Arun Jaitley (File Photo)
"I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death"
Leonardo Da Vinci
Former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who breathed his last on August 24, 2019, at the age of 66, embodied Vinci's ethos by staying true to his principles and the BJP's ideology till his last breath. Rarely has any other Indian leader in recent times elicited such an overwhelming array of glowing tributes and searingly heart-breaking emotions from a diverse cross section of politicos, journalists, peers, legal eagles, political analysts, juniors, seniors, opposition parties, et al.
While any number of obituaries can never quite capture the towering genius of a man who shaped contemporary politics in India, equally, what cannot be missed is that, Jaitley internalised the spirit of Jan Sangh stalwart Deen Dayal Upadhyay better than most. Critics who claim the former finance minister never won a Lok Sabha election and hence cannot be called a mass leader, have completely lost the plot.
A mass leader is defined not merely by his electoral victories but more importantly by his mass connect and this is where Arun Jaitley scored hands down. His mass connect cutting across party lines, mentoring the Next-Gen leaders, being at home with both the Lutyens' media as much as being at ease with his support staff for whom he was a compassionate father figure, the BJP's proverbial trouble shooter, reaching out to millions through his razor sharp blogs, to being an outstanding orator who as a four-time Rajya Sabha MP could tear into the opposition benches without raising his decibel levels, is stuff that legendary folklores are made of.
I never had the opportunity to meet the indefatigable and magnanimous Mr. Jaitley in person and that will be a regret that I shall always have. I never had the opportunity to be mentored by him but I have no qualms in saying I still feel a sense of complete vacuum and irreparable loss like millions of our country men and scores of BJP karyakartas. The sparkling charisma of Jaitley lies in the fact that he touched so many of our common lives in a manner so endearingly uncommon even though so many of us never had the good fortune of meeting him.
Ofcourse I had the privilege of listening to his brilliant oratory as part of his post budget public addresses at the NCPA in Mumbai a few times. I went to Mr. Jaitley's ‘2-Krishna Menon’ residence in 2018 to meet him after his kidney transplant operation, but as he was still recuperating; I came back without meeting him, after spending a good 20-odd minutes with one of his long-standing close aides.
After the release of my book Truth & Dare, where I have captured some of Jaitley's finest milestones in his stint as a consummate blogger, savvy parliamentarian and the reformist finance minister in Narendra Modi's first term, he did, via his office, ask me to send a copy of my book to him. But, that is as close as I ever came to meeting him.
My humble tribute to the formidable Mr. Jaitley is to a gentleman who not only became the face and voice of young India during the 1975 emergency, when he was imprisoned for 18 months, or the man who burnished his credentials as an incisive leader of opposition in 2009, but also to an outstanding reformer, to whom goes the unfettered credit of merging the ‘Union Budget’ and ‘Railway Budget’, in making India, ‘A One Nation,One Budget’ democracy.
However, his biggest contribution ever will be making GST, India's most historic indirect taxation reform, into a practical reality, by virtue of his sheer ability to build an eloquent consensus cutting across divergent political compulsions of diverse states.
Given below are some of the key landmarks of the GST, which will enduringly remain one of the most powerful legacies of Mr. Jaitley, earning him a distinguished place in the annals of India's political economy for generations to come. It was on July 1, 2017 that the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which is based on the premise of ‘One Nation One Tax’, came to fruition, making India a unified common market.
There are over 40 different GST structures in 160 odd countries where it is applicable. Indian GST is, however, unique due to the sheer array of numbers involving a country of 1.30 billion people and counting. For instance, there is this obnoxious attempt by naysayers to compare India with Singapore, but these critics conveniently forget that Singapore, with a population of 5.6 million is less than half of Mumbai with a population of over 13 million and growing. Also, Singapore witnessed skyrocketing inflation within a year to 8.4 per cent after GST was implemented, whereas average retail inflation in India since July 2017 has been consistently below 4 per cent in most months, barring a few months when it breached that figure. And a large part of the credit for ensuring that the GST implementation was anti inflationary in nature, goes to the inimitable Jaitley.
The seamless GST implementation by the Modi government is, in fact, a glowing tribute to the political conviction of courage of Mr. Jaitley. Along with GST, the e-way bill that saw 24 lakh taxpayers and 30,000 transporters registering for it as on September 30, 2018, within just six months of being launched, was again a gigantic step in the right direction in improving tax compliance. All taxpayer services such as registrations, returns, payments, etc, are now available online.
So, while the Congress built flaky castles in the air by sitting on the Kelkar committee recommendations for almost 10 long years, kudos to the Modi government and his closest confidante for all seasons, Arun Jaitley, that all thorny issues were eventually sorted out, making GST a reality.
If demonetisation has been a game-changer, the GST is a transformational tax reform that will boost ‘Make in India’ by bolstering India’s competitiveness, both locally, and in export markets. This, in turn, will have a salubrious impact on virtually every economic parameter. GST is largely pro-poor and pro-middle class and Mr. Jaitley's contribution in ensuring the equitable ethos of this pathbreaking taxation reform cannot be highlighted enough.
Naysayers who had predicted that GST would be inflationary in its initial years have had to eat humble pie, with average retail inflation in 2017-18 and 2018-19, averaging at well below 4 per cent. From a pre-GST tax rate of largely between 28-31 per cent, and in some cases, even an entertainment tax rate of as high as 110 per cent, post Modi government’s pathbreaking GST, 1,186 goods comprising 97.69 per cent of the 1214 goods that are widely used, are now taxed at 18 per cent or below. That clearly has to be the biggest pro-middle-class friendly move, ever, by any government in Independent India.
The best thing about the GST mentored and shaped by Jaitley, is that there are no hidden taxes and what you see is what you get. Efficiency gains, higher compliance, prevention of tax leakages, lower rates, wider base, export friendliness and tax neutrality, have brought down the overall tax burden for consumers and enhanced the ease of doing business, besides of course making India’s fuel economy more competitive by eliminating the need for truckers to wait endlessly to pay octroi and entry taxes at inter-state checkposts.
To conclude, whether GST will add two per cent or four per cent more to India’s gross domestic product in the medium-term is not a matter of debate anymore. Indeed, what matters going forward is that with this masterstroke reform, former finance minister Arun Jaitley gave wings to the Modi government's agenda of Ek Bharat, Shrestha Bharat, which is not a mere euphesim but a professional ethic that Mr. Jaitley himself lived by, in both letter and spirit.
That for many years at a stretch, as a practicing legal luminary, before actively plunging into politics, Jaitley remained one of the highest individual taxpayers in India, is just a small example of a life lived well, sans any compromises or blemishes whatsoever.
If politics is about morality, Arun Jaitley had it in abundance. A gregarious friend to many, a passionate foodie, a cricket buff, an SD Burman aficionado and a large-hearted Punjabi whose love for all things Amritsari went beyond the famed Chhola Bhatura, are personal traits that will be fondly remembered.
But the humanitarian quality that will always stand out is he steadfastly remained uncorrupted by the tremendous power he wielded. Vacating his official Krishna Menon residence when he could have stayed on for a longer period or choosing to foot his own medical bills though he was entitled to government benefits, may seem as small issues to many, but these small things defined the towering ethical stature that Arun Jaitley immortalised for those who believe in clean politics.