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Arun Jaitley: The Finance Minister who loved a good meal and good gossip

With his death, Jaitley has taken with him a slice of the hearts of everyone who knew him

Aditi Phadnis  |  New Delhi 

Arun Jaitley
In this Dec 28, 2014 file photo, Arun Jaitley can be seen having a sip of tea with morning walkers on his 62nd birthday at Lodhi Garden in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

The home office of lawyer, former Union minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader — who died on Saturday, August 24 — was the true testament to his personality.

Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves crammed with leather-bound compilations of court cases. In the midst of this intellectual splendour, two framed black and white pictures — of a young, intense-looking Jaitley, wearing thick glasses, standing beside former prime minister Morarji Desai, along with several other young men. These are from his days as a student leader.

There were no pictures of gods and goddesses in this office. Instead, there were framed replicas of legal certificates and mementos from various cricket associations, testifying to the other love of his life.

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How did a man who clearly admired a political leader like Desai and was so fond of cricket that he named his son Rohan (like Sunil Gavaskar’s son) reconcile himself to the company of the rabble-rousing mob that brought down the Babri Masjid in 1992?

Others, too, were confused.

Arun Jaitley

with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in whose Cabinet he served. Photo: PTI

In a rediff.com chat session in the early 1990s, someone asked him: “Mr Jaitley, how can a so-called educated man like you be a member of an obscurantist, fascist organisation like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?”

He replied: “I reject your understanding of the BJP. Nehruvian thought, which regarded everything that was Indian, ethnic, traditional and cultural, as obscurantist and fundamentalist damaged the Indian ethos. We are criticised because it is said we are pro-Hindu. The threat to global secularism doesn’t come from either Indian nationalism or Hinduism, it comes from elsewhere — you know where. I think you and I need to re-discuss political definitions.”

Dal and spices

With his death, Jaitley has taken with him a slice of the hearts of everyone who knew him; especially, his personal staff.

One of the highest tax payers in Delhi, Jaitley also got a block of flats built for the secretarial staff of his legal practice. The daughter of one of them is now a dentist, practicing in England; her education was funded by Jaitley.

Bureaucrats also found in him a reasonable boss, whose knowledge of business and law was astounding.

Jaitley enjoyed two things above all — a good meal and a good session of gossip.


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Dal from Minar Restaurant at Connaught Place was among his favourite dishes. Jaitley once told this reporter how when he travelled to New York, he would have Indian dishes from a specific restaurant in Manhattan delivered to his hotel.

Arun Jaitley

Bowling for the Supreme Court Bar Association team in 2005

His love for good gossip earned him many friends among journalists. But, as scribes are themselves notoriously gossipy, this trait also earned him enemies.

Jaitley’s family moved from Lahore to Amritsar in 1946; his mother was expecting her first child, his elder sister. By the time of Partition, his family was settled in India, but with meagre resources.

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Like elsewhere in India, Brahmins, as Jaitley’s family was, had little land — but placed a premium on education.

All of Jaitley’s seven uncles were well educated — and the extended family contributed to each other’s education. All the brothers pooled in their resources to send one of them to England to study psychiatry. Most of the others practiced law.

From Emergency to Parliament

Jaitley went to St Xavier’s, and chose science in school, believing he wanted to be an engineer. Later, he joined the bachelor of commerce course at Shri Ram College of Commerce of Delhi University.

It was during his college days that he learned to read a balance sheet — and plunged into He had already become an activist of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the youth wing of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.

He had already contested the college union elections and the ABVP wanted him to stand for the Delhi University Students’ Union polls. But then, the Emergency happened.

The good boy from the middle-class family was pitch-forked into underground In 1974, he was arrested and spent 19 months in prison. While incarcerated, his second-year law results came out — Jaitley had got a first class.

Too young to contest the 1977 elections, he withdrew from for a while to concentrate on his legal career.

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Arun Jaitley

As a student leader during his Delhi University days

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister (PM) in 1998, Jaitley was made a minister. He made no bones about what portfolio he liked and what he did not — the law ministry was his least favourite.

“You are required to give legal opinion on a couple of cases,” he once said. “But 90 per cent of your time is spent meeting brief-less lawyers who want to be appointed state counsel.”

He was also the information and broadcasting minister briefly; he described the experience in a sentence: “It’s a ministry for Doordarshan that nobody watches anyway.” As commerce minister he did not have enough time to remove the Congress stamp.

Arun Jaitley, Priyanka Gandhi

Celebrating India’s victory over Pakistan in Karachi, in 2004, with Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi

It was the Ministry of Disinvestment that had really occupied him. He vowed to make a real change if the Democratic Alliance ever came to power again, he said in 2004.

Modi’s rock

Jaitley was also a rock for Narendra Modi when the future PM decided to nudge BJP patriarch L K Advani out of the way and make a bid for the top job. He also drew up the blueprint to protect Modi from Delhi’s chattering classes. Modi also sought his advice on various matters — though not in all, such as the first Budget of his government presented.

In the electoral battle, Jaitley had missed success. But, in the Modi government, he was the mentor — he groomed half a dozen of those who became ministers. Some remembered, others did not — Jaitley seemed to care little. He concentrated on getting BJP re-elected, a target he achieved in his lifetime.

First Published: Sat, August 24 2019. 13:09 IST
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