Obituary: Arun Jaitley, politician and lawyer who was prominent in India’s economic reform

Arun Jaitley, politician and lawyer. Born: 28 December 1952 in New Delhi, India. Died: 24 August 2019 in New Delhi, aged 66.

Arun Jaitley has died at the age of 66. Picture: Narinder Nanu (AFP/Getty Images)
Arun Jaitley has died at the age of 66. Picture: Narinder Nanu (AFP/Getty Images)

Former Indian finance minister Arun Jaitley, a key member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first-term Cabinet, died in a New Delhi hospital on Saturday after a prolonged illness. He was 66.

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences announced Jaitley’s death in a statement, but did not give any details. He was admitted to hospital two weeks ago after he complained of breathlessness.

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Jaitley held the finance portfolio in Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government from 2014 through this year but chose not to run for reelection because of poor health.

Jaitley was diabetic and had weight loss surgery in 2014, received a kidney transplant in 2018 and travelled to the United States last January for unspecified medical care.

He is survived by his wife, son and daughter.

Modi said on Twitter that Jaitley “was a political giant, towering intellectual and legal luminary. He was an articulate leader who made a lasting contribution to India”.

Indian President Ram Nath Kovind said he was extremely saddened. “A brilliant lawyer, a seasoned parliamentarian, and a distinguished minister, he contributed immensely to nation building,” he tweeted.

A lawyer who first got involved in politics as a ­student leader at Delhi University in the 1970s, Jaitley also served as a minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee from 1999 to 2003.

In Modi’s government, ­Jaitley held the portfolios of finance, defence and corporate affairs. In Vajpayee’s ­government, he controlled information and broadcasting, as well as disinvestment, and later also law and justice and company affairs.

From 2009 to 2014, he was leader of the opposition in India’s upper house of Parliament.

Jaitley loyally carried out some of Modi’s more ­controversial economic ­initiatives, including tax and welfare reforms and overnight demonetisation – which took 86 per cent of cash out of ­circulation, leaving hundreds of millions of people temporarily without funds. Early this year, Jaitley authored an interim federal budget with a string of populist giveaways, from affordable housing to a health plan for millions of poor ­people, in an attempt to woo voters ahead of last spring’s election.

India’s stock market took a hit after Jaitley announced a 10 per cent tax on some long-term capital gains, saying stock market returns were “quite attractive and it was time to bring them under the ambit of capital gains tax”.

Though India was the world’s fastest-growing economy in 2018, it has started to lose steam.

The Department of Economic Affairs reported that ­economic growth slowed in 2018-2019, to under 7 per cent in the most recent quarter from 8 per cent in mid-2018, hobbled by consumer demand, weak growth in investment and drooping exports.