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'Jaitley was so much larger than people around him'

Last updated on: September 04, 2019 19:00 IST
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Former Union Finance Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party veteran Arun Jaitley passed away into the ages on August 24.

Kirron Kher, actress-turned-politician, recounts how it was Jaitley who made her contest the elections from Chandigarh.

Speaking to's Savera R Someshwar, the Chandigarh MP talks of the BJP stalwart's generosity and how he was the focal point of any place he was at.

When Kirron Kher saw Arun Jaitley for the first time on September 18, 2000, she wagged a peremptory finger at him.

She wasn't, at that moment, the member of Parliament representing the constituency of Chandigarh.


She wasn't even a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Jaitley, on the other hand, was the minister of state for information and broadcasting in the Vajpayee government.

He was standing next to President A P J Abdul Kalam in New Delhi's Vigyan Bhavan, where the 47th National Film Awards were being presented.

Kher was being honoured as Best Actress for her nuanced performance as Banalata in Bariwali (1999).

"I was walking up to get my award," the actress-MP recalls. "The President was handing the medal to the ladies in their hand."

Kher looked at Jaitley "and I wagged my finger to indicate, no, put the medal around their neck; don't give it in their hand.

"Arunji smiled and said something to the President."

Kher walked across the stage and greeted the President, who she says was still hesitating. 

"I said, 'Sir, please put it around my neck. This is for us a very important moment'. 

"The President smiled and replied, 'I didn't want to spoil your jewellery.' 

"I said, 'No, no, this is the real jewellery -- a gold medal for best actress.' So he put it around my neck and that was the first time I saw Arunji face-to-face." 

They met again at the dinner hosted for the National Film Award winners. "(Actor) Anupam (Kher, her husband) and (actor) Sikander (Kher, her son) were there. We were sitting on a table with (veteran journalist) Rajat Sharma of India TV (Sharma is the editor-in-chief and chairman of the channel). Arunji joined us. 

"Later, I came to know Rajat and Arunji were very good friends since their college days." 

Soon after, Kher, who was already interested in politics, started taping and watching the parliamentary debates. 

When the Bharatiya Janata Party lost the 2004 elections, "I was shocked," she says. 

During the next general election, in 2009 -- which the BJP lost as well, leaving Kher "even more dismayed and even more shocked" -- she recalls how furious the television debates made her feel.

"I saw how tilted a lot of the media was and that made me so angry that I called (BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani's daughter) Pratibha Advani."

She had met Pratibha on the sets of the Kalpana-Lajmi directed film, Darmiyaan, says Kher, and they became friends; she played Zeenat in the film while Pratibha was an assistant director.

"I remember calling up Pratibha in the middle of the 2009 election when they were campaigning in Gandhinagar (Advani's constituency in Gujarat). I told her I wanted to join the BJP immediately."

Her request reached Piyush Goel and Kher received a call from the BJP leader.

"Who would you like to induct you into the party?" Goel asked her, she says.

"Either Dada (Advani) or Narendra Modiji or Arun Jaitleyji," Kher told him.

Jaitley was scheduled to visit Mumbai for a Friends Of the BJP programme. Kher was asked to meet him at the hotel where he was staying.

"Anupam and I went there. He made us very comfortable. He was such a great raconteur. He would tell you the most wonderful stories and he knew about everything and everyone."

They left for the function where Kher was inducted into the party.

"When I started appearing in television debates for the BJP, he was always there if I needed advice on what line I should take on TV. We would interact regularly."

As the 2014 elections neared, Jaitley wanted Kher to consider contesting from her hometown. "Prepare yourself for Chandigarh," he told her, she says, "because there is a lot of infighting going on between the leaders there. We might parachute you in at the last minute."

Kher says she did not give a clear answer. "I was shaking inside and praying they did didn't ask me to fight."

She even called Nitin Gadkari, she says, and told him, "Please for god's sake, mujhe mat bolna ladne ke liye (don't ask me to contest). "

She finished shooting for India's Got Talent -- the show she hosts with Karan Johar and Malaika Arora -- and was readying to leave for Miami (USA), where the IIFA awards were to take place.

"My phone rang," she recalls. "It said private number. My heart sank. I knew it could only be Arunji because, whenever he called, the phone would indicate a private number.

"'Kirron,' he said, 'main Arun bol raha hoon (this is Arun speaking). I just wanted to ask you, can we still consider you for Chandigarh?'

"It was 2.30 pm and he gave me two hours to decide," she laughs.

"Arunji was instrumental in my fighting that election. He was instrumental in my fighting this election (2019).

"He was a source of strength for everybody. Anybody -- and I don't mean just the BJP; it was across party lines -- could go to him for advice.

"It's now, after he's gone,", her voice breaks, "that you realise exactly how wonderful he was. One has sort of taken for granted ki Arunji ke paas chalo (Let's go to Arunji), Arunji se pooch lete hain (Let's ask Arunji)... Arunji was the last word."

She recalls his love for cricket. "If you met him in his office when a match was going on, the TV would be on in silent mode in the background. Beech meech mein (Intermittently), he'd look there," she laughs.

After the 2019 election, Kher went to meet Jaitley at his residence. "His wife -- such a lovely person; she was his strength -- told me he was ailing. She took me to the room where he was resting. He looked so weak and fragile but his mind was as sharp as ever.

"He asked me a lot of questions about my contest in Chandigarh; who worked, who didn't..."

After a while, she says, a staff member helped him "to take a little walk." 

Her voice sounds shaky again. "I didn't like to see him like that. I just wanted to see him as Arunji, with his signature beautiful shawls, the jackets... He lived with dignity and style. 

"He was so much larger than the people around him. He was so much more talented. And he was so confident in that talent that he was down-to-earth about it. 

"Even his debates were very calm, there was an underlying dignity to the way he conducted himself. He never, ever, used a single unparliamentary word. He could be sarcastic, but never nasty." 

She talks about his generosity. 

"He was just so full of life. He had the heart to not just share his worldly wealth but also his intelligence, his experience, his ability. He was not kanjoos (miserly) about anything. Anyone could walk into his Rajya Sabha office." 

Jaitley's deteriorating health prevented him from attending the last session of Parliament. 

"For me," says Kher, "there was a sense of emptiness. 

"Earlier, I would always see him in Central Hall, surrounded by people. The media guys would come and sit or stand around him. And I would always go and sit there to listen to their conversation. It was always so interesting. Arunji was the focal point of any place he was at. 

"Samaj hi nahi aata unki jagah kaun lega. Koi bhi nahi hai aisa... Har cheez mein proficient and brilliant koi nahi (I cannot understand who will take his place. There is no one like him, so proficient and so brilliant.

"Aur jo calmly aap ko har baat samjha le, jisko na karna ho to na bhi karna karke samjhate the (He would explain things so calmly. Even if he had to say no, he would do it in a way that did not make you feel bad). 

"He was just... kya bolen (What can one say)? 

"I kept hoping that theek ho jayenge (he will recover)... 

"I'll miss him, I'll miss his presence. I'll miss his advice." 

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