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An Officer and a Gentle Politician – A Tribute to Jaswant Singh

With the passing away of Jaswant Singh, India has lost one of the finest examples of dignified conduct in public life. And though his political innings was amongst the longest – having been a Member of either house of India’s Parliament’s for 35 years – he was also a former Indian army officer, of the armoured corps. But after some 14 odd years of service, he left the army as a Major, to continue ‘service of emergent India’, as the sub-title of his biography, A Call to Honour, states. His biggest political challenges came mostly in his time as Prime Minister Vajpayee’s special envoy after India tested nuclear weapons in May 1998 and then as India’s Foreign Minister – and which he was amongst the finest ever – in his dealings with Pakistan during the Kargil conflict  a year later in 1999, which he termed above all “as a betrayal of trust”. The Kargil conflict also became a turning point for the US, in its relations with India and Pakistan.

For America’s tilt towards India – that is so pronounced now – much credit must go to Jaswant Singh. An Indian diplomat (whom I’d known since our boarding school days ) and was in the room in Washington when he confronted a visibly angry US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who believed the Indian nuclear tests had blown a hole through the US led nuclear power centric NPT. He told me, that Jaswant Singh silenced her as he thumped his hand on the table, with Ms Albright looking on in disbelief, that she could either ‘keep harping on how India had blown a hole through the NPT, or accept the reality of a nuclear India’. With this began the long set of dialogues between him and the then US Assistant Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott. This sustained dialogue altered the US view on India, and so began the visits to India of President(s) Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump.

Sadly though, his critics only prefer to bring out his role in handing over the three terrorists – Masood Azhar included – to the Taliban to free the 150 plus Indian hostages following the Pakistan led hi-jacking of the Indian airliner IC-814 at Kandahar. But, as terrorists and prisoners are kept in the custody of India’s Home Ministry, there was little mention of how a Foreign Minister could choose to free the prisoners, without the consent of the Home Minister or the Prime Minister. And despite Jaswant Singh’s abhorrence for Pakistan’s devious ways, like the soldier he was, he followed the wish of his leadership, and did the unpopular and unpleasant task of swapping the terrorists to save Indian lives, held by the ISI-Taliban combine, in the hi-jacked Indian plane in Afghanistan.

Apart from the External Affairs Ministry, he also held the additional charge of the Defence Ministry – when George Fernandes stepped aside after the Tehelka scam – which he called the ‘other side of the same coin’, and he wore this hat – during Op-Parakram, when Indian troops were deployed on the Indo Pak border following the terrorist attack on the Parliament –  with complete ease. The subject of national security was a matter of his academic interest, all through his life. This had led him to author at least a dozen books on the subject, though it was his decision to publish a biography of M.A. Jinnah, that brought him into open conflict with his party – the BJP – leadership, even though he was one of the founding members of the Bharatiya Janta Party. This led to his being first marginalized and then expelled from the BJP. But Jaswant Singh, true to form, was unrepentant. Thereafter, his political innings was over. But by then he had left his mark in the Ministries he managed, of Foreign, Defence and Finance. In the last hat he wore, he ensured as Finance Minister that the Indian tax payer be given ‘dignity’ and thus initiated measures to that effect. He also created the ‘Saral’ ITR forms. .

But above all else, he always saw himself as a soldier, and dressed and conducted himself, as such, whether it was his military style shirts with epaulette flaps on his shoulders with its pockets reminiscent of military officers at independence, or his well stitched bandh-gala jackets, on which he always kept the collars hooked but kept the second button from the top undone. And for those of us who had interacted with him – as I did, from time to time since 1994 – he was always affectionate, even though his demeanor left you pleasantly in awe. I recall him asking me to give him directions to my younger brother’s wedding reception, and he asked me to brief him, as the adjutant would his commanding officer!

The son of the Thakur sahib of Jasol, in Rajasthan, he was educated at Mayo College in Ajmer – where he received the Gold Medal for merit- and then at National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla, as he chose to go there when his desire for an Oxbridge education wasn’t possible. It is to his credit that his life long study of international affairs that made him the toast of Western academe, even though he did say that, “I feel a fraud,” as “I am not even a graduate, and so I really find it flattering that Harvard should invite me as a senior fellow and Oxford should have offered a visiting professorship for 2007.” Indeed, quite an achievement for a man, who hadn’t a graduation degree, as in his days, the NDA, wasn’t accredited to offer an undergraduate degree.

A fine horseman, he rode regularly till his accidental head injury, which  he’d sustained at home in April 2014. Strange are however, the ways of ‘fate’, as it was the Army’s R&R hospital – that he’d inaugurated as the Defence Minister – which cared for him till his passing away on 27th September at the age of 82. Flown to Jodhpur from Delhi for his last rites in an IAF C-130, Jaswant Singhji’s body was accompanied by his family and officers of his regiment, the Central India Horse. They were above all, his very being. But for those of us who were privileged to know him, in the end, the question remains, whether Major Jaswant Singh was a politician or a soldier-scholar as he also saw himself as, or above all else, was he a pilgrim who – as a dear friend and his nephew messaged me to say – had now embarked on his next journey?

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