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Modi's Chanakya

All eyes are on Finance Minister Arun Jaitley as he prepares to present his first Budget. The authors decode the powerful politician

Nivedita Mookerji & Veenu Sandhu 

The Bharatiya Janata Party's campaign slogan may have been Abki baar, Modi sarkar, but, as Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi jocularly told Arun Jaitley in Parliament's Central Hall, the reality is "Abki baar, Jaitley sarkar". Jaitley, 61, is at the centre of in New Delhi. The most powerful leader after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he runs two heavyweight ministries - finance and defence -, his people are in charge of key portfolios, and he has a big say in policy and political matters. All party spokespersons flock to him for advice. He is Modi's ace troubleshooter on almost all issues. A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker describes him as Modi's Chanakya (like Chandragupta's advisor, Jaitley is a Brahmin). Environment and Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar calls him a "super strategist". If somebody knows how to work the levers of power in Raisina Hill it is Jaitley; Modi is still an outsider. "A precious diamond," is how Modi described him at an election rally in Amritsar from where Jaitley contested - and lost - his first election ever.

Naturally, Jaitley is busy. His office in North Block is abuzz with activity, which is not surprising because this is Budget time. And expectations are high, though the government's finances are in a mess. Even otherwise, ministerial colleagues like Nirmala Sitharaman (commerce & industry) and Piyush Goyal (power) rush to him for guidance. Modi depends on Jaitley's sharp legal mind for taking critical decisions, says a source. He has even met Delhi & District Cricket Association (he is the chief patron) functionaries six times in the last month or so. So busy is he that when Modi visited the country's largest warship, INS Vikramaditya, in Goa, Jaitley, the defence minister, couldn't play host: he was in Jammu & Kashmir to take care of some urgent matter.

His parents were from Punjab. His father, Maharaj Kishen Jaitley, a lawyer, came from Lahore, while his mother, Ratan Prabha, belonged to Amritsar. The couple was in Amritsar expecting their first child, Jaitley's older sister, when the Partition riots broke out. The family decided to stay on in India. Later, they moved to Naraina Vihar in Delhi into a house vacated by a Muslim family that had left for Pakistan. Jaitley's father restarted his legal practice. He sent his son to St Xavier's, a missionary school, and later to the prestigious Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC). "That's where I first met him in 1972," recalls Raian Karanjawala, senior advocate and founder of Karanjawala & Company. "We used to debate together. He was the college union president - smart, articulate and a good debater."

From here Jaitley went on to study law and became president of the Delhi University Students Union when Indira Gandhi declared Emergency. "The day Emergency was declared I slipped out of my residence. The police took my father into detention but being a lawyer, he was released immediately," he had told Business Standard earlier. The next day, Jaitley organised a massive protest at the Delhi University campus and was promptly arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. He spent the next 19 months in prison, choosing not to seek early release through an apology or assurance that he would not participate in any political activity. "He handled his time in jail in a stoic manner. The only time I thought he was a little low was when, on one occasion, he was not allowed to sit for his exams and he missed a year," says Karanjawala.

By now his mind was made up. In 1980, when Indira Gandhi returned to power, Jagmohan, the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, tried to demolish the Indian Express building. Jaitley challenged it in the courts. (On the other side was Singhvi.) That incident brought Jaitley in close contact with Ramnath Goenka, Arun Shourie, Fali Nariman and Swaminathan Gurumurthy, Goenka's chartered accountant and legal advisor. It was this association that brought him to the notice of Vishwanath Pratap Singh in 1986-87. When Singh became prime minister in 1989, Jaitley was appointed additional solicitor general, one of the youngest ever to hold the post.

Jaitley became a minister in 1999 when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power. He handled the law, information & broadcasting, disinvestment, shipping, and commerce & industry portfolios. He found the law ministry intellectually unchallenging: here, he said, one spent 90 per cent of one's time meeting brief-less lawyers. But he did initiate the move to create commercial divisions in high courts, says T K Vishwanathan who was legislative secretary under Jaitley. Information & broadcasting, he complained, was "a ministry for Doordarshan that nobody watches anyway". It was as commerce minister that Jaitley found himself in his elements: he took on the US and the European Union over farm trade liberalisation in Doha, drew the blueprint for the Special Economic Zone Act, pushed for opening retail to foreigners, and convinced the government and the RBI to allow Indian companies to buy land overseas. "Now as finance minister, it's good to see someone with an exploring mind," says Ajay Shriram, chairman, Shriram Group.

He is known to take care of his staff in a way few people do. Lawyers are entitled to charge 10 per cent of their fees as clerkage (charge for clerical work) from clients. But not many share this money for their staff. "Jaitley always does," says Om Prakash Sharma, his one-time political secretary and now a Delhi MLA from Vishwas Nagar (Jaitley is said to have got him the ticket). Through this corpus he has ensured that the children of all his staff go to good schools. Some of them have grown up to become engineers and dentists. "He also uses this money to help his employees own a house," adds Sharma who has known Jaitley since 1972.

While Jaitley lives at his house in Kailash Colony, his official residence, 9 Ashoka Road, is open for use to others. It is here that cricketer Virender Sehwag got married, as did BJP National Secretary Vani Tripathi. "He ensured that the wedding went like clockwork, helping by lending his staff and even arranging the caterer," says Tripathi.

Those who campaigned for him in Amritsar say he ensured that even the streetplay actors called from Delhi were looked after. People also got to see the foodie in Jaitley here. "He would recommend everybody visit Surjit Food Plaza on Lawrence Road, known for its fried fish, tandoori chicken and mutton tikka," says someone who was with him in the campaign. Known to enjoy a hearty meal, Jaitley, however, keeps his indulgence in check. His other passions are cricket and old Bollywood films and songs.

First Published: Sat, July 05 2014. 00:30 IST