Till about five years ago, senior BJP leader and former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley used to take a stroll at the Lodi Gardens with his friends every morning. After taking a round or two of the park, they would sit together near a tomb and chat over tea and lemonade.
Left without his company, some of his friends, including Senior Counsel Mukul Rohatgi, continued the 'ritual' at the same park. But they missed the days spent with a man who was their “friend first and a big politician later”.
Now, with his passing on Saturday, those moments will only be precious memories.
Ill-health had taken its toll for more than a decade. About 15 years ago, Jaitley had a heart surgery. In 2014, he underwent a bariatric surgery to correct weight gained because of diabetes. Last year, he had a kidney transplant at AIIMS and earlier this year, he was diagnosed with cancer.
For his close friends, with whom he spent the first few hours of the day at one time, it is “unfortunate for a great individual like him to have a string of bad luck”.
Prem Grover, 74, who has a real estate business, is known by walkers at the Lodi Gardens for his closeness with Arun Jaitley. Grover remembers the politician for the way he valued friendships.
“We used to take a walk, finish a round or two and later sit at these benches to have a normal conversation. He used to speak about everything. He was an advocate and a politician outside this park. With us, he was a friend. Never during any discussions was he stubborn,” Grover said.
“We have had many good times together. After taking a walk, we all used to come and sit here, had good conversations, cracked jokes, laughed together. From here, we would at times, go for breakfast together at the IIC. Every year, I organised his birthday here. Others in the park would also join the celebration. Those were really nice times,” he remembered.
Grover said after Jaitley was inducted in the cabinet, he stopped coming for the walks but would invite his Lodi Gardens friends to his residence.
“After he became a Minister, his security was such that he could not come for walks but his house was always open to his friends even then. Three years ago on December 28, he joined us for his birthday here,” he said.
Grover, who describes Jaitley as “the best human being”, will always remember how he stood by him during a crisis.
“I remember when my daughter-in-law died in 2009, Mr Jaitley cancelled his birthday celebrations to be with us. That was the man that he was. It is really sad and unfortunate that he had huge health issues for so many years,” he said.
Laloo Prasad, who has been serving this group tea and lemonade for around 15 years, observed Jaitley from far. “I never had a conversation with him, just greeted him and he was very gentle,” he said.
BS Sethi, 66, has not been in Jaitley’s circle of friends but remembers that he was always available to meet people. “They celebrate his birthday every year. We have joined the celebration at times. He met people with warmth but didn’t like political discussions,” he said.
“He insisted this was a time to relax, not for politics,” Sethi said, adding, “He used to be quite regular with morning walks. Many years back he used to go to Nehru Park. I used to see him there as well. Later, he started visiting Lodi Gardens.”
Former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi recalls the period between 1978 to 1998 when his chamber was adjacent to Jaitley at the High Court.
“Our chambers in the High Court used to be next to each other. We still have those chambers. In court, we used to oppose each other very often. In the heat of the moment, we used harsh words as well but later we would sit as friends,” Rohatgi said.