Thursday, October 29, 2015

The importance of being Arun Jaitley

Or How Arun Jaitley could be Modi's Pranab Mukherjee

Only those could have doubted Arun Jaitley's emergence as the foremost ally of Modi in the government - despite his own defeat in Amritsar - who thought after leading the party to such a stupendous victory Modi would hand-over the Prime Minister-ship on a platter to Advani or some other leader of RSS' choice. Jaitley is one national BJP leader who stood by Modi unwaveringly even when others had their moments of doubt or difference. He was the only one who had publicly predicted that the groundswell of grass-root workers will force the hand of the RSS leadership to accept Modi as the PM candidate. He was never seen to hedge his bets for a 'what if' (BJP fell short of the magic number and needed support of former NDA allies like JDU) scenario -unlike some others as Rajnath Singh. Therefore, Jaitley's rise to the unofficial No 2 in Modi's cabinet shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone.

Modi being new to Lutyens' Delhi (and Parliament itself - being a first time MP) - by his own admission - needed someone to chaperone him through the labyrinths of power corridors and bureaucracy. None could have been better suited than Jaitley for that role. A true blue Delhiite - urbane and moderate face of the BJP with friends across parties and media. His credibility quotient was high nationally and integrity untainted to the public eye. Arun Jaitley could easily have been Narendra Modi's Pranab Mukherjee (whom, Arun Shourie had once called the fulcrum of the UPA government) - a man for all seasons, trouble shooter, negotiator and interface with the opposition.

But, the acute talent shortage in Modi's cabinet (some of it self-imposed one may argue) - got Jaitley too embroiled in the running of the government as Modi's principal strategist. This gave rise to the now famous "Trimurti", as they are sometimes called, of Modi, Jaitley and  Amit Shah. While Shah was, understandably, entrusted with all party affairs, Jaitley became Modi's principal sounding board and advisor on policy matters, especially economic issues. (There is, of course, the invisible 4th pillar - the PMO - where the other triumvirate of Doval, Nripen Mishra and Jaishankar rule - focusing on National Security and foreign affairs – though Arun Shourie calls it the ‘weakest ever PMO’).

Even without even going into a critical evaluation of Jaitley's performance as a Minister - essentially Finance, which has been his primary charge - it may be said that being involved too closely both with strategy and implementation has come in the way of his delivery. This is characterized by a number of avoidable confrontations and stand-offs (such as with the RBI Governor), climb-downs or roll backs (MNC Retrospective Taxation) and U-turns (new IT Returns form). The mother of all setbacks was, of course, the Land Acquisition Bill and the GST could be awaiting a similar fate. Being too close to these decisions - and in some cases the owner or author himself - didn't allow him the much required maneuvering space to find a political solution - which, ironically, is supposed to be his forte.

Though not exactly in the league of his bĂȘte-noire Kapil Sibal's "zero loss" theories - much of his explanation and defense on the Black Money issue (arguably, the biggest credibility sucker of the Modi government – that earned it the tag of a “Jumla Sarkar’’) was seen to be bordering on sophistry and glib talk.

Though Jaitley is not officially handling the Law Ministry – he is generally known to be the Government’s principal legal advisor. The choice of Mukul Rohatgi – his close friend of many years – as the Attorney General is credited to him.  Between the 2 of them – they have to share the burden of the Governments loss of face in the NJAC issue – which even a lay observer of the court proceeding had seen coming from the hostile stance of the bench right from the beginning of the hearing compounded by the very aggressive stand of the government. Further, Jaitley’s reactions to the order made it appear like a personal defeat – which may not have helped to soothe the raw nerves of the judiciary and given fodder his detractors.  Further, as suggested by one respected commentator, it indicates the judiciary will not fight shy of taking head-on a government elected by a huge popular mandate.

Though they would all be loathe to admit it in public – friends of Jaitley (and, he has many) from the industry have been disappointed with him more than even the PM for the slow pace of reforms – because it was on him they had counted most to kick start the economy. Both, his budgets were underwhelming – but that would easily have been overlooked if reforms took off. Instead – the Prime Minister has had to lean on populist social welfare schemes like Jan Dhan Yojna,  Atal Pension Yojna and Insurance Schemes the results of which will take years to be palpably perceived. Whereas delays in release of MNREGA payments and agricultural subsidies – no doubt necessitated by prudent fiscal management – felt immediately and also exploited by the opposition. The Foreign Black Money amnesty scheme (netting only Rs 3700 crores) was a damp squib. Threats of dire action and reinvigorated ED raids may have lost him a few admirers in the business community.

Holding dual charge of Finance and Defence must have been taxing – taking away focus from both (and, that was also the time, Jaitley was not keeping good health requiring surgery). Delays in some crucial appointments (Chief Economic Advisor, Chairman Niti Aayog) would not have helped Jaitley to fast-forward the government’s economic agenda.  Induction of Jayant Sinha as MOS Finance could – perhaps – have happened earlier to relieve him of some load.

But, perhaps, Jaitley’s toughest challenge has been managing the communication strategy of the government. Though he took on the I&B portfolio and by default the role of the principal spokesperson of the government - presumably to prevent motor-mouth ministers and MPs – he has been less than successful in handling the media. Jaitley enjoys excellent personal rapport with the Lutyen’s media – particularly the English TV channel star anchors. But, this doesn’t extend to the vernacular and regional media. Besides, good media relationship does not always make for effective media management. His junior ministers in I&B are inexperienced. He for one should have insisted that the PM doesn’t keep the Media Advisor’s office vacant and, if necessary, brought in the international agency who had reportedly handled Modi’s election campaign as a consultant.

As someone – whom obviously the Prime Minister not only trusts but also, presumably, listens to _ Jaitley should counsel him to increase both the width and depth of talent by inducting more technocrats and competent but savvy politicians (like Nitin Gadkari, Piyush Goyal) into his team. The latter are necessary not only to manage the external environment but also work with the bureaucratic red-tape – that can otherwise trip the best of Ministers as Suresh Prabhu and Manohar Parrikar are learning at their own cost. This would give Jaitley the time, space and – most importantly – distance to do what he likes best – strategize and back channel management – a la Pranab Babu – preparing himself for the coveted role of being the logical successor of Modi in good time.

Article first published in +ABP NEWS Click here to read