FARAZ AHMAD | 26 AUGUST, 2019
Arun Jaitley, a Man of Many Shades
As with his mentor LK Advani, the media got Jaitley’s special attention
My first introduction to Arun Jaitley was months before the Internal Emergency after which Jaitley was sent to jail. He was then General Secretary of the Delhi University Students Union as a candidate of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Those were the days of indirect elections in Delhi University when College Councillors comprising the electoral college were taken to hill stations and looked after well only to be brought back on the polling day direct to the polling booths. There were just two main rivals in DU, the ABVP and the Congress students’ wing, the National Students Union of India. The Left presence in DU was insignificant.
During the turbulent years of 1973-75 when the ABVP was the vanguard of the JP movement virtually leading the charge against corruption, or rather the Indira Hatao campaign all over the Indo-Gangetic plains, Jaitley was the face of that movement in Delhi.
In 1975, we at the Aligarh Muslim University had neither the ABVP nor the NSUI. Apart from the Students’ Federation of India, the student body affiliated to the Communist Party of India-Marxist, no other political party could register its presence among the students of AMU. This is not to say that the SFI could register any significant presence in the AMU Students Union, in terms of ever sending up any elected representatives to the Union.
But SFI had a presence, and all of us were rabidly anti-Congress and anti-Indira Gandhi then. Jaitley arrived at the invitation of the AMU Students’ Union and enthused and inspired a huge student turnout at the Hockey Pavilion delivering a fiery speech against Indira Gandhi.
Thanks to his incarceration during the Emergency and before that his association with Jai Prakash Narain and Raj Narain of all people, Jaitley graduated to national politics soon after his release from jail, and was made a member of the Janata Party national executive at a very early age.
But the Janata experiment did not last long. Jaitley was remarkably amiable and had a natural flair for getting along with his political adversaries, which stood him and the BJP in good stead till his end.
Jaitley was a quintessential Punjabi: he loved the good things in life, sartorial style, expensive gadgetry, good food, both typical Punjabi stuff like chhole bhature or Amrtisari kulche, and classy non-vegetarian fare as well.
In fact, one reason why the Bengali neo-converts to the BJP endeared themselves to the saffron party very early was the ease with which they could partake of the non-veg, a taboo to the Hindutva variety in Jaitley’s company and at his expense.
He also said once that he kept a good cellar, though I don’t think he drank. This was in the context of the cash for votes controversy of July 2008, which Jaitley masterminded for Advani. He was banking upon Rajdeep Sardesai to play the video on his channel alongside the three BJP MPs emptying a bagful of one crore in currency notes on the Lok Sabha table.
But Rajdeep didn’t and Jaitley felt betrayed. So he told us that although he has the best stuff Rajdeep only drinks Old Monk rum.
In that sense he was very expansive and liberal. Despite early grooming at the Sangh shakha he had a very large circle of friends, cutting across party and professional lines, from Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar to Suhel Seth and Amar Singh. Not to forget that he and Vajpayee provided acceptability and respectability in the 1990s to the BJP among the rising middle class, and most of all the media.
The media of course got Jaitley’s special attention. Actually he took the cue from his mentor L.K.Advani who worked on the media from the day he became Information and Broadcasting Minister in the Janata Party government of Morarji Desai. Advani’s tenure as I&B minister saw Prabhu Chawla, Arun Shourie, Rajat Sharma and some others enter journalism. Jaitley much later gave special attention to the newly emerging TV channels, and Rajat Sharma, Arnab Goswami, Swapan Dasgupta, Chandan Mitra, Kanchan Gupta, Navika Kumar, Divakar, P.R.Ramesh all ate out of Jaitley’s hands. Not to mention a wide range of non-BJP journalists too.
On the negative side he could not sustain relations for too long. Advani brought in a whole crop of young faces into the BJP: Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj, K.N.Govindacharya, Gopinath Munde, Uma Bharti and Ananth Kumar to name a few, who became the fresh visible faces of the saffron brigade since the party returned with 85 seats in the 1989 general elections and thereafter became a strong national political force.
Jaitley in that sense was a late entrant into the hallowed portals. Yet slowly each one of the above was sidelined or just died, some mysterious and violent deaths like Pramod Mahajan. Jaitley’s name was often mentioned as being instrumental in seeing his rivals were cut to size.
My first direct interaction with Jaitley took place in the Express building on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg here in Delhi. It so happened that by 1987, Indian Express proprietor Ramnath Goenka, who had initially announced soon after Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister that now he could die in peace, leaving the country in the safe hands of an able young and imaginative leader, turned totally against Rajiv after the Shah Bano case, and became determined to pull down his government by fair means or foul.
To this end he gave office space to Ram Jethmalani in the Express building, and being a reporter in the Indian Express every now and then I would come across Jethmalani, with whom I had made acquaintance earlier while following the Abdul Rehman Antulay case in Bombay. Jaitley was regularly present there. He, along with editor-in-chief Arun Shourie and one-time BJP ideologue K.N.Govindacharya, worked overnight not just to run down Rajiv but to create a credible national political alternative of the Janata Dal led by V.P.Singh, by bringing together disparate political non-Congress leaders distrustful of and often inimical to each other, such as Chandra Shekhar and V.P.Singh.
To discredit Rajiv, Jethmalani started publishing in the Express 10 Questions to Rajiv. But then as Jaitley told us hacks much later, by the third day Jethmalani flew abroad. Jaitley, then a rising lawyer in the Supreme Court, was busy collecting evidence from Enforcement Director Bhure Lal. Every evening Jaitley in his old rickety secondhand Fiat would drive down to the Swami Malai Mandir in R.K.Puram and meet Bhure Lal atop that hillock to gather more damaging information on Rajiv Gandhi. And would prepare 10 questions in Jethmalani’s name.
Later, Jethmalani and Jaitley could never get along, and one of the reasons Jethmalani left the BJP for the fourth time (incidentally, like Shanti Bhushan, Jethmalani too was a founding vice-president of the BJP) was because he could not reconcile to the idea of working under Jaitley when the later became Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha from 2009 to 2014.
Soon as V.P.Singh became Prime Minister he appointed Jaitley the Additional Solicitor General and sent him off to Sweden to follow up on Bofors, where he met Sten Lindstrom a Swedish Police constable on whose statement the whole Bofors case was based, which finally fell in the Delhi High Court long after Rajiv’s assassination.
Jaitley’s stars, like Modi’s, rose with the rise of Advani who became president of the BJP in 1987. Until the emergence of Narendra Modi, Jaitley was an Advani acolyte. But unlike Sushma Swaraj who remained loyal to Advani till the end and suffered humiliation on that account, Jaitley along with his large entourage of journalists dropped Advani like a hot potato as soon as he assessed Modi’s potential and realised how RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was determined to retire Advani, after 2009.
Another factor for the close bond between Modi, who really trusted and banked upon Jaitley, was the outhouse on 9, Ashoka Road.
The most important post in the BJP is - or let’s say was before Amit Shah - the post of organising secretary, which is still controlled by the RSS. Govindacharya occupied it in Advani’s heyday. Govind lived a spartan life in a musty room in the old BJP office’s back outhouses, working there, sleeping and interacting with journalists in that rundown room only, and moving around in a secondhand black Ambassador given to him by Ramnath Goenka along with an Express driver. But somehow Vajpayee couldn’t stand Govind, nor did Govind fancy Vajpayee, whom he once called a mask (mukhota) in an interaction with some British diplomats.
So, soon after the first NDA government was formed under Vajpayee and Kushabhau Thakre became party president since Advani had now become Home Minister, Kushabhau stripped Govind first of the prestigious post and then almost physically got Govind evicted from 11, Ashoka Road. Narendra Modi then became the organising secretary.
About this time, Jaitley too was allotted 9, Ashoka Road next door. But he never lived there. He preferred to live in his Kailash Colony marble palace in South Delhi. 9, Ashoka Road was used by the party and the main bungalow was occupied by oldies like J.P.Mathur, Kailashpati Mishra and such others. Later, another or rather the longest serving organising secretary Ram Lal too occupied the main house.
But there was also a fancy outhouse a little away from the main house where Jaitley used to hold his durbar when out of power from 2004-14. This outhouse had a very comfortable two-room set as well as a lounging space to entertain guests. This space was constructed earlier by Jaitley for providing luxurious accommodation to Modi when he became organising secretary of the BJP.
Jaitley also gave Indian cricket - and not so much the cricketers - big money and a high profile. Surely cricket was loved by many of us who remained glued to the transistor set during the test matches in the pre-TV era, and the cricketers were Nawabs and Maharajas like the Nawabs of Pataudi, both father and son Mansur Ali Khan, Maharajakumar of Vijainagram (Vizzy), Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji Jadeja (of Ranji trophy fame), Maharaja of Baroda Fatehsinh Rao Gaekwad and such others.
Jaitley did his bit to popularise it and make Twenty20 matches widely accepted and respectable despite the IPL scams. However, one wonders how Jaitley got interested in cricket because as teenagers we would often go to the DU cricket field and watch inter-college or inter-varsity cricket with interest, and I don’t recall seeing Jaitley ever being on the field or even among the sprinkling of spectators.
Thankfully for Jaitley, the Modi government’s decision to heap scorn on Sheikh Abdullah and family, and even on the Mufti family, came when he was out of government and virtually approaching his end. I say this because his wife Sangeeta is daughter of the late Girdhari Lal Dogra, a close associate of Sheikh Abdullah and a member of the J&K Constituent Assembly associated with both the National Conference and the Congress party and privy to Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution.
During his student days Jaitley was close to Prabhu Chawla and even fled his Naraina House sitting pillion on Chawla’s scooter when the Emergency was imposed and his arrest warrants were issued. He narrated after the falling out with Prabhu how he was instrumental in making Chawla editor-in-chief of the Indian Express. It so happened that Goenka, who died in October 1991, was in a coma for a very long time.
Goenka had only one son and two daughters. But his son Bhagwandas died early of a heart attack after which his daughter-in-law Saroj Goenka was looking after the southern editions from Chennai. She has no son. Ramnath’s elder daughter’s son Manoj Sonthalia currently owns the southern editions and his younger daughter’s son Vivek Khaitan - now Vivek Goenka - owns the northern editions including Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Chandigarh etc.
How Vivek Khaitan became Vivek Goenka is a story rarely narrated, and Prabhu Chawla’s ascendance to the editorship of the Express is connected with that. According to the buzz, when Goenka was in a coma the BJP leaders who were very close to him felt that if Saroj succeeded Goenka it may turn out to be a big loss for the BJP, as she was not very favourably inclined towards the party.
So they devised a plan, that a comatose Goenka adopt Vivek as his son, and thus the entire empire passed on to Vivek, now a Goenka after the old man’s death. Later, through a lot of acrimonious legal tangles the family came to an agreement that the southern editions would go to Manoj, the northern to Vivek and the properties to Saroj.
And Jaitley and Govindacharya played kingmakers there.