Arun Jaitley is not known to indulge in personal attacks. But when he rose to speak at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library last week, he let himself a bit loose. Hours ago, senior party colleague Yashwant Sinha had bitterly criticised his handling of the economy. Alluding to Sinha’s sidelined position but scrupulously avoiding any mention of his name, the Union Minister for Finance said that his predecessor was a “job applicant at eighty” (years of age).
Jaitley used the occasion to play with words. The event was the launch of a publication titled, ‘India@70 Modi@3.5
’. The Finance Minister suggested tongue in cheek that the title could be amended to ‘India@70 Modi@3.5
Job Applicant@80’. He seemed a trifle uncomfortable with his broadside and indeed ended his speech with this remark. But the provocation had been serious too.
In an article for a national daily and in interviews to television channels, Sinha, smarting from being rendered jobless and still waiting for an appointment he had sought with the Prime Minister an year ago (according to his version), crossed the policy-criticism red line and went personal. He recalled Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated remark that the latter had seen poverty from close quarters, and added his own smart bit — saying that Finance Minister Jaitely was determined to ensure that many millions of Indians too experienced poverty from up near.
Uncharacteristic though Jaitley’s response was, it hit the target. A fuming Sinha, now having to also contend with Jayant Sinha, his son and Union Minister, who had jumped in to negate his father’s condemnation and back the Government’s economic policies, seemed to stray. If Jayant Sinha was so competent, he wondered, why was he shifted out of the Union Ministry of Finance. It’s unclear whether the senior Sinha was questioning his son’s competence or the Prime Minister’s decision (to move Jayant Sinha out of the Finance Ministry).
But that’s a digression from the Jaitley-Yashwant Sinha spat. Also, the debate on economics can go on. Both the incumbent and the former Finance Minister have given figures to back their respective claims — and so have others such as the junior Sinha and Cabinet Minister Piyush Goyal. And there’s politics too, with the Congress seizing upon the occasion to embarrass the Government. Incidentally, someone must ask the Congress whether it has run out of its own arguments, that it has to ride piggyback on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s internal fault lines. The more interesting aspect remains Jaitley’s personal jibe as a counter to an equally personal attack.
The Finance Minister has developed a tough skin over the years, and he usually resorts to allegories to respond to personal criticisms. Often he ignores them. He explained this before he jibed the “job applicant at 80” at the Teen Murti Bhawan speech. Recalling an intervention he had made years ago in Parliament over the Bofors issue, he said veteran leader LK Advani had complimented him for his factual, non-personalised address. Jaitley said that he had stuck to that approach, barring exceptions. The counter-attack against Yashwant Sinha was clearly one such exception.
If he feels angry enough, he resorts to legal options. For instance, he slapped defamation cases against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who had hurled accusations of graft against him over cricketing affairs in the Delhi and District Cricket Association. As of now, the Cabinet Minister is sitting pretty, with Kejriwal on the defensive and also fighting off sudden hostility from his erstwhile lawyer, the formidable Ram Jethmalani.
A glimpse of Jaitley’s outlook to criticism, personal and otherwise, is provided by author Shweta Bansal in her recently released book, Courting Politics
. The book deals with the life and times of nine eminent lawyers who have become active politicians — the others are Ram Jethmalani, Shanti Bhushan, P Chidambaram, MH Baig, Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Abhishek Manu Singhvi.
The author gives at least two instances to show that Jaitley not just takes criticism in his stride more often than not, but he also holds no grudge against people who let him down or have been contemptuous of him. The first example has to do with Navjot Singh Sidhu. Shweta Bansal writes that Sidhu had strongly favoured the proposal that Jaitley contest the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Amritsar (his support as the sitting MP, to the senior leader was naturally taken for granted). And yet, Sidhu refused to campaign for him. It was a major letdown for Jaitley who had mentored Sidhu through the decades and played a key role in getting him the Lok Sabha ticket from the constituency in 2004.
She observes, “…the monarch of the mixed metaphor shows no repentance, nor exhibits any remorse for how he behaved with his political mentor.” The author then narrates a related incident. For her wedding, Jaitley’s daughter “put her foot down and refused to allow her father to invite Sidhu for the wedding”. Unsaid here is that left to himself, Jaitley would have invited Sidhu for the occasion.
The second instance the author refers to has to do with a judge who had “thrown a copy of the CrPc at Jaitley and his legal team during the Bofors case in a trial court. Years later, the judge approached Jaitley in connection with a case involving his daughter’s acrimonious divorce case. Jaitley obliged, finding it “impossible to not extend help to someone who was already troubled”.
(The writer is a senior political commentator and public affairs analyst)
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