Has Modi government’s crisis manager Arun Jaitley gone in crisis himself?

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(In collaboration with Parliamentarian)

Ramzan was about to end.  The Modi Government had already completed two years in office. No one from the BJP had organised the customary Roza Iftar in the last two years because Modi found such functions pretentious.

Not even BJP spokesman Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, known for his gala parties but this year he did organise an iftar.  It was a hot, sultry afternoon and almost the entire BJP top brass, with the exception of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, were in attendance. The lawns of Shahnawaz’s Pant Marg residence was buzzing with journalists, party leaders, newly inducted ministers, party workers and hanger-ons.

Jaitley Modi

The entry of each heavy-weight minister was accompanied by a sudden burst of activity, with Shahnawaz rushing to the gate to receive the dignitary and escorting him into the VIP enclosure to snack on Ramzan treats. The minister’s table would then be surrounded by journalists, hoping to get something exclusive.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had his own set of journalists, as did Health Minister Jai Prakash Nadda.  Even a light-weight minister like Vijay Goel was basking in his new-found glory. In the mêlée, one suddenly caught a glimpse of Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.  Sweating profusely, he seemed lost in the crowd. After exchanging pleasantries with couple of leaders and a handful of party workers, he quietly slipped out.

WINDS OF CHANGE

That was unusual.  Jaitley, the master raconteur is known to be the centre of attraction in any gathering he attends mainly because of the gossip he purveys, often claimed to be a personal experience or anecdote.  Though he is careful not to tread on the shoes of the High and the Mighty, yet he can never resist doling out juicy stuff about one and all.

But social gatherings in Delhi are known to quickly sense the change in wind direction. So were people shunning him because he had fallen from grace, having been divested of the Information and Broadcasting portfolio in the recent Cabinet rejig?

That was not the only reason.  Every one loyal to Jaitley had been cold shouldered in the Cabinet reshuffle.  Be it Piyush Goyal, Dharmendra Pradhan or Nirmala Sitaraman.  Minister of state (Independent Charge) for Coal, Mines and Energy Goyal was seen as the most efficient minister, the man who successfully auctioned coal mines bringing in over Rs 3.5 lakh crore to the state exchequer.

Under his watch, the government had (still has) more power than the states could use. He provided free LED bulbs under the prime minister’s Ujala scheme besides electrifying thousands of dark villages. His promotion to Cabinet rank was a given.  Evidently, he could not make the cut because of his proximity to Jaitley.

Similarly, Minister of State (Independent Charge) Dharmendra Pradhan was seen as an excellent performer what with driving Modi’s Ujjwala Yojana scheme, entailing free distribution of LPG connections to BPL families.  He too was set for promotion yet was left out for the same reason as Piyush Goyal.

As if that was not enough, Jaitley was deprived of his favourite Minister of State, Jayant Sinha, an MBA from the Harvard Business School who was a big help in formulating economic policy and running the financial institutions. His removal is likely to hamper the Finance Ministry’s work on revamping public sector banks and on the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund.

Two years into the Modi Government, Jaitley has lost most of his clout.  The Modi Cabinet formed in May 2014 had Jaitley’s stamp on it.  Modi, an outsider to power corridors of Delhi, had then relied heavily on Jaitley’s advice. This was the reason why most of the Cabinet ranks and their portfolio had already been leaked by Jaitley to his coterie of media personnel, much before the actual swearing in. And he had got his cronies into key positions in the Cabinet.

One year down the line, Modi’s faith in Jaitley seem to have diminished but he still made use of the latter in his hour of need. Modi had an informal chat with media persons in separate groups on completing one year in office.  The interactions arranged by the PIB, with small groups of journalists handpicked by Jaitley -then I&B minister, was arranged at his official residence on Krishna Menon Marg. Jaitley also acted as interpreter and translator for Modi during interactions with foreign media. It was interesting to see Jaitley explaining Modi’s one or two-line answers, for almost 3-4 minutes, often adding his own arguments and logic.  Modi didn’t seem to mind and if he did, he didn’t show it.  He left the interaction midway, leaving Jaitley to play the perfect host, serving his friends from the media with the best of food and drink garnished with lots of political gossip.

STRAINS SHOW

Another year passed and the strain between Modi and Jaitley became apparent. Modi didn’t consult Jaitley before the expansion, evident from the fact that none of Jaitley’s favourites in the media could “break” stories about the Cabinet reshuffle. Even Jaitley was not aware of his MoS being moved out or that he was being divested of I&B ministry.  This time, Modi relied only on one person, Amit Shah for selection of ministers as well as in deciding the portfolios and changes in existing portfolios.

This was the first time prospective ministers were informed about the swearing in neither by the PMO nor Rashtrapati  Bhawan, but by the BJP president, Amit Shah.  Everyone saw on TV, would be ministers queuing up at Shah’s house seeking his blessings before proceeding to Rashtrapati Bhawan for the formal swearing in.  In another first, Shah was made to sit next to the prime minister during swearing in.  This seat is otherwise reserved for the number two in the government.  In fact, Sonia Gandhi as party chief never used to sit with the prime minister during swearing in ceremonies but across where the Cabinet Ministers sat, apparently to show her status.

Modi and Shah have no such complexes.  Modi is not only 14-15 years senior to Shah but was also his instructor during their initial days in the RSS shakha in Ahmedabad.

The message was loud and clear.  Amit Shah had been unofficially given the contentious “number two” position in Modi’s government.  Traditionally the home minister is considered number two and in the prime minister’s absence, can officiate and chair Cabinet meetings.  But by allotting three important ministries to Jaitley – Finance, Corporate Affairs and I&B – Modi made him a virtual number two.  There was always a tussle between Rajnath and Jaitley to be Modi’s deputy. The issue seems to be settled now with Amit Shah occupying the number two slot in government without being part of it.

Jaitley’s downsizing had in fact, started with Modi’s ascent to power.  Like other ministers, he was not allowed to choose his personal staff.  Everyone selected by him for his personal staff in all three ministries, including his long time personal assistant Bhatia, had to be cleared by the committee formed by Modi for the purpose. Then his secretaries were changed without him being consulted. First his ministry was stuffed with Gujarat and Maharashtra cadre officers.  Then, Rajiv Maharshi, secretary economic affairs under Jaitley, was shifted as Home Secretary.

Modi also decided to continue with RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan, appointed during the UPA government, much to Jaitley’s chagrin.  This was surprising because of Jaitley’s proximity to the prime minister.  Jaitley kept complaining about Rajan’s style of functioning but Modi paid no heed. His agony was compounded when Dr. Subramanium Swamy, who had been targeting Jaitley for a long time, was accommodated in the Rajya Sabha.  Jaitley, the third most important minister in the cabinet, has time and again failed to garner much support from party members on being openly criticised by Swamy, who released a fusillade against not only Raghuram Rajan but also chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian.

Jaitley tried to teach him a lesson or two in party discipline but this had no impact on Swamy who threatened an “open bloodbath if any one tried teaching him discipline”.  Modi didn’t interfere nor did Amit Shah, demonstrating that Swamy’s fulminations against Jaitley had their tacit support.

Stark differences between Modi and Jaitley also became apparent during the latter’s legal battle against Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.  Jaitley sought to commandeer some of his ministerial colleagues before filing a criminal defamation case against Kejriwal in Delhi’s Patiala House courts. After enlisting the support of Sitaraman, Pradhan and Piyush Goyal, he also asked high profile HRD minister Smriti Irani to be present, which she did but only after consulting the prime minister.

She went there only as an expression of solidarity with a senior ministerial colleague and also addressed a press conference in Jaitely’s defence.  But when Jaitley threw a party for some senior journalists in his office in Parliament House and invited Irani, she did not respond.  He then sent a junior minister to look for her but she fobbed him off pointing out that she usually worked from her Shastri Bhawan office and came to Parliament only to attend to parliamentary business, not for socialising.

She is learnt to have told off Jaitley when the two met later. “I know who was behind the numerous stories appearing about me, my family, my relations and my educational qualifications, ever since I joined the Cabinet. Yet, I decided to support you and defend you in your hour of need.  But, please spare me from being made part of your social gathering,” her one-time close aides said. The lawyer-minister’s subjugation had been completed by one of Modi’s associates. Could it have been possible without Modi’s direct or indirect authorisation, is anybody’s guess.

JAITLEY’S POLITICS

The problem lies with Arun Jaitley’s politics.  He is not the quintessential politician who roughs it out in the field, takes up the cause of the needy and is available for his constituents around the clock. He is in fact, a typical drawing room politician in the mould of Ahmad Patel (political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi).  Jaitley can draw poll strategies, help generate funds, screen candidates but can’t be expected to go out and campaign in the tough and tumble of electoral politics.  It’s another matter that he is a product of student politics and faced the heat and dust of campaigns as also police lathis and jail food.

Yes, Jaitley has done all that and may be more, but only during his student days.  Under the tutelage of a Delhi University professor Sriram Khanna, Jaitely joined Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).  His best buddies included Prabhu Chawla and Rajat Sharma, both of whom were ABVP activists and later on emerged as eminent journalists.

In 1972, Khanna became Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) president and Jaitley replaced him two years later. He led the protests against the Emergency in 1975 and was incarcerated along with opposition leaders, for 19 months.  He met all the top opposition leaders, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani, KR Malkani and Nanaji Deshmukh in jail and was inducted into the new party, the BJP when it was formed in 1980.

Jaitley used to deal with DDA and MCD cases as a lawyer and hence, was hired by the owner of The Indian Express when Indira Gandhi, on her return to power in 1980, decided to revoke the lease on Express Building.  That was the first time he hogged limelight.  He was also drafted to investigate Bofors and Fairfax scandals.   However, he never contested an election for Assembly or Parliament seat till his unsuccessful bid for the Amritsar Parliamentary seat in 2014.

Jaitley’s run ins with Subramanium Swamy in fact, date back to 1989-90 when he was Additional Solicitor General.  With the change of Union government in 1990, as Swamy was appointed Union Law Minister, Jaitley put in his papers.

The BJP used him as a fund-raiser and poll strategist but he was never asked to contest elections.  He himself never sought to contest one and always aspired to enter Parliament though the back door- the Rajya Sabha.  His entry is said to have been blocked by Vajpayee in 1996 though everyone else including Advani, was in his favour.   It was then said that his compatriot Pramod Mahajan, didn’t want another rival and lobbied with Vajpayee to block his entry.

Jaitley was appointed national spokesman in 1999 and that smoothened his passage to the Rajya Sabha. He rose rapidly, was  appointed Minister of State (independent charge) for Information and Broadcasting, becoming Cabinet Minister the next year.  He has never looked back since.

This was also the time when Jaitley was emerging as a master of electoral strategy. In 2002, he managed two state assembly elections, both tricky in their own way. He was given charge of Madhya Pradesh then ruled by Congress’s Digvijay Singh for 10 years.  In collaboration with BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Uma Bharti, he trumped Singh.  His second state Gujarat, posed a different set of challenges, yet he forged such a strong bond with the then chief minister Narendra Modi, that the next time around Modi specifically requested the party to depute Jaitley as election in charge of the state.  He has been consistently sent to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat.

MODI + JAITLEY

It’s not only about managing elections in Gujarat that brought Modi and Jaitley close. All the legal cases involving Modi have been handled by Jaitley.  But, more important, Modi owes his chief ministership to Jaitley.  After the 2002 communal riots, then prime minister Vajpayee wanted to remove Modi. Jaitley, working in tandem with friend Prabhu Chawla, advised Modi to offer his head first, instead of being asked for it. BJP’s Goa conclave in 2002 reverberated with delegates chanting We Want Modi.  Vajpayee could not go against prevailing sentiment in the party.

Jaitley’s relations with Mahajan might not have been all that pink, but he has maintained good equations with another compatriot Sushma Swaraj, thanks largely to her husband Swaraj Kaushal, a lawyer like Jaitley.  According to a source close to the Mahajan camp, once Jaitley advised Mahajan to file a defamation case against journalists speculating about his relationship with the murdered  journalist Shivani Bhatnagar. This Jaitley claimed, would deter all other journalists from writing on the subject. Mahajan turned to Swaraj Kaushal for advice, who warned him not to as his petition would give the media licence to write and speculate every time the case came up for hearing.  The Maharashtrian leader heeded Kaushal’s advice and at the same time, become more cautious about Jaitley.

While both Sushma and Jaitley have been part of the BJP’s second line, the former is senior in politics having been a minister since  1977. While both are extremely good orators, their fields are as different as chalk and cheese. Sushma has always been elected to Lok Sabha and Jaitley’s domain is the Rajya Sabha.

It was Jaitley again who in 2013-14 along with then party chief Rajnath Singh, engineered Modi’s elevation first as campaign committee chief before anointment as the prime ministerial candidate. He tried to pacify his one-time mentor Advani while getting the likes of Sushma Swaraj into backing Modi.  It was on Modi’s insistence that he contested from Amritsar albeit unsuccessfully.  Defeat did not deter Jaitley from camping in Modi’s parliamentary constituency Varanasi for over a week, overseeing elections there even as Modi was touring the country.

WHY? WHAT HAPPENED?

It is in this backdrop that Jaitley’s downsizing has baffled political observers. What was the reason?  And what was the provocation?  Has the 15-years friendship gone sour?  Or is this just posturing by the two leaders? Are people reading too much into not only the fine print but also between the lines?

BJP sources say that when Modi first came to Delhi, he nodded someone well versed in the corridors of power, to guide him through.  He knew what he wanted but not how and from where. Hence he leaned on Jaitley, till then his trusted man. But as he got acquainted with durbar intrigues, he turned to stifling the ambitions of any who might harbor them.

Modi’s first target was Sushma, who had openly opposed his appointment as campaign committee chief. She was appointed Minister for External Affairs but Modi took upon the job himself through his frequent visits abroad.  Sushma was left tending to expats in trouble. That was the easy job for she was not well herself and didn’t want anything strenuous.

Next was Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who as BJP president prior to elections, had harboured ambitions of the top job if the BJP tally fell short by 25-30 seats. He was hoping to emerge as the consensus candidate since not many “secular” parties would agree to back Modi as prime minister.  Modi put his close aide Kiran Rijuju as MoS (Home), the same way the late PV Narasimha Rao appointed Rajesh Pilot as MoS (Home) under S.B. Chavan.

After vanquishing Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh, it was the turn of Arun Jaitley to be cut to size as he seemed keen to demonstrate that the prime minister leaned on him for almost everything. So Jaitley continued to plant stories but his inability to give time to any ministry other than finance (due to ill health), saw Defence taken away from him and given to Manohar Parrikar. I&B was also taken away because he was unable to oversee the ministry, leaving almost everything to a novice like Rajyavardhan Singh Rathod, the MoS. Being a first term MP, Rathod was unable to handle controversial and complex issues like the Censor Board blocking the film Udta Punjab or managing state sponsored media.

The downsizing of Jaitley doesn’t mean bad blood has been spilled.  In any case, he doesn’t have many options.  Now, he too is just one of the ministers in Modi’s cabinet.

 

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