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India’s Former Finance Minister Dies at 66

FILE - Then-India's Finance Minister Arun Jaitley speaks during a panel discussion at the World Bank-IMF Annual Meetings at IMF headquarters in Washington, Oct. 7, 2016.

India’s former finance minister, Arun Jaitley, died Saturday in a New Delhi hospital months after he stepped away from the job due to deteriorating health.

A close associate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the 66-year-old Jaitley was credited with steering landmark economic reform that helped create a single market in India for the first time since the country’s independence in 1947.

It was also under his watch that Modi announced his controversial decision to scrap 86 percent of India’s currency.

One of Modi’s most articulate ministers in parliament who was often called upon to defend the government, the former lawyer turned politician was known as one of the sharpest minds in the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. He also briefly headed the Defense Ministry.

A diabetic, he had undergone a kidney transplant in 2018 and opted out of Modi’s cabinet after the BJP’s resounding victory in May of this year. He was admitted to a hospital two weeks ago with breathing problems.

“I have lost a valued friend, whom I have had the honour of knowing for decades,” Modi said on Twitter. “His insight on issues and nuanced understanding of matters had very few parallels.”

Modi also called him a "political giant, towering intellectual and legal luminary".

During his stint as finance minister, Jaitley spearheaded the Goods and Services Tax or GST, which overhauled a messy system of indirect taxes into a single nationwide tax. It has been hailed as a big booster of the economy, though its implementation has proved to be a challenge in a country where millions of small businesses say they are struggling to adapt to it.

The other big economic decision during his term was an overnight ban on most of the country’s cash in November 2016. It was slammed by critics as a disruptive measure that resulted in job losses and slowed down the economy as it dried up people’s access to cash for months. Jaitely defended the move as necessary to root out untaxed money, clean up the economy and fulfill the promise on which the BJP government swept to power: ending corruption.

Jaitley began his career in politics as a college student at Delhi University when he was elected president of the party’s youth wing during the 1970s. He also served as a law minister in a previous BJP-led government that ruled from 1998 to 2004.