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Sometimes it is hard to ignore some of the sterling qualities of an individual, even if you do not share their ideology. What made Arun Jaitley different from other politicians? Why is that the political class, cutting across different ideologies, admire Jaitley? Let me try to portray the human being I knew.
A story published by India Today in March 1997, evoked great enthusiasm in me as a final year law student. Titled “Legal Eagles”, it had short descriptions of a bunch of young eminent lawyers of the country. Arun Jaitley topped the list. Jaitley mentioned therein that “he enjoys every moment in Court”. Any litigating lawyer would readily agree with this.
The fact that Jaitley spent 19 months in prison opposing Emergency is one which should ignite the latent energy in the minds of all law graduates.
In his interview to India Today in 1997, Jaitley is seen hinting that he is moving away from politics towards his legal career. But circumstances did not permit him that. Jaitley was made a Rajya Sabha MP and later on, a Minister in the Vajpayee government. Seen as a suave face in the government, he was soon elevated with Cabinet rank as Union Law Minister. Being a lawyer himself, he was a friend of the Judiciary in the Cabinet.
After the power shift following the 2004 General Elections, Jaitley came back to the Supreme Court for legal practice. The author had the opportunity to assist him in certain cases and also appear against him individually or with a Senior Counsel. It would be dishonest on my part not to mention and thank him for appearing free of cost and successfully defending a genuine cause once before the Supreme Court. It was heartening to know that Jaitley had done this for several other lawyer colleagues as well.
Once, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court headed by then Chief Justice BN Kirpal was hearing a Presidential Reference on the 2002 Gujarat Assembly Elections. KK Venugopal, representing the Election Commission of India, made a reference to the appointment of a person as a Minister even before he becomes a Member of the House. He referred to an instance from Kerala where EK Nayanar was made Chief Minister and subsequently won an Assembly seat. Kapil Sibal, representing one of the parties, stood up and made a mention:
“Mr. Venugopal need not go to Kerala to find such a Minister. We have our own example here. He has become a Minister and subsequently an MP. And we are proud of that example!”
Every judge looked at Arun Jaitley, who was seated in the front row with a smiling face. He was younger to all of them and was already a former Minister.
Jaitley had friends across the political spectrum and in the legal profession and the media as well. Anyone who has briefed Jaitley would recollect a portrait of his friend and Congress leader, Madhavrao Scindia displayed in his office. The marriage ceremony of the daughter of a law officer of the Congress government was conducted at Jaitley’s official quarters, as was cricketer Virender Sehwag’s wedding reception.
During UPA-II, Jaitley was made the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, a post which required full time attention. Jaitley quit his lucrative legal practice to do full justice to the new assignment. His speeches in Parliament drew national attention, whether one agreed with him or not. Jaitley’s speech in support of the impeachment of Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta High Court, or on the National Judicial Appointments Commission, wherein he supported the Bill brought by the Congress government, were of particular interest to the legal community. These debates unified the finest legal minds in Parliament on national interest.
The year 2014 changed the position of Arun Jaitley from Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha to that of an all-powerful Minister in the Modi-I Cabinet. Sometimes, he was seen to be handling two crucial portfolios like Finance and Defence simultaneously. It was during Jaitley’s tenure as Finance Minister that the Goods and Services Tax and the Insolvency and Banking Code were brought into force. The debate on GST lasted for a whole day, both before the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha and by evening, Jaitley could get the thumbing majority in both Houses, cutting across the political spectrum.
Even when he was not a Law Minister in Modi’s Cabinet, Jaitley’s hand was clearly visible on all important legal issues, be it the NJAC or appointment of important law officers. Jaitley was like a Mohan Kumaramangalam in Indira Gandhi Cabinet, who, while handling the portfolio of Steel, had a crucial say in judicial appointments.
His respect for the Opposition was seen on the occasion of the retirement of a Rajya Sabha MP from Kerala, P Rajeeve. Jaitley made this remark:
“Mr. Rajeeve was industrious in digging out procedure and rules of debates in the House and kept the ruling benches on their toes”.
He then urged his friend from the CPI (M), Sitaram Yechury, to bring back Rajeeve to Rajya Sabha. Such mutual respect and consideration for political opponents is a rare quality one can try to emulate.
While his role as a politician is open for public scrutiny and criticism, no one who knows Arun Jaitley can deny that he was an able administrator and a devout public figure having tirelessly worked for the progress of the country. We shall pay homage to him today.
The author is an advocate practising at the Supreme Court of India.