The BJP is poorer in the passing away of two of its finest and tallest leaders — Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley; both suave and sophisticated, intelligent and articulate, and capable of devastating their opponents without the use of abusive language.
The pity is that both passed away relatively young. The intrinsic worth of the former External Affairs and Finance Ministers is best measured by the heartfelt tributes that spontaneously came from across the political spectrum. The warmth with which a relatively cold person like Congress leader Sonia Gandhi hugged Jaitley’s widow Sangeeta, while paying respect to his mortal remains, was a poignant testimony to the calibre of the BJP leader.
Beginning from his association in the anti-Emergency movement spearheaded by Jayaprakash Narayan and the civil liberties organisation PUCL, to heading the Finance Ministry in the Modi-1 dispensation, Jaitley played an important role in taking BJP to the Central, and almost invincible, position it holds today.
Jaitley, the brilliant lawyer, was a master strategist and BJP’s rainmaker too. Journalists who interacted closely with him, know the troubleshooting he did from behind the scenes to bail out then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi from the post-Gujarat communal riots mess in 2002.
When Prime Minsiter AB Vajpayee wanted Modi out from the CM’s post, along with LK Advani, it was Jaitley who persuaded Vajpayee that removing Modi, who had been CM for barely a few months before the riots, would paramount to admitting guilt and be counterproductive.
Given his equation with Modi, the BJP high command put him in charge of Gujarat, which was an important State to hold on to once the Congress-led UPA came to power in 2004. In the 2007 Gujarat Assembly election, things were not looking too rosy for the Modi-led BJP, but Jaitley landed in Ahmedabad, dug his heels in and did constituency-wise planning and strategising to ensure a convincing victory for Modi. I had interacted with him during that election and he had always exuded confidence about BJP’s victory.
Jaitley was a journalist’s delight; he would always return calls, knew what your need for information was as a journalist and was astute enough to gauge it and give you a quick quote or detailed analysis.
In 2013, in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, as the BJP’s prospects grew brighter with the scam-tainted UPA-II on the back-foot, Jaitley quickly gave up his own ambition, and worked hard to ensure that other strong hopefuls such as Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj came on board. This further cemented his relationship with Modi, who always treated him with respect and camaraderie. Till the end, Jaitley remained close to Modi, all the time using his razor sharp brain, lawyer’s training and articulation to defend every major act of the Modi government, including demonetisation, as it took its toll on the unorganised sector, daily wage labour and the like. Even when he was ailing, he took to blogging to tear into the principal Opposition party, or what was left of it, the Congress.
Giving MEA a humane face
Sushma Swaraj, on the other hand, was vehemently opposed to Modi emerging the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and was given the External Affairs Minister’s post. She had the grace to stop sulking and plunged headlong into the task of efficiently managing the ministry, even while a lot of jibes were hurled at her for being only a shadow Foreign Minister as the PM himself travelled widely to improve India’s relations with other countries.
Her dignity intact and oozing both charm and humaneness, she effectively used social media, particularly Twitter, to ensure that the ordinary Indian, caught in the imbroglio of our infamous red tape, got quick relief in matters such as getting passport speedily, or getting out of a tricky situation while travelling abroad.
She soon became the darling of the masses and anybody who hit a wall while dealing with our obdurate bureaucracy, had to just tweet his/her problem and Swaraj intervened, stretching rules a little if required. Under her, the MEA got such a human face, and was so approachable, that even Pakistanis needing visas for an emergency paediatric surgery, started appealing to her directly, using her twitter handle, and in many cases she did help.
Both Swaraj and Jaitley proved that in positions of power, it is possible to rise above politics of vendetta and display dignity, leadership and statesmanship. They will be missed sorely. How badly by the BJP becomes evident when you think of its present crop of leaders… say UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, or BJP MPs Sadhvi Prgya or Giriraj Singh, who’d like to ship millions of Indian Muslims to Pakistan.