New Delhi: Even before votes for the 16th general election had been cast, the voters of Amritsar were told that Arun Jaitley would be the country’s next “khazana" mantri, or finance minister. In retrospect, the Akali Dal, the senior partner in the alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Punjab, knew something the others didn’t. Jaitley himself, when queried by the media, would give his trademark enigmatic smile and move on.

When the votes were polled, the prospective finance minister was comprehensively defeated by his Congress rival. It was probably the lowest point in Jaitley’s political career, one in which he transitioned from a defiant student union leader in Delhi University to a successful lawyer and later, a minister in the second National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government formed under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. What must have stung most was that the defeat came during a virtual wave in favour of the BJP.

As the party under the leadership of Narendra Modi moved towards government formation, speculation was rife that Jaitley would have to pay a bigger price for his electoral loss. That wasn’t to be and with nary a hiccup, Jaitley was nominated as the next finance minister with the additional charge of another plum ministry, defence.

Jaitley was among the original group within the BJP that backed Modi for the top job. Jaitley’s support for Modi dates far back, though. Even in 2002, in the famous Goa meeting of the BJP that followed immediately after the communal riots in Gujarat, he was all for the then Gujarat chief minister.

Over time, Jaitley emerged as Modi’s principal supporter in Delhi. And familiar with the wily ways of Delhi’s power circles, he promised to be more. With the BJP emerging with a majority of its own, the power of 282 members of Parliament (a party needs 272 for a majority) ensured that Modi’s choice of his ministers went unquestioned. And with no coalition pressures to worry about, the power structure within the cabinet is clear—Modi, especially given his aggressive hands on persona, is the sole authority, eschewing any jockeying for power among others (as was so evident in the 10 years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, or UPA).

But Jaitley has a special place in the scheme of things.

In cabinet meetings, discloses a minister who asked not to be identified, Modi often turns to Jaitley if the debates turn sticky. “Modiji kehte hain “Arunji", aur phir Arunji apna pravachan dete hain vishay par (On a cue from Modi, Jaitley weighs in on the debate)."

Regardless of the faith exhibited by Modi, Jaitley’s ability to overcome a humiliating electoral defeat and regroup so quickly provides an insight into his character, and is a reflection of the man’s self belief.

He will need that.

The nature of the job is such that a finance minister can have few friends. In Jaitley’s case, the task is so much more difficult. While the international circumstances are relatively calm—unlike say in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008—the fiscal legacy of the UPA and the growing likelihood of a below-par monsoon do not create a salubrious environment for someone still getting used to a new job. Worse, the UPA’s failure to initiate timely policy changes over the last decade means India now needs structural solutions. There are no quick fixes to the problems such as reviving investment, curbing inflation, and fixing the fiscal overhang.

As this writer previously wrote in Capital Calculus, the metric for measuring the efficacy of Jaitley will be the vision that he provides in resolving these structural problems. Recently, during the course of an informal conversation, this writer asked a cabinet minister as to why the NDA had not come out with a white paper that would disclose the extent of fiscal rot it has inherited. The minister smiled knowingly, shrugged, and said “it is time to be positive". Presumably, as Modi has signalled, the perception within government is that the cup is half full and not half empty.

If the electoral defeat in his first attempt in the Lok Sabha was a marker, then the declaration of Emergency in 1975 was the defining moment of Jaitley’s life in politics. As president of the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) and convener of Jaiprakash Narayan’s Committee for Youth and Students Organisation, he was a key leader in the initial resistance to the declaration of Emergency by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Fellow students at Delhi University recollect a firebrand activist.

That activism came at a price. One day during the emergency, the Jaitley household was woken up by a knock on the door at 2am; it was the police seeking to arrest Jaitley (he escaped by slipping out of the back door).

The next day, Jaitley, then a second-year law student, was at it again—leading a protest at Delhi University, which had rapidly emerged ground zero for the dissidence against Gandhi, especially because many leaders opposed to the Emergency had been arrested and confined in the near-by Timarpur police station. He was promptly booked under the dreaded provisions of the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, leading to 19 months in prison under preventive detention.

It was the “best political education", recalls Jaitley.

“For many like me who underwent the Emergency experience in Delhi and successfully fought against it, this became a turning point. It taught me that some compromises were just not possible."

The progression from a leader in the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to the party has meant that Jaitley has kept up his links with the BJP’s ideological parent. It just makes him that much more politically secure in taking tough decisions as finance minister.

Preceding him, railway minister Sadananda Gowda eschewed personal popularity to lay out a new vision for the railways—one which restores its primacy and makes it central for reviving the growth momentum in the economy—which promises to corporatize it without shedding any of the welfare objectives.

In the run-up to the preparation of the Union budget, Jaitley engaged in extended discussions with the prime minister. This is unlike the experience of the UPA where ego hassles often got in the way of such a dialogue. Whether this results in Jaitley either delivered a defining budget (as he is widely expected to) or a damp squib, will be seen on Thursday.

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