The untimely demise of Arun Jaitley signals the end of an era where the ruling BJP managed its way through consensus and dialogue. The political life of India’s former finance minister mirrored the journey of his party from the fringes to the mainstream over 40 years — from the anti-Emergency movement during which he was jailed to the BJP’s emergence as the torch-bearer of identity politics in post-liberalisation India. Jaitley carved out and represented the urbane constituency of the BJP, beginning in this respect with the middle class in Delhi and over time becoming a mascot for a dominant section of the urban middle class which had grown sick and tired of the Congress. As one of the party’s key ideologues and strategists, he would underscore the infirmities of a dynastic party that stood for the status quo over change, and had stuck to an ‘idea of India’ that in his view had outlived its utility and context. In fact, in his last political comment on the abrogation of Article 370, he makes this point — that ‘New India’ (his favourite slogan) understands the need for this move, but not the Congress. Indeed, in his ardent advocacy of reforms — he piloted the introduction of GST, pushed the controversial Land Acquisition (amendment) Bill and would have favoured a higher degree of divestment — he was a leading voice in the BJP.
Jaitley’s charm and ability to reach across the aisle played a big role in what was perhaps his crowning achievement as finance minister — getting States on board to implement GST. He was instrumental in creating the GST Council, India’s first truly federal institution where the States and the Centre have an equal voice. His commitment to reforms led to the passage of the landmark Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code and the creation of institutions associated with it. Critics of GST implementation would agree that under him, the Council was open to correcting its mistakes.
Yet Jaitley the politician is less understood. During the 1990s when the politics of caste overshadowed Hindutva, politicians such as Jaitley negotiated the BJP’s steady advance by striking strong alliances with regional opponents. For almost two decades after the early 1990s — when LK Advani did his controversial rath yatra — the BJP needed to wrestle and negotiate with caste identity and its champions to be in power. And it was to the pragmatist and charmer in Jaitley that his party turned for such negotiations. He was the consensus-builder in Delhi who provided the support Prime Minister Narendra Modi needed in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Modi’s steady rise as the strongest pole in Indian politics owes a great deal to Jaitley’s ability to make political alliances. Despite being closer to Advani’s brand of Hindutva than Vajpayee’s, Jaitley will be remembered as a solid, mainstream politician. He was the zeitgeist of an earlier era of consensus.