From the Viewsroom

Jaitley leaves a vacuum

Venky Vembu | Updated on May 30, 2019

He has proved a ‘bridge-builder’ and an articulate spokesman

Given a political culture that treats high office as a sinecure at state expense, former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s action in recusing himself from a second inning in a Narendra Modi Ministry is striking at many levels. The reason that Jaitley cited for opting out may have been his ill health, which he has been battling for months — and to that extent, it is worrisome. But considerations of infirmity have never inhibited politicians at the Centre and in the States from clinging onto posts. In fact, a few State Chief Ministers may arguably have been propped up in office long after they were rendered incapable of discharging their duties. Jaitley’s voluntary withdrawal is, in that context, the mark of an uncharacteristic politician.

Jaitley’s tenure as Finance Minister over the past five years was noteworthy for many reasons. His stewardship of the economy restored a semblance of macro-economic stability after the UPA II government sowed the seeds of an NPA crisis. And making the most of depressed global oil prices, Jaitley got the engines of the economy humming and simultaneously tamed inflation. Among the most sterling initiatives of his team were the framing of an Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code and the ushering-in of a Goods and Services Tax regime. The latter, in particular, was a masterly exercise in fashioning a pan-Indian political consensus, and not even the GST’s imperfect design can take away credit from Jaitley’s team for that endeavour.

On the other hand, any historical assessment of Jaitley’s ministerial legacy must account for the ill-effects of the demonetisation exercise. Not enough is known about how much of ‘ownership’ he had over the note-ban decision, but once it unrolled, the effort had no more ardent — or articulate —defender than him. He may have been dismissed airily as a political lightweight and a “babble blogger”, but Jaitley marshalled his defence (of even the indefensible) with lawyerly flamboyance and biting sarcasm. It’s fair to say Modi 2.0 will be the poorer for Jaitley’s absence.

Published on May 30, 2019

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