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Arun Jaitley – the master strategist

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Arun Jaitley - the master strategist

Arun Jaitley is indeed being missed these days. The consensus builder par excellence is unfortunately not around. I never worked directly with him but had to interact with him on several occasions. This article based on excerpts from my forthcoming book, “Encounters with Politicians” is about how I saw him as a master strategist.

I was in the Ministry of Commerce when Arun Jaitley took over as Commerce Minister. However, I never got to interact with him during his brief tenure. It was only much later when I took over as Secretary, of the Ministry of Coal, Government of India in 2014 that I got to know him much better. He was then the Finance Minister. The management of the fallout of the so-called coal scam would not have been possible without his support and guidance though he wasn’t handling this as a subject.

Given the urgency to bring about legislation to tackle the situation created as a consequence of the Supreme Court judgement, an ordinance was promulgated. However, the real challenge was to get the related bill passed by the Parliament. It was easy to get the bill introduced and cleared in the Lok Sabha, but the real test was to get it past the Rajya Sabha where the government did not have the majority. Moreover, the opposition parties were in no mood to play ball. They were keen to pay the Government in the same coin by repeatedly disrupting the functioning of the parliament. Precious time was being lost. However, they could not care less. In the absence of legislative business, most of the bills introduced in the parliament were languishing.

To carry out the auction of the coal blocks that were cancelled by the Supreme Court, it was imperative to get the aforementioned legislation passed. Hence, a multi-pronged strategy was chalked out to reach out to the parliamentarians and those who mattered and to convey the value proposition behind the legislation.

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One of the parts of the strategy was to reach out to the Chief Ministers of the opposition-ruled States (States where non-NDA parties were in power). On one of the rare holidays, I was with family as we drove down to a friend’s place in Gurgaon. I got a message from Arun Jaitley’s house that the Chief Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik had arrived at his residence, and Arun Jaitley wanted me to come over and explain the proposed legislation to him. I beat a retreat and reached his residence. I was ushered into a room where Arun Jaitley, Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister, Odisha, Piyush Goyal, Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Power and Coal, and the Personal Secretary to the Chief Minister, Odisha were already present. Piyush Goyal was explaining something to the Chief Minister as I walked in. Arun Jaitley interrupted him and introduced me to the Chief Minister. I was then asked to explain the bill and its rationale. I made an opening statement keeping in mind that the Chief Minister was upset at his State getting a smaller amount from the auctions than the amount received by Chhattisgarh. I explained that the Central Government was not getting a single penny out of these auctions, yet it was putting in all the effort to auction the blocks transparently. He was surprised and it showed in his response, ‘Is that so, Mr Swarup?’ Then I went on to explain the full process of the auction. My statements and explanations were interspersed with his, ‘Is that so, Mr Swarup!’ I used my smartphone and went to the web portal where the live auction was being webcasted. Fortunately, an Odisha-based mine was being auctioned. I informed him that every INR 2 increase in the bid translated into INR 50 lakhs for the state. He could not but be impressed with the way the auctions were being conducted. Finally, what settled the issue was my statement that the state of Odisha would get around INR 27,000 crores through these auctions. This was the last ‘Is that so, Mr Swarup!’

Biju Janta Dal (BJD) supported the bill in the Parliament. This would not have been possible without the initiative and sagacity of Arun Jaitley.

Also Read: Indian Civil Service- All is well?


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A review of the infrastructure sector had just concluded and the Prime Minister was having an informal chat on coal-related issues with Piyush Goyal. Arun Jaitley and I were also around. One of the issues under discussion was the commercial mining of coal (So far government has allowed only captive mining. Those who were allocated coal blocks were only allowed to use the mined coal themselves and weren’t allowed to sell it in the open market or to anyone else). Given the acute shortage of coal, it was argued that commercial mining of coal should be allowed. My Minister was a trifle reluctant because he apprehended backlash from unions. Arun Jaitley was candid enough to admit the likely backlash but still advised that we should proceed with commercial mining. This was the right time for such a decision. Not only was it the need of the hour, but any such decision would be difficult closer to the elections. The Prime Minister agreed with him. However, for some reason (perhaps the discomfort of Piyush Goyal) the file for commercial mining was not moved immediately. The decision was taken after five years when the country was confronted with another coal crisis


My Minister was Piyush Goyal but the final arbiter in almost every tricky issue that we faced was Arun Jaitley. In fact, at the beginning of my tenure whenever my Minister and I had any doubt or difference of opinion, we would proceed to consult him. Despite his preoccupation with his own work, he always found time for us. I never found him agitated on any issue. He was undoubtedly one of the most mature politicians that I had to interact with.

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Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup is a former 1981 batch, Uttar Pradesh cadre  IAS officer, and was awarded Director's gold medal for "best officer trainee" at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA). He served the Government of India in various capacities for 38 years and went on to become Secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy and the Coal Secretary of India. He also served as Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Additional Secretary, Labour & Empowerment, Export Commissioner in the Ministry of Commerce & Industry of India and as the District Magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri. He couldn’t make it to the “elite” Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on his first attempt but qualified for the Indian Police Service where he worked for one year before clearing IAS in his next attempt. He is today an author of several looks like 'No More a Civil Servant,' ‘Ethical dilemmas of a civil servant’ and ‘Not just a civilservant’. The views expressed are his own.


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