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Arun Jaitley, who was born in Delhi about 66 years ago, passed away shortly after noon in hospital after a prolonged illness that had kept him largely out of public life, lately. Missed, he shall be. No matter how he settles into national memory, as a campus leader up against the might of the Emergency, an activist for civil liberties, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a truly argumentative Indian, a genial NDA minister, a man of instant repartee, an advocate of rightist views, or as the Modi regime’s first minister of finance, Jaitley’s most crucial role for India was as a reformer of the economy. For this, we must credit his special grasp of big political and economic arguments across a wide spectrum of our country.
With good fiscal sense as his mantra, the former finance minister set the goods and services tax rolling, at some risk of business disruption. For all its glitches and complexity, it has indeed got going—to India’s benefit, as it will surely be. He also played champion for the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, which has empowered lenders and reformed our credit culture to quite an extent. The Code may have faltered since, but seems effective enough to deter crony capitalism. Institutionally, though, his boldest move was his most significant. He helped pivot India’s monetary policy towards snuffing out inflation and also raise the central bank’s level of autonomy to better enable it to achieve that aim. The leeway granted may appear to have narrowed a little, but the conquest of inflation is beyond dispute today.
Jaitley’s myriad observations on record are for historians to delve into. Some of his most acute, he reserved for the opposition Congress, whose odds of a 2019 victory he had dismissed on the market logic of a “me-too" standing no chance against an original. What kept his mind whirring, it often seemed, was the close ear he lent to what the other side was arguing—if only to enrich his own stance. On the economy, despite a few pragmatic shifts made after 2016, Jaitley was broadly a market reformer. His reformist legacy should stand India in good stead.