the VIP section — guess, by whom? Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi — and Arun Jaitley. Have his relations with 10 Janpath turned soured since then?
“He is close to a particular Congress leader due to his interest in the BCCI. He wants to be the president of the BCCI,” says a BJP MP. “He mixes cricket, politics, big business and media to his advantage.”
“He has the ability to create a spin out of nothingness. He made an issue in party circles when Sushma, in the run-up to the assembly elections in Bihar in 2010, said that Modi is not really required in Gujarat. Modi was upset with Sushma,” says a BJP insider. Swaraj had then cryptically said, “Modi’s charisma and magic has worked in Gujarat but it is not necessary that everybody’s magic works at every place.”
In his current avatar as the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Jaitley’s oratory and extraordinary prowess on policy matters have earned him accolades from even the Congress. His presence in the House has definitely raised the quality of debate.
He is not the Jai Shri Ram type. He would always keep himself aloof of tricky issues like Ayodhya
Born to Kishen and Ratan Prabha Jaitley on December 28, 1952, in Delhi, Jaitley went to St Xavier’s School. Later, he enrolled in Sri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi University and went on to become college and Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) president. “He was an average student in terms of studies. But his extracurricular record was extraordinary. He was an exceptional speaker even then,” says Raian Karanjawala, senior lawyer and old friend. “However, in his younger days, he was far more selective about what he was.”
Jaitley, an active member of the BJP’s student wing, the ABVP, joined JP’s movement against Indira Gandhi’s government. “He organised the first satyagraha in Delhi University,” says Vijay Goel, BJP general secretary. The Emergency was imposed on June 26, 1975. JP and other leaders were put behind bars. Even as others went underground, Jaitley was sent to the Ambala prison.
A happy-go-lucky Punjabi at heart who likes, old-style delicacies, Jaitley, in an article on food, recalled how he was the kitchen in-charge in jail and cajoled fellow inmates to cook sumptuous paranthas; he also convinced the jail warden to allow meat. “It was with good reason that we all left prison looking rather plumper,” he wrote.
Untill 1983, Jaitley confined himself to Delhi’s state politics. “Not contesting elections during the early days has proved costly for his political career,” says a BJP observer. Unlike Swaraj, also in the race for the PM’s slot, who has contested several tough elections, Jaitley has till date not contested a single assembly or Lok Sabha election.
After the BJP’s defeat in the Delhi elections in 1983, Jaitley decided to focus on his profession. “During this period, through his unmatched professional and interpersonal skills, he established himself as a lawyer par excellence,” says top lawyer Mukul Rohatgi.
Jaitley, along with a Delhi-based columnist were strategising Modi’s electoral strategy. Surely, there are no ethical or guilt pangs’
On April 16, 1987, a radio news report in Sweden on the Bofors payoff rocked the Congress’s boat in Delhi. The BJP sensed blood. It saw it as a great opportunity to do a JP-style campaign against Rajiv Gandhi’s government. The Indian Express, with Arun Shourie at the helm, after he was lured by Ramnath Goenka, was at the vanguard of this deadly anti-Congress campaign. Old-timers recall that regular meetings were held at the Express Guest House in Sunder Nagar, Delhi, which were attended by KN Govindacharya, RN Goenka, Ram Jethmalani, Arun Jaitley, Arun Shourie, S Gurumurthy and Prabhu Chawla, among others. They strategised the ‘Bofors attack’ on the Congress regime.
With VP Singh making it an election plank, the Bofors ghost dislodged Rajiv. Singh became PM in 1989 with outside support from the Left and BJP. Jaitley was appointed Additional Solicitor General. Consider it a mere coincidence that, a day prior to his appointment, he was designated a senior lawyer. “The judges appreciated that a young lawyer had been appointed ASG,” says Rohatgi. “VP had great faith in him. He was very fond of Arun,” adds Karanjawala, who was apparently close to Singh. “VP Singh was keen to have Jaitley as his ASG. He told me that he was capable of representing the government,” says Soli J Sorabjee, former Attorney General of India.
However, there are others in the BJP who believe that Jaitley was appointed due to his proximity to Karanjawala. “As the ASG, among other things, one of his important jobs was to pursue the Bofors case,” says Karanjawala. Political observers argue that it was the Bofors case investigations which played a major role in the rising graph of Jaitley’s political career. During his days as ASG, he travelled to Sweden and Switzerland with CBI officials to uncover the plot. Nothing much came of it.
The Swedish police chief, Sten Lindstrom, later told Chitra Subramaniam, the journalist who broke the Bofors story in India, in an interview 25 years later, that Indian investigators introduced Amitabh Bachchan’s name and did nothing to investigate the case. Said Lindstrom: “The only team I met in early 1990 damaged the seriousness of my work and the media investigation. I met them on a courtesy call. They were in the process of filing a letter rogatory (LR) in Switzerland. Without an official request from Switzerland, Sweden could not intervene. They gave me a list of names to pursue, including the name of Amitabh Bachchan. They also told me they did not trust you [Subramaniam] entirely because you had refused to link the Bachchans to the kickbacks. During that trip to Sweden, the Indian investigators planted the Bachchan angle… I was disappointed with the role of many senior journalists and politicians during that period. They muddied the waters.”
He wants to be the BCCI president. He mixes cricket, politics, big business and media to his advantage’
“Significantly, when VP Singh was prime minister, Jaitley did not relinquish his post even when Advani was arrested by Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar during his Ramjanmabhoomi rath yatra; later, the BJP withdrew support. He quit only when Chandra Shekhar became PM and did not appoint him. He has always done it. He always kept his own interests above the interests of the party,” says a cynical BJP insider.
In the Ram Mandir movement, Jaitley did not play a public role, unlike other conspicuous BJP vanguard like Advani, Uma Bharati, Murli Manohar Joshi, and VHP/Bajrang Dal rabble-rousers like Ashok Singhal, Sadhvi Rithambara and Vinay Katiyar. “He was organising backroom strategies, but I don’t think he played any important role. He provided inputs on an everyday basis,” says a Hindutva ideologue. “He was opposed to the Ram Mandir movement and would call the kar sewaks lumpen elements,” another BJP leader confides.
Indeed, Jaitley has always ensured that his secular pretensions remain intact. “He is not the Jai Shri Ram type. He would always keep himself aloof from tricky issues like Ayodhya,” says a BJP observer. “He was never rabid and would never give in to cheap rhetoric — the kind of stuff that we hear from the likes of Uma Bharati and Narendra Modi,” says a senior journalist. “He is one man even his adversaries consider secular,” says SN Singh, a BJP office-bearer.
Jaitley was even ‘WikiLeaked’ on the issue. One of the cables sent to Washington in 2005 said that he saw Hindutva as an “opportunistic issue” for the BJP.
“Liberal nationalism is part of his mental matrix. He believes in the hold-all umbrella,” says a former general secretary of the BJP. “He would even interact with Muslim leaders. For Hindu nationalists and the ones who profess swadeshi, he is a terrible misfit. Didn’t he appear for CocaCola against the BJP government in Rajasthan? He has not passed through the usual filters of the Sangh.”
Jaitley consistently backed Modi after the Gujarat pogrom in 2002. Even as the violence and Modi’s hate politics continued, it was Jaitley and Advani who backed Modi. “Jaitley, along with a Delhi-based columnist who is forever on TV, were strategising Modi’s electoral strategy,” said a senior female journalist who met them in Ahmedabad before the last assembly elections in Gujarat. “Surely, there are no ethical or guilt pangs.”
‘The contest is between Jaitley and Modi. Modi is beyond the organisation. When all governments are driven by the doctrine of ‘by, for and of corporates’ -- Jaitley is fit for the post’
Despite the current ambivalence with Modi being projected as candidate for PM by the RSS, Jaitley continues to maintain a tacit alliance with the Gujarat chief minister. Recently, when Supreme Court amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran pointed a finger at Modi for his role in the Gujarat genocide, it was Jaitley who came to Modi’s defence: “The SIT report is final. It is only subject to what the court was eventually saying. As far as amicus curiae’s views were concerned, the SIT was directed to take them into consideration and express its final opinion on that. They have said so… Investigation is exclusively a police and not a lawyer’s function.”
Jaitley’s stint as law minister laid bare contradictions. Activists say that he suggested that Warren Anderson could not be held liable for the Bhopal gas tragedy because he might not have had knowledge of design defects.
In a marathon address to a joint session of Parliament, Jaitley defended the draconian POTA. Later, the widespread fear that the law would be used against Muslims and innocent citizens was proved right; hence, it was withdrawn under massive public pressure.
Post-2004, Jaitley positioned himself as an important strategist of the party. In the 2002 elections in Gujarat, held under the shadow of the carnage, it was Jaitley who was a strategist in the Modi camp. He was then the chief spokesman of the party. In 2007, again, Jaitley went to Gujarat to mastermind Modi’s campaign. “He really has no qualms as far as the mass murders and rapes in Gujarat were concerned, despite his suave public image,” says a journalist. “Can’t he see the similarities? How come the BJP comes out so morally strong on the 1984 killings of Sikhs, but actually backs the genocide in Gujarat? How can they be so brazenly dishonest and cold-blooded?”
He has a history of crafting strategy for Advani and Modi — despite not appearing a hardliner
“He is a cool-headed man with a good sense of humour. He remains cool when things go wrong. He was smiling in 2004 when the India Shining campaign bombed, even as Pramod Mahajan was visibly upset,” says a political observer.
Jaitley has a knack for cracking jokes about almost everyone in the party. Be it Swaraj, or younger leaders like Rajiv Pratap Rudy or Ravi Shankar Prasad. “He once recorded Prasad’s laughter and was using it as a ringtone on his phone,” says a journalist.
It was the BJP’s good showing in 2004 and again in 2006 in Karnataka which strengthened his bio as the party’s man for major campaigns. “He is a fantastic political psephologist and a number cruncher on caste equations,” says SN Singh, who has worked closely with Jaitley on many campaigns.
In Karnataka, Jaitley discovered the flip side, even as he is currently trying to defuse Yeddyurappa’s open rebellion. Swaraj, who was widely criticised for being the mentor of the mining mafia of the Bellary brothers, later said categorically, in an interview to a weekly: “...I had nothing to do in making them ministers or in building up their stature as political leaders. When the Bellary brothers were made ministers, Jaitelyji was the prabhari (in-charge), Yeddyurappa was the chief minister, Venkaiahji and Ananth Kumar were there as senior leaders… I had nothing to do with it. Rather, I was opposed to their appointment as ministers, opposed to three members of a family being made ministers. But they had some political compulsions which made them appoint the brothers.”
Shourie wrote that there are people in the party who were, ‘planting stories for the last five years against each one of us…’
Not all the elections were won on his abilities, his detractors say. “There was a massive anti-incumbency wave against the Congress in Madhya Pradesh which even a BJP peon could have encashed,” said a Sangh insider.
“Even if you see the Bihar election scenario where BJP and JD(U) fought together, it was a faulty seat-sharing arrangement. Jaitley was incharge,” alleges a party critic. (The BJP won 58 seats and formed the government with Nitish Kumar as chief minister). “The power structure is faulty in Bihar. The BJP has no control over several things in the government. It’s Nitish and his men who call the shots.”
The real ‘call to duty’ came in 2009. After the flop show in 2004, The BJP hoped to ride on the anti-incumbency wave against the UPA government in 2009. Then party president Rajnath Singh, who, perhaps, foresaw the signs, left it to Advani to design the campaign. Advani, who positioned himself as the NDA’s PM candidate, appointed Jaitley as the campaign manager. “The campaign was positive. We were perhaps late in launching it. We launched it in February while the elections were scheduled for April,” says SN Singh who was Jaitley’s deputy during the 2009 campaign. “He is not a great campaign manager. He is over-estimated,” says a BJP leader.
“Jaitley is the BJP’s new Pramod Mahajan if you see his capabilities for political management. But, in terms of organisational skills, Mahajan was far ahead,” says a former BJP general secretary.
Intelligent, pleasant, friendly, flexible, witty, with a remarkable sense of humour, ‘friends’ say, he can be equally snobbish, revengeful and arrogant
The fact that Jaitley was appointed Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha unnerved veterans within the BJP, including Shourie, Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha. Shourie called Rajnath Singh “Alice in Blunderland”. He wrote that there were people in the party who were, “planting stories for the last five years against each one of us, including Mr Advani and Rajnath Singh, in the press by six journalists”. Shourie’s allegations have been substantiated by several journalists who cover the BJP. “There is a group of journalists in mainstream newspapers who work at his behest.”
“He is good friends with proprietors and editors. Did he not get a BJP financier to get one of the editors a special box at Lords for the T-20 World Cup even as he himself watched it from the ESPN box,” says a source. During Rajnath’s tenure, there was apparently a flurry of letters to the RSS complaining that Jaitley had been badmouthing other leaders during daily de-briefings.
“Modi’s tirade against Sanjay Joshi has backfired. This incident proves that he doesn’t have the calibre to become the PM,” says a former RSS pracharak. “The contest is between Jaitley and Modi. Modi is in many ways beyond the organisation. In such a scenario where all governments are driven by the doctrine of ‘by, for and of corporates’, Jaitley is fit for the post,”
However, he has detractors within his own outfit. “Advani once told Mahajan that people forgive corruption. They don’t forgive arrogance,” says a BJP insider. “He is neither a mass leader nor from a backward caste, something crucial in the post-Mandal equations. Not many are optimistic.”
“The problem with the BJP is that they are all waiting for the fruit to fall from the tree. No one is willing to organise and fight on the ground. Unless that happens, its chances are bleak,” says Sangh ideologue Govindacharya.