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Sister, just take my jet

New Delhi, Aug. 13: For Sushma Swaraj, a Raksha Bandhan “gift” landed this year much earlier than the August 10 festival did.

Not from a sibling or a relative but from a long-time political associate and now a ministerial colleague with whom her relationship had been variously marked by cordiality and rivalry, even a hint of chill.

Defence minister Arun Jaitley has placed almost exclusively at Sushma’s disposal one of the four Embraer 135 Legacy executive jets that he is officially entitled to use within the country and outside.

External affairs minister Sushma flew in the Embraer on her recent visits to Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. She will again fly to Singapore in it on Friday, and later to Hanoi.

As defence minister, Jaitley is entitled to a range of aircraft, apart from the four Embraer jets. But if a ministerial colleague needs an Embraer, he/she would have to route a request through him as a procedural formality.

All government aircraft, including the super-elite Air India One that is used by the Prime Minister, President and the Vice-President, are administratively maintained by the defence ministry. But the defence minister cannot avail himself of Air India One.

Barring the top five in the cabinet — the Prime Minister and the ministers of home, finance, defence and external affairs — others conventionally use commercial flights for official trips.

The Embraer seats 18 passengers. So, in exceptional cases, a top minister travelling with a large contingent can requisition an Airbus from Air India. S.M. Krishna, the UPA foreign minister, did so in 2011 when he went to Pakistan with some 70 mediapersons in tow.

Sushma can use the Embraer only for her sojourns in the immediate neighbourhood and a little beyond because the aircraft cannot fly long distances. Of the four at Jaitley’s disposal, three are being serviced and the fourth one has been “gifted” to Sushma.

A defence ministry source said: “The VIP aircraft befits her status as a senior minister. It saves her travel time and the hardship of checking in early that a commercial flight entails.”

Political observers say there is nothing “extraordinary” in Jaitley’s “gesture” as he would have had to sanction an Embraer had Sushma asked for one.

“The only thing is he has made things easier by putting one at her beck and call, so she doesn’t have to go through the procedures,” a source said.

But in this case, an administrative response has acquired political significance because the Jaitley-Sushma equation has been fraught with stress even if the tensions were not out in the public domain.

For one, Sushma was resentful about how subtly Jaitley managed to hyphenate the statures of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha Opposition leaders. Under the Westminster model, the Lok Sabha incumbent was considered a “shadow” Prime Minister and the Rajya Sabha Opposition leader a patriarch or a “marg darshak” (in RSS lexicon).

Through the five years they held the office, Jaitley ensured he was an equal partner in the decisions taken by the BJP parliamentary party and sometimes exercised a veto.

For instance, in March 2011, when the BJP flagged the issue of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “culpability” in the contentious appointment of a central vigilance commissioner, Sushma advocated a “let things rest” line after Manmohan made a statement in Parliament.

But Jaitley’s approach was more strident because he demanded more explanations instead of a one-line olive branch.

Again in May 2011, when Sushma was under fire within the BJP for her alleged proximity to the Bellary brothers, she sought to cover her flanks by claiming the decision to induct them in the Karnataka government was taken by Jaitley and other leaders.

She had “nothing to do with it”, she pointed out. That drew a public snub from then BJP president Nitin Gadkari, who put her down for “unnecessarily” raking up a debate over Karnataka cabinet formation.