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Arun Jaitley: Master of Manoeuvring

N D Sharma |
Senior journalist N D Sharma pens down the lesser known side of former finance minister and lawyer Arun Jaitley, his many roles in different times – related to George Fernandes, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi.
Arun Jaitley

Image Courtesy: Indian Express

Former finance minister and senior lawyer Arun Jaitley, who passed away recently, was more a master of manoeuvring than a legal wizard or a politician. He was intelligent, of an amiable demeanour, an entertainer, friendly to journalists and the darling of corporate houses and press barons. He believed in making ‘adjustments at the ground level’ rather than fighting head on. He got Dow Chemical (successor to Union Carbide in the Bhopal Gas Disaster litigation) out of the legal wrangle and the gas victims came to know much later about Jaitley’s role in it.

It’s not that his behind-the-curtain operations always succeeded. When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader failed, he got angry. In a long article in The Pioneer, he criticised the Supreme Court in unsavoury terms when the apex court dismissed then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s petition challenging the appointment of Justice (retd) R A Mehta as the Lokayukta of the State and quashed the appointment of Justice (retd) Chandrasekharaiah as the Up-Lokayukta of Karnataka. The procedure for appointment of the Lokayukta in the Gujarat Act is substantially different from the procedure in the Karnataka Act. In his anger, Jaitley conveniently (or mischievously) ignored this fact while attacking the Supreme Court, which is unworthy of an eminent lawyer.

Jaitley was again angry when he could not get the Supreme Court to endorse a certain decision of the Modi government in which he was an important Minister. He told Rajya Sabha: ‘With the manner in which encroachment of legislative and executive authority by India’s judiciary is taking place, probably financial power and budget making is the last power that you have left. Taxation is the only power which states have.’ This was on the day the Supreme Court queered the Centre’s nefarious plan to usurp the legislative powers of Uttarakhand.

It was to no minor credit of Jaitley that Modi is the Prime Minister today and Vajpayee completed his full term. He helped Modi get out of the post-Godhra (Gujarat 2002 riots) messiness mainly by making adjustments at the ground level. The situation was such as could not have been controlled by purely sticking to the letter and spirit of the law. Jaitley’s role in persuading the party leaders to declare Modi as the prime ministerial candidate before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections is only too well known. He also helped Amit Shah get out of the fake encounter case. Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam, who had finally acquitted Shah of the charges, was, on retirement, appointed Governor of Kerala.

Earlier, Jaitley had saved the Vajpayee government from possible pre-mature demise. Tehelka magazine had exposed coffin scam along with other defence scandals of George Fernandes, who was Defence Minister in Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance government. Sonia Gandhi, who had become Congress president a few years earlier, took up the defence scams, mainly the coffin scam. She asked her party men to collect signatures all over the country on a petition to the President seeking an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee into the scams. Congressmen were reported to have collected around 6.25 crore signatures in a three-month-long countrywide drive.

Such a massive mobilisation of the Congress party on an issue of vital public interest had not been witnessed in the past several decades. The top NDA leaders went into panic. Defence minister Fernandes lost his sleep. He went on threatening to file a sedition case against Sonia Gandhi if she did not desist from what he said was demoralising the armed forces. ‘Agar us mahila ne apana muhn band nahin kiya to kanooni kararvai karenge’ (if that woman does not shut her mouth, we’ll take legal action against her), he told a press conference in Bhopal, adding that ‘it will not be limited to defamation, but may be sedition also’. Sonia Gandhi had, in spite of her linguistic handicaps and ‘lack of experience’ in politics, caught the imagination of the masses. It was claimed that Sonia, accompanied by all state party presidents, would hand over the signatures to President K R Narayanan and seek action.

Then ‘something’ happened. Sonia Gandhi accepted Prime Minister Vajpayee’s offer to head the Indian delegation to the United States for the UN’s special session on AIDS. Instead of seeking a fresh date from President Narayanan for submission of the signatures, she gave instructions to some AICC functionaries to take the truckloads of the bundles of signatures to Rashtrapati Bhavan and present these to the President. The 11-member delegation of the Congress that called on the President included Pranab Mukherjee, N D Tiwari, Motilal Vora, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni and Mukul Vasnik. On the whole, it was a miserably low-key affair and ended in a chaffy anti-climax. In contrast to the wide publicity that Sonia’s call for collecting signatures had attracted across the country, the actual submission of signatures to the President turned out to be a non-event, with a paragraph or two appearing on inside pages of only a few newspapers. PCC chiefs, who had worked hard to collect the signatures and seen it as a new beginning in the party, felt cheated.

Sonia also got some alterations made in the petition submitted to the President. While the original petition, on which the signatures were collected, had categorically demanded a JPC to probe the entire gamut of affairs exposed by the Tehelka website, including the coffin scam, the petition that was actually submitted to the President left it up to the President as ‘the protector of the Constitution’ to decide ‘how to save the people of India from this impervious government’ of NDA which ‘has lost the moral right to rule.’

This done, the BJP pushed into the background not only Quattrocchi but also the Bofors gun deal and Fernandes stopped threatening her with sedition cases. What was more, Vajpayee, who had been much offended by Sonia’s speech in Lok Sabha, became an admirer of her to the puzzlement of some of his own party leaders. With the good work done by then Law Minister Arun Jaitley, the Delhi High Court cleared Rajiv Gandhi of involvement in the Bofors kickbacks scandal. As Quattrocchi’s involvement was more complicated, mainly because of his refusal to come to India, the machinery was set in motion to ease his ordeal also. Sometime later, two of his accounts in London banks containing 3 million euros and $1 million were defreezed.

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