RIP Dear Arun Ji, My Tribute To An Exceptional SchoolmateBloombergQuintOpinion
Arun Jaitley was everybody’s hero in school. He was nine years my senior at St Xavier’s, Raj Niwas Marg, Delhi. We were still in knickers when he was knocking off every conceivable competitor in debates. When we put on pants and got to senior school, we heard of his exploits as President of the Delhi University Students’ Union. When he got arrested during the Emergency, we would say, with hushed pride, that he was “one of us”.
I don’t quite recall how he came to know of me, or when I first met him. I had become the President of the School Students’ Council, and he was quite active in XOBAD, the old students’ association. I reckon that’s where he got to know that I had followed in his footsteps by winning almost all the debating competitions that he too had in his time. Soon we were on first-name terms. He would always greet me with an expansive smile.
In the late 1980s, I became a co-anchor/reporter on Newstrack, the pioneering video-magazine launched by India Today. The Bofors Scandal was the top news story in those days, especially on Newstrack since Doordarshan was fettered by the government. Arun Jaitley was an active collaborator on VP Singh’s anti-Bofors campaign. He went on to become the youngest Additional Solicitor General in direct charge of the Bofors investigation when VP Singh was elected Prime Minister in 1989. Through those years, Jaitley was a go-to source for Newstrack’s journalists.
I remember bumping into him as he was descending the stairs into TV18’s basement studio at Balaji Estate in Kalkaji (this was around the mid-90s, by which time I had exited from Newstrack and launched my own television news outfit). “Hey Arun, good to see you, what’s gotten you here?”, I exclaimed. “I am here to record with Paranjoy”, he said (Paranjoy Guha Thakurta was anchoring India Talks, our show on ABN India). I offered him a cup of tea in my office – how could Arun say no to a quick exchange of political gossip!
Soon thereafter, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee created the first BJP-led government in office. Arun Jaitley was among the brightest sparks in his cabinet, holding portfolios ranging from Information & Broadcasting, Disinvestment, Law and Shipping.
Politics Aboard Air India
My next encounter with him was memorable. I was in the upper-deck business class of Air India’s flight to New York. In the cabin was another ex-Xaverian schoolmate – a young, promising doctor of medicine - who was my junior by a few years. “Hi, what takes you to New York”, I asked. “I am the accompanying physician on Mr Arun Jaitley’s official trip. His wife will not let him travel without me, just in case he needs urgent medical attention”, he said. As was widely known, Arun Jaitley was severely diabetic, and also severely fond of rich food. He was also severely loyal to ex-Xaverians, much beyond selecting his travelling doctor. (Years later, a classmate IAS officer called to ask if I would “put in a good word with Arun Jaitley, since I am in the running for this job for which he has the final say”. I simply told him to “reach out directly to Arun and play up your Xaverian credentials”. He got the job!). “Oh great, so Arun must be in first class”, I said, as I dozed off.
When I opened my eyes, Arun Jaitley was leaning over from the row in front. “Hi, doc told me you were on the flight, so I’ve come up. I was getting bored in first class”, he said, as he requested the person sitting next to me to move over. We enjoyed a jolly good hour of political gup-shup (chatter) that day.
A few months later, I had gotten into a terrible run-in with one of his ministerial colleagues. For some reason, that gentleman had become abrasive and adversarial. I reached out to Jaitley for advice. We met at the Law Ministry. There he was, looking dapper in a tweed jacket and brown trousers, surrounded by karyakartas (political workers), favour-seekers and hangers-on. He asked me to sit opposite him, as he dealt with several clamouring petitioners, all together. In between, he heard snatches of my travails. Once I had finished, he said “yes, this fellow gets unusually combative. I will speak to him to solve your problem”. I don’t know if Arun ever spoke to his angry colleague, but that guy continued to remain belligerent.
Lifetime Xaverians And Fake Doctors!
To celebrate its golden jubilee, St Xavier’s School decided to award its outstanding alumni on Dec. 23, 2009. I was delighted to be in the same category (i.e., the highest) as Arun Jaitley. We were awarded for ‘Lifetime Achievements’, while other colleagues were in the ‘Outstanding Accomplishments’ slot. He was obviously recognised for his political spurs, while I for my exploits as a media entrepreneur. Both of us got our certificates/medals from Kapil Sibal, who was the resident MP and chief guest on that day.
As Arun Jaitley continued his dizzying climb up the political ladder, and I tracked away into creating wealth in the capital markets, our inter-actions got pulled apart and more formal. Somewhere along in time, imperceptibly and naturally, I stopped calling him by his first name. He became a more respectful and formal “Arun ji”. But I was always Raghav for him.
Around 2011, I got a call from Amity University saying they wanted to award me an honorary doctorate. I was always sceptical (even cynical) about these show-piece trophies. But when I learnt that Arun Jaitley was also on the list of awardees, I jumped at the offer. I was preening at how his awesome profile would rub off on me. When we met on D-day, he was charming and gossipy as always. “Oh, there is so much buzz about your ETV and Reliance deal; come, come, let’s sit in this corner, and you tell me all about it”, he said. And soon, when Dr RA Mashelkar also walked in, Arun blurted “now here comes the real doctor; Raghav and I are the fake ones, getting the honorary stuff!”. He could be awfully blunt.
Our Last Meeting
My last meeting with him, two years ago, was also the most critical. One of our journalists had been charged by the government under the Official Secrets Act. While the FIR was quite frivolous, the charging sections were onerous. The police had a wide latitude to trouble my public-spirited colleague. I once again reached out to Arun ji for his counsel. He met me on a Saturday forenoon at the cavernous porta-cabin office he had set up at home. His overwhelming importance in the Modi government was apparent in the plethora of cars and gun-toting black-cats jamming the compound. I waited for nearly an hour until all his visitors had been dealt with. “Sahib has said that send in Raghav ji last, so that we are not rushed”, his sheepish assistant explained, as I twiddled my thumbs in the ante-room.
“So Raghav, what’s up? Trouble as usual”, he said, as his aide squeezed eye-drops into his tilted head. “I’ve just had this cataract operation”, he explained. Another aide placed a plateful of neatly diced cottage cheese and egg-white pieces, all sparklingly, astringently white. “I have to take this protein after the kidney operation”, he elaborated, even though I had not asked. And then he let fly at his eye-dropping assistant. “Why did you give the previous visitor an appointment. You can’t just let any Tom, Dick or Harry come and meet me. On what basis was that ruffian given time?”, he exploded. Even as the chastised aide murmured some inane explanation, Jaitley dismissed him with an impatient wave of his hand.
Now that I was alone with him, I poured out my woes in a torrent. He looked at me, a bit bemused. “Just don’t waste any time. Get a good lawyer, and challenge this FIR in court. You will get relief. This OSA thing can’t be done so casually”. But then his tone became admonishing. “But Raghav, what you guys did … really, that simply was not Raghav-level in my opinion”. He had just scolded me, but also paid a huge compliment. I did not know how to react. I was saved as he got a call to rush out to Hyderabad House for a lunch appointment with a foreign dignitary.
That was my last meeting with the exceptional Arun ji. You have to hand it to him. He battled diabetes, bariatric surgery, a kidney transplant, and the last, final ailment that felled him. All through it, he soldiered on, working, talking, joking, gossiping, helping, defending, charging, evangelising his beloved BJP government’s stand in Parliament, press conferences and television. He was intellectually unassailable and indefatigable.
RIP Arun ji. I can’t claim to be your buddy. Or colleague. Or peer. I was always the Xaverian schoolmate you greeted with a smile. Thank you. And God bless you in heaven.
Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of three books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’, and ‘Super Century: What India Must Do to Rise by 2050’.