Jaitley, the wingman

The ex-Finance Minister may not be in govt but the BJP still needs his expertise and management skills

With the halo around Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the penumbra dominated by BJP party chief Amit Shah, rarely does one talk about the man who is as much a Modi-maker, having steered him through the legalities of the Gujarat riots and crafted the personality phenomenon across the intelligentsia to make him the pan-India brand  he has become today. That man is former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Even though he has opted out of the new government on health grounds, he has been a ferocious warrior of the Modi brigade through these painful months, defending the government’s policies and blunting the edge of the Opposition attack through his blogs and brief appearances. Even at the risk of his own electoral fortunes, where he failed ultimately, he has never faulted on his primary job, that of being Modi’s most efficacious counter-critic. And if the discontent over demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) failed to dampen the BJP’s electoral prospects this Lok Sabha election, then Jaitley needs to be thanked in good measure for neutralising people’s fears and anxieties and keeping them corked till the winds cleared. He has even managed to defend the indefensible and turned it into a fine art, simply by statistical comparisons, like apportioning the blame of public banks piling up non-performing assets (NPAs) to the UPA regime between 2008 and 14 and diverting attention from why NDA2 allowed it to fester and let two violators, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi, escape. He diluted the rising angst of joblessness by rolling out international projections of India’s healthy growth rate and its cascading effect on job-creating sectors. If there were doubts about figures put out by think tanks, he found holes in their methodology. Point is nobody could have been a better propagandist and perhaps this is why Modi drove to his residence and is considering a way for Jaitley to still stay relevant. So though he may stay away from the Ministry, his advisory role in the new government cannot be ruled out.

Jaitley’s biggest challenge has been to ensure an almost impossible consensus across party lines for GST. Had it not been for his gentle persuasion, a common tax structure would have been impossible. In fact, more than an economic tool, GST stands out as a shining example of bipartisan politics in NDA2,  which has mostly been accused of undermining institutions and being bull-headed about dissent. For the record, the consensus was unanimous, there was never a need for voting! Though conceived by the Congress regime, Jaitley will always be remembered as the man who converted a theory into practice in real time. He was equally proactive about taking on the challenges posed by the implementation of GST. Now that the collections have stabilised, it doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing. And for all her fury towards Modi, even Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee had amiable terms with Jaitley, he attending the Bengal investors’ meet on receiving her invitation. Though both demonetisation and GST were policy disruptors, with catastrophic short-term squeeze on the economy, he still bet on their long-term impacts, fully aware that this would dent the Modi government’s appeal among the masses. Yet he did not let tapering economic growth figures daunt him and despite them, ushered in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) to perk up the banking sector. He has worked out a slew of measures for attracting foreign investment, lowered corporate tax rate for MSMEs, turning them into a vital engine of economic growth, and at a time of extreme farm distress, promised a minimum 50 per cent return over production cost to farmers besides laying the template for direct cash transfers. He has eased foreign direct investment. In fact, the Micro Units Development Refinance Agency (MUDRA) Bank, that has given a fillip to micro-entrepreneurship, is probably one of the key reasons, besides the Prime Minister’s Awas Yojana, why the electorate in the rural hinterland kept the faith in the BJP. And even though he couldn’t present the vote-on-account, he had realised the political expediency of sending the right message and authored the Rs 6,000 per year income support scheme to farmers with small land-holdings. So though he may not be part of NDA3, Modi may continue to count on him as his wingman for some time.