(Big Fight still happens on NDTV but has a different moderator.) Those were the days of Congress consensus (some may call it Nehruvian consensus) and naturally, a new non Congress government was attracting hostilities from all quarters (the media, activist lobbies and the opposition) whenever & wherever it was departing from the traditional ways of handling big and contentious issues (the economy, Pakistan etc).
Big Fight was among the most popular current affairs programs those days. NDTV was the only English channel of note and there weren’t too many current affair programs. In a way, for many like me, Big Fight was the only way to watch televised opinions on important issues facing the nation. Conversely, it was the only noteworthy platform for public figures with an opinion to be heard.
Big Fight used to host debates on multiple subjects with eminent figures from different walks of life participating in them. But the ones on politics mostly used to have only one figure at the center of the debates representing the BJP government – the bespectacled man. And every participant in those debates would point their barrels at him.
In the spirit of the times, everyone had a bone to pick with the government – journalists, activists and of course opposition leaders. But there was something uncommon happening here. The bespectacled man was out arguing everyone in smooth English laced with legal intricacies and in a suave manner. After sometime I came to know it was Arun Jaitley.
It was uncommon those days because erudition, sophistry and elegant arguments were expected only of people defending the left liberal side of the fence. Arun Jaitley changed that perception in me and I guess in many others. How he would defend some of the things that were quite indefensible back then leaving a trail of outsmarted co-debaters gasping for words and ideas – looked like a superhuman act those days. Nowadays the BJP line prevailing over other lines of political thoughts, in TV debates, has become a common sight and to do so, you don’t require Jaitley’s finesse anymore.
But Jaitley’s superhuman acts wouldn’t save his party in 2004 general elections nor in 2009. 10 years would be a long time out of power. The first five years in the opposition would be rather uneventful for BJP. A Congress-led UPA 1 would gain momentum under a somewhat steady leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. There would be occasional hiccups but none big enough to upset the momentum. (The 2008 Mumbai attack didn’t rattle the UPA government much.) In fact, by the time the Congress-led UPA came back to power in 2009 to serve its second term, some of the pet BJP issues like the real center of power being the Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and not the PM, Congress being a family oriented party etc – had lost their traction on a pan India level.
Then the scams came – one after another – 2G and many others - and the momentum started slipping away. The rising chorus over the scams and the opposition finally getting its act together set in motion a series of things – leadership crisis caused by internal bickering among Congress leaders, leaders making their ideological leanings and disagreement with the PM public, Gandhi Family loyalists looking for scapegoats to blame everything on to protect the reputation of the Family etc. This led to a rattled Government failing to function properly (which later came to be known as policy paralysis). This is the time Arun Jaitley came into his own.
In this chaos, there were many mainstream political parties and activist groups (including Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement) trying to monopolize the anti-Congress / anti-government space.
And if BJP eventually emerged as the only face of public anger against the Government, it was largely due to the brilliance of Arun Jaitely, the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha then. His sharp attacks on the Government both in the parliament and media made sure that in public perception the Government always looked like a house caving in. This public perception of a fumbling government only got stronger with time.
In a way, Arun Jaitely was a politician of the television era. He was never a mass leader. His core competency was being a spokesperson and backroom strategist. In pre television days, such a leader would be permanently in the shadow of another mass leader like Vajpayee, Advani or Modi. What helped him step out of the shadow of a big mass leader and be known was TV. His ability to give long interviews explaining BJP’s stand on complex issues, present a sound political perspective on something, deliver sharp soundbites together with his pleasant personality – made him very media friendly – and probably that’s why we know him so well today.
When he passed away last week, I was finding it difficult to imagine an unfolding political situation without a sharp Arun Jaitely observation on it. I am sure many would have felt the same way. As time goes by we would get used to his absence. A lot more is coming to my mind but the blog has to end somewhere.