If you asked Arun Jaitley what the proudest moment of his legal career was, he would perhaps stare blank-facedly for ten seconds, let out a flicker of a smile and throw a googly at you—it was his argument, not in court, but in Parliament to impeach Soumitra Sen, a sitting judge of Calcutta high court.
Sen had been accused of financial impropriety and the enquiry committee was clear in its recommendations to impeach. But in a virtuoso performance in Parliament, Sen had convinced most members that he was being made a scapegoat.
Jaitley replied to every point made by Sen and in a masterful combination of reasoned argument and powerful oratory, ensured that any sympathy that MPs felt for him was short-lived. The Rajya Sabha impeached Sen and realising that his time was up, he resigned.
For those who knew Arun Jaitley, they would also know that this was perhaps not actually the case that he took the most pride in. But Jaitley was a raconteur who loved to hold court and surprise his listeners with stories you’d least expect. In the lunchroom of the Delhi high court where he was a regular for two decades, his lunch of two rotis, vegetables and a salad was usually left untouched as he narrated one story after another.
A topic the stories often veered to was cricket—the only thing that competed with law as being the love of his life. A much-loved president of the DDCA, Jaitley took as much pride in the cases he won as of the time when the Indian cricket team had an assortment of riches from Delhi. Sehwag, Gambhir, Shikhar, Virat, Nehra, Ishant were all ‘hamare ladke’ in his words.
A healthy but self-realised pride in his achievements was a hallmark of Jaitley’s personality. One case that gave him great joy and became the subject of many stories was assisting Fali Nariman in their team’s legal defence of the Express Group when their building on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg was being threatened with demolition.
Express Newspapers v. Union of India is a legal classic where their argument that the spectre of demolition was a ‘direct and immediate’ threat meant to silence independent-spirited newspapers was accepted by the Supreme Court. It remains the law of the land.
Fighting for the press in the Supreme Court came naturally to Jaitley. After all, having been jailed during the Emergency, he was familiar with governmental coercion to silence its critics. Those days shaped him fundamentally.
Such was their effect that when he was Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and MPs, including those in his party, were up in arms about a show where people were making dark confessions about extra-marital affairs on live television, Jaitley stood firm. The moral fabric of the nation could survive a television show, he said, but the nation would not survive if Parliament demanded censorship.
It was the same level-headedness that he brought to the finance ministry as minister. Critics found him too conservative, particularly at a time of global economic recovery, a charge he would have happily accepted. For conservatism ran in his system — whether it be in castigating judges for judicial overreach in economic policy, patiently listening to bureaucrats who made lofty projections that he found mildly optimistic, or admonishing his own party when it went overboard against the liberal intelligentsia.
Much above his spectacular achievements as a lawyer, party leader and minister, or perhaps their underpinning, was his generosity of spirit, a diminishing quality in public life today. From our first conversation on a train to Oxford a decade ago, to the last, when despite his ill-health he released my book in May this year, he was warm, generous, trusting and treated me as an intellectual equal.
In this generosity of spirit lies the legacy that he leaves behind for politics in India — that it is possible to be successful and well-liked at the same time. That is perhaps what he, the boy who made it from Naraina to North Block, was actually proudest of. Never given to excess sentimentality, this is one matter on which if questioned, he would have remained mum. As one of India’s finest lawyers ever, he knew when it was best to remain silent.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.