Among the politicians who often face flak from some of prime minister Modi’s supporters, is finance minister Arun Jaitley. Despite being one of the government’s key trouble-shooters and one of the most important people in the country today, Jaitley’s many decades in the corridors of power have given him the image of a slick operator.
Just how important he has been in prime minister Modi’s scheme of things, and how his years of experience are proving to be highly beneficial to the country, is something many of the prime minister’s supporters are grasping only today.
Jaitley’s prowess was on full display earlier this month, when the much-awaited cabinet reshuffle took place. Jaitley had been handling both the finance and the defense portfolios ever since Manohar Parrikar was sent back to his home state of Goa after the assembly elections earlier this year. The highlights of the cabinet reshuffle, apart from a slew of former bureaucrats being brought in to deliver in certain key areas, were the promotions some of the junior ministers received. Power minister Piyush Goyal was promoted to the railway ministry and given a cabinet rank, petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan was given a cabinet rank and the additional charge of the skill development ministry, and commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman was made the country’s defense minister. The three ministers have been considered the best performers in the cabinet, and in a rejig that dropped non-performers, the implications of a promotion don’t leave much to the imagination. It is interesting to note that Goyal, Pradhan and Sitharaman are first-time ministers. And it is no secret that they were mentored by Arun Jaitley ever since they took charge in 2014.
Apart from molding juniors into highly effective ministers, Jaitley has proved to be an effective minister himself. He has held the finance portfolio from the beginning of the government’s term, and here, he has worked towards bringing about several reforms and has ensured consistent growth since the turn of 2014. Agencies under the finance ministry mandated with weeding out fraudulence have been cleaning up the system. His big achievement has been the introduction of the much-awaited Goods and Services Tax (GST), a unified tax regime for the entire country. This is an idea which has been in the air for long, and more than a technical or financial brain, required a purely political brain for its implementation. Jaitley brought every state government and every major political party to the table, negotiated and sorted out every issue, and managed to successfully introduce a unified tax regime. Businesses affected by its implementation are still recovering and aligning themselves to this unprecedented tax reform, and other reforms are still awaited in many domains. But Jaitley proved his mettle as an administrator by taking up one of the most challenging quests before the finance ministry, and delivering.
Jaitley also had two stints as the country’s defense minister. In his first stint, he set the ball rolling once again in terms of defense acquisitions, which had stopped during the previous regime. His second stint was more eventful, and can even be considered a gamechanger. There were two important changes the country witnessed in terms of the armed forces- a new way to deal with the Kashmir issue and a new way to deal with China. Previously, the army functioned in Kashmir as if its hands were tied. But those days of weakness and political-correctness are over now. The army has been given a deadline to finish all armed separatism in the valley, and it has gone about bumping off terrorists with a never-seen-before intensity. The Indian army also held its ground in Doklam, a disputed region between our ally Bhutan and China, when the Chinese decided to construct a road there. For almost two months, the armies of both the countries stood eyeball to eyeball and waited for each other to blink first. China has intimidated every country in the region, and believed that it would have its way by issuing threats. But India called its bluff, and exposed it. Although the decision to stay put was a strategic one and had much more to do with India’s foreign policy, the important role the armed forces played which forced China to withdraw and call off their plans of road construction, was under Jaitley’s watch.
At the political level, Jaitley might have lost the maiden Lok Sabha election he contested. But in this domain too, Jaitley continues to play an important role. Many years before the advent of Narendra Modi onto the national stage, Jaitley was the point of contact between the BJP and the JD(U). Nitish Kumar who stormed into power in Bihar initially in alliance with the BJP, was in constant touch with Arun Jaitley, and the duo ensured that the alliance’s government functioned smoothly. Despite the infamous breakup of the alliance when Narendra Modi’s name was announced as the prime ministerial candidate, Jaitley kept in touch with Nitish Kumar. How the midnight coup of July was planned and how both sides went about it remains a matter of conjecture, but if certain media reports are to be believed, Nitish’s old friend did play an important role in bringing Narendra Modi’s biggest political challenger back to the NDA’s fold.
And of course, there is the entire Arvind Kejriwal saga. Arun Jaitley’s defamation case against the Delhi chief minister seems to have brought his shoot-and-scoot politics to an end. A party that seemed to have a promising political future two years ago is in tatters now, and is running for cover. The course this case has taken seems to suggest that Delhi’s chief minister is on the backfoot, and that his legal team is employing delay tactics. Apart from denting the party’s prospects and exposing the hollowness of its claims, a clear message has emerged from this case: if you want to survive in Indian politics, do whatever you have to but don’t mess with Arun Jaitley.
It is perhaps because of this temperament of invincibility, and the ability to push the right buttons and get things done, that prime minister Modi considers Arun Jaitley to be so important in his scheme of things. The fact that it is Jaitley who hold the defense portfolio every time it falls vacant is testament to how much the prime minister trusts him and depends on him. And why wouldn’t he? It isn’t every day that you come across a man who gets key legislation passed, who mentors and creates world class administrators, who understands the country’s defense dynamics perfectly, and who is an ace political troubleshooter at the same time.