From “Notebandi” to GST: Jaitley was India’s Worst Finance Minister

Former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley dies at 66 in New Delhi on August 24

The year was 2014. India went to the Lok Sabha polls. Arun Jaitley was the BJP candidate from the holy city of Amritsar in Punjab. Pitted against him was the Congress candidate Captain Amrinder Singh, the former Maharaja of Patiala. Odds favoured Jaitley. Despite the Narendra Modi wave, Rambhakt Jaitley bit the dust. Jaitley was crestfallen. Pundits wrote his political obituary. But lo and behold. When the Modi Cabinet was sworn in, a smiling Jaitley was sitting in the front row at the glittering ceremony. The loser of Amritsar was given the heavyweight finance portfolio to the heartburn of many.

Jaitley was sent to the Rajya Sabha and year after year presented the budget, holding the briefcase. From the traditional “halwa” ceremony to the final budget presentation, Jaitley’s “chikna – chupda, chaand sa mukhda” was everywhere. From newspapers to TV channels, it was Jaitley, Jaitley and Jaitley. A willing pawn in Modi’s hands, Jaitley was His Master’s Voice. As Narendra Modi played havoc with the Indian economy, Jaitley carried out his orders. And went down in history as India’s worst Finance Minister!

“Notebandi”, to use the popular term for demonetisation, was a disaster from day one. “Mitron” thundered Mr 56 Inch, “Notebandi will serve two purposes. It will unearth black money. And it will break the back of terrorism.” The BJP’s well-oiled propaganda machinery went into overdrive. Indians queued up at banks and Manoj Kumar’s deshbhakti songs rented the air. Every sapoot of Bharat Mata was determined to unearth black money and root out terrorism. Like a mitthu mian (a pet parrot), Jaitley repeated what his boss had said. But when the euphoria died down, facts were quite sobering. According to the RBI own data, 99.3% of old notes were back to banks. So where did black money go? And terrorism? Pulwama attack showed that terrorism was still alive and kicking. But Jaitley was unfazed.

And he pulled another rabbit from his hat: GST. Goods And Services Tax. Again the same propaganda blitzkrieg. An epoch-making event. The turning of a new leaf. The breaking of a new dawn. But GST also proved to be a damp squib. Called Gabbar Singh Tax by Rahul Gandhi, GST ushered in an era of tax terrorism. There were so many tax slabs, even experts got confused. And small traders, the BJP’s backbone since Jan Sangh days, bore the brunt. “Kamal Ka Phool, Hamari Bhool” shopkeepers printed on their cash memos as they repented voting for the BJP! Tax terrorism became a new bane of the business class. When India’s coffee king VG Siddhartha jumped into a river last month, he blamed income tax people for driving him to suicide!

And Reserve Bank of India saw its darkest days with Arun Jaitley at the helm of the Finance Ministry. Two RBI Governors quit in quick succession: Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel. Rajan, unable to withstand constant interference, went back to his teaching assignment in the US. Patel resigned when faced with Govt’s pressures to lend money. And then Shaktikant Das, a graduate in history, an expert on the Battles of Panipat, took over as the RBI Governor. An old Modi Bhakt. Bhaktikant Das, his critics sneered.

The Rupee had a free fall during Jaitley’s tenure. About 70 Rupees for one US Dollar.

And Jaitley could be quite vindictive. Ask Kirti Azad. When the cricketer-turned BJP MP raised the corruption issue in the Delhi Cricket Association, Jaitley got him suspended. Kirti Azad was attacked till he left the BJP and joined the Congress. Jaitley is now dead. Chest-beating has begun. BJP spin doctors will hail him as a reformer, a visionary who took the Indian economy to commanding heights. But wait a minute. Jaitley was the last person whom fellow Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Mallya met at the Central Hall of Parliament before the King of Good Times left India with Rs 9000 crore in his pockets!

(Mr. Amitabh Kumar Das is a 1994 batch IPS Officer. His views are personal.)

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