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Prime minister-designate Narendra Modi had wanted Arun Jaitley to handle the finance and law portfolios. At the last minute, however, he changed his mind and asked Jaitley to take charge of defence instead of law, since he felt there was no one else he could entrust with that responsibility. If one goes by the order in which Modi’s ministers were sworn in, Jaitley ranks fourth in the pecking order, after Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj. But if one goes by the degree of clout, Jaitley is the undoubted number two in the government. Apart from the fact that he handles two heavyweight portfolios, several ministers such as Nirmala Sitharaman, Piyush Goyal and Dharmendra Pradhan are believed to have been his protégés. A whole host of other appointments, including those of most senior law officers, could be ascribed to him.
As the quintessential insider in the capital’s political arena, Jaitley with his multifaceted experience and acumen serves as a perfect guide to the former Gujarat chief minister as he navigates Delhi’s corridors of power. Some in the media have dubbed Jaitley Modi’s Chanakya, but this suggests a degree of guile that is absent in a person so open that he is sometimes accused of being indiscreet and too candid for his own good. A more apt description for Jaitley would be as the prime minister’s input provider, sounding board and troubleshooter. Journalist Swapan Das Gupta, who knows both well, sees them as “friends and colleagues”.
As the finance minister prepares to present his first budget on Thursday, one can be sure that both he and the prime minister are on the same page. In fact, the prime minister is believed to be the only other person to have seen Jaitley’s budget speech in its entirety, though senior finance ministry officials were involved in handling separate sections.
Both aspire for a liberal, reforms-driven agenda, yet one that addresses the bread-and-butter issues of ordinary Indians. They are not overly influenced either by the RSS’s Swadeshi Jagaran Manch or by the populist entitlement culture that had characterised the last regime.
The partnership between Modi and Jaitley goes back a long way. When Modi, an RSS pracharak, was appointed a BJP general secretary in the late nineties in Delhi, he stayed in the outhouse of Jaitley’s official bungalow on 9 Ashoka Road. Jaitley helped familiarise Modi with Delhi and was part of the move to oust