Everybody who is anybody in Lutyens’s Delhi has a story to tell about Arun Jaitley. Sadly, as the tidal wave of tributes and obituaries after his death on Saturday shows, those stories are largely about the story-teller and not Arun. Nobody wants to let go a moment of reflected glory. That is the nature of the beast called Lutyenite.
I have drifted far away — mentally, physically and emotionally — from Lutyens’s Delhi. What remains of a quarter-century-long intense association is a dwindling list of friends and increasingly wraith-like memories of them. Many, like Pramod Mahajan, Ananth Kumar, Manohar Parrikar and recently Sushma Swaraj, have left for the great beyond. So have Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Brajesh Mishra, both of whom I was fortunate to know and privileged to serve.
Arun Jaitley joined them on Saturday, Janmashtami. Like the other young’uns lovingly nurtured and groomed by the BJP’s Great Helmsman L.K. Advani, he departed silently, quietly, possibly in unbearable pain, but without a fuss or so much as a maudlin goodbye. There was something dazzling about Arun — his smile? his eyes? his wit? his humour? — that lit up the room or wherever you ran into him. He didn’t meet people, he held court. His one-liners became a legend long before soundbyte journalism became fashionable.
For friends, Arun had limitless affection. But he could also be haughty and temperamental, and yet he wore his success as a lawyer and a politician lightly, as he did his indispensability to party and government. Unlike most others, he could be self-deprecating. ‘Guess what’, he would have probably said if he could before falling into eternal sleep, ‘we are not immortal.’
Not everybody is a good story-teller even if he or she is an enviable repository of tales. Arun was a great raconteur and he always had stories to tell. Some were laced with biting sarcasm, often benignly so, others were insightful. He would be in his elements over food, provided it was good.
I recall the National Executive Committee of the BJP was meeting in Goa. This was sometime before the 1998 election. Manohar Parrikar had booked the International Centre for the meeting. In those days it was a spartan place and the BJP’s meetings were a frugal affair. Arun and I shared a room. So did everybody else. Barring L.K. Advani and A.B. Vajpayee.
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The meals were nothing to write home about. One evening Arun said, let’s go and have a decent dinner. We found ourselves ordering the best of Goan cuisine at Fort Aguada. In a while we were joined by Narendra Modi. And soon Arun was regaling us with story after story, many of which shall remain unretold.
Years later Arun invited me to Amritsar to see his 2014 election campaign. Beginning early morning, he travelled through roads and lanes, undeterred by Punjab’s scorching summer heat, meeting farmers and their families, speaking to them in fluent Punjabi. In the evening, he campaigned in genteel upmarket colonies, speaking in Hindi laced with English.
Campaign done, he told me to freshen up and head for Surjit’s Dhaba. By the time I reached there, it was jampacked with a boisterous crowd of Supreme Court and High Court lawyers who had travelled from Delhi to campaign for ‘sadda Arun’. At a corner table Arun was holding court, fresh as a daisy and at his dazzling best. He called me over, patted the bench where he was sitting, and I squeezed in. For the next hour-and-a-half he kept piling my plate with every possible chicken and mutton preparation. He himself ate sparsely. By the time we left, Surjit had nothing left. I was told that’s how it was every night during the campaign.
That night I learned everything that needed to be known about the current trend of Punjab politics and the contemporary dynamics of Amritsar constituency. Shorn of bunk and shaved of minutiae. And I knew he was losing the election. I am sure so did Arun. But his enthusiasm was unputdownable. On the day of results, he took his defeat lightly and moved on, determined to prove his mettle as a minister and Leader of the Rajya Sabha.
Arun was a great tutor in drafting political documents. His legal knowledge and acumen would come into play in arguing the case for any issue and winning the argument. Sometime before the 1996 election, L.K. Advani called me to his office. When I walked in, I found Arun there. I was told that the party would move a resolution demanding Uniform Civil Code at the coming National Executive Committee meeting and I should help Arun draft it.
Over the next few days I would meet Arun every evening after he was done with work at his chamber. I would dutifully turn up with draft after revised draft which he would read with his eyebrows raised and an amused smile, and ask me to amend it further by adding this and deleting that. At the end of the week he gave me his draft. I pored over it. It was everything that a political resolution on a deeply emotive issue should be. It was a learning experience for me.
The resolution was moved by Sushma Swaraj, stoutly opposed by Arif Baig and equally forcefully supported by Sikander Bakht. Arun intervened to explain the constitutionalism underpinning the BJP demand. It was a break with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh’s as well as the RSS’s position on Uniform Civil Code. A.B. Vajpayee accorded his support. L.K. Advani called for a vote. Arun’s draft was carried without any amendments. Thus was born the BJP’s third ‘Core Issue’, surfacing for the first time in the party’s 1996 election manifesto.
In his lifetime Arun saw Article 370 go, towards which his masterful contribution is only partially told. When India adopts a Uniform Civil Code and buries regressive personal laws, he should be remembered, along with L.K. Advani, for initiating the process.
That would be a nice tribute to him. He would approve of it.
The author is a political commentator. Views are personal.
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