‘The man with the big smile, and a bigger twinkle’
Shekar Swamy, Group CEO, R K SWAMY HANSA, pays his tribute to Arun Jaitley
I met Arun Jaitley for the first time on August 10, 2011, a Wednesday. The venue was unusual for me. It was in one of the cavernous meeting halls in the Parliament building in New Delhi. It had a large oval-shaped table and setting, with seating for more than 75 people with individual microphones for each chair. There was a big central space between the two long sides of the table. I was there to make a presentation to the senior team of the BJP Parliamentary Party.
Leading up to that meeting was a series of 15 articles that I had written for a leading daily about the ill-effects of Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand retail. This was tracked by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, unbeknownst to me. One day I received a call from the National Secretary of the SJM. He asked me if I would take an hour and brief the BJP Parliamentary Party about this subject. I agreed. I asked who would be there. The answer was vague. “Oh, many of the senior leaders”. What really is expected? How should this be done? “You can speak for 30 to 40 minutes. There may be some questions. They are busy people. It should be done in 45 minutes.” The date and venue was fixed. Parliament House? Can I see the venue beforehand? “No, that would be difficult. Just come early before the meeting and you can set up whatever you want.” My colleague, Ajit Shah, and I ended up doing that, not knowing what to expect.
Minutes before the appointed hour of 4pm, people started showing up. It was a who’s who of the then BJP leaders in Parliament. Sushma Swaraj-ji took the Chair. Arun Jaitley was to her left. The two ran the meeting. They were the leaders of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively. The meeting was all business. After a brief introduction, it was over to me. With their permission, I slipped into the central space between the tables. My presentation titled ‘FDI in Multi-brand Retail: Dangerous for the country’ summarised the argument in 12 points, with facts and evidence from around the world. Thank God I had gone prepared, although there was no real brief.
I was probed at many points; searching questions were seeking clarity. Arun Jaitley was engaged in one of his favourite pastimes – synthesizing the arguments in his mind, noting the points, sizing up the impact. I was conscious of time. The meeting went on for an hour and forty-five minutes. No one seemed to mind. Arun Jaitley summarised the discussion at the end. “Mr Swamy, we always had an ideological opposition to FDI in multi-brand retail. Today, you have given us logical and compelling arguments for the same.” He had a beaming smile which reflected in his eyes. The lawyer had got his ammunition; he knew what to do with it. He made it a point to come around the large table and shake my hand, a simple gesture showing his intent to make a connection.
Both Sushma Swaraj-ji and Arun Jaitley-ji led a spirited debate in Parliament on this issue in 2012, with many of the arguments provided in the meeting in the Parliament building. Both of them displayed a remarkable open-ness and humility to source information that could advance causes they believed in.
I met him again years later. Now he was the Finance Minister. Two years prior to that, R K SWAMY had run a major advocacy campaign to create the financial support for the small business ecosystem, under the theme, “Small Business is Big Business.” The new government responded. In 2015, the Micro Units Development and Refinance Agency (MUDRA) was created under Arun Jaitley’s leadership as Finance Minister. Many issues cropped up in its implementation. A meeting was set up with the FM by concerned people to address this. I was asked to summarise the issues; the time slotted would be very short.
We met in the FM’s office on a cold January day in 2016. His calendar was madly choc-a-bloc. There was hustle and bustle outside his office in North Block, with lots of people waiting to see him. We were ushered in. We were told that we had five minutes. He greeted me with a big smile, remembering me from years ago. I always knew that politicians had prodigious memories. Here was evidence. I had just a few sheets. I quickly ran through them, across the table. The phone rang. Another issue cropped up. He got distracted. This wasn’t going anywhere, I thought to myself. After responding to the other matter, he asked me if I could come back later. I said sure. Then he stood up and we were walking out. He called his Secretary. He gave some instructions. He asked for a meeting to be called the next day with the Secretary, Department of Financial Services (the Department responsible for MUDRA). He turned to me and asked us to come again the next day at 11am. We left, not knowing what to expect.
We showed up the next day. We were surprised to see the Secretary DFS along with other senior officials already in his room. We all knew each other, from prior meetings. Then the penny dropped. He was paying attention the previous day. His quick mind had absorbed the issues. He knew he needed the team to listen to it. The experienced administrator in him decided to expand the meeting to include the right people. He talked at length about how some big business people scammed the system and got loans. He spoke about the need to support the small businesses of the country. He was giving a message to his team to sort out the teething issues with MUDRA and expand its impact. He was telling us to work with his team and assist in whatever manner required. Here was a manager and communicator at work. He knew what needed to be done. He was doing it with finesse, nudging everyone around the table to take the required steps. Some people question the impact of MUDRA. I have seen its positive impact at many levels across the country. It is a foundational initiative, and PM Modi and FM Arun Jaitley, and the band of officials in the Ministry of Finance, deserve all credit for this.
There is a Tamil word that describes such people - a ‘kaaryawadi’ - meaning a person who gets things done. He certainly was that. He was a quick study. I was witness to that. His heart was in the right place. If I had ever told him that the country owed him a big debt, I would have probably received a big smile, with a bright twinkle in his eyes, in return.
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