Jaswant Singh — communicator, crisis manager, man of letters and a student of history
This story first appeared in The Print
Jaswant Singh, a former Army officer, served as external affairs, defence and finance minister under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s governments from 1998 to 2004.
New Delhi: India’s most colourful politician in contemporary history, Jaswant Singh, is no more — his six-year-long coma came to a gentle end Sunday morning, concluding an era in the BJP and in the ministries of external affairs, finance and defence, where he variously served as minister from 1998 to 2004. He was 82 years old.
Jaswant Singh served on the cusp of historical change as well as an overhaul in domestic politics led by the inimitable Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He had an overweening curiosity about life fed by the inexhaustible reading of a lifetime, his stint in the Army and, above all, his place in his native village, Jasol in Rajasthan.
Above all, there was courtesy.
Dealing with terrorists, hijackers & Pakistan
When he took that flight to Kandahar on 31 December 1999, New Year’s eve, to bring back a plane-load of passengers on the hijacked IC-814 flight that had been sitting on the Kandahar airport tarmac for a week, he allowed himself to be taken by the arm by then Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil and sat down to a conversation.
Much TV vilification followed, but Jaswant Singh was unmoved. “I had to bring back all our citizens back home safely. If that involved talking to the Taliban, I don’t mind,” he said later.
It was this willingness to talk to all kinds of unsavoury characters, often in unsavoury circumstances, in the pursuit of India’s national interest, that made him so different. Among the more disagreeable characters was Pakistan’s former president, army chief and author of the Kargil conflict, Pervez Musharraf.
So barely two years after the Kargil conflict, when the decision was taken to invite Musharraf in July 2001 to Delhi and Agra for peace talks, all the bureaucrats in the Ministry of External Affairs were ranged against their political bosses.
Just as they had disapproved of Vajpayee’s trip to Pakistan in February 1999, a historic visit that ever was, when the PM went to the Minar-i-Pakistan in Lahore and signalled that India had come to terms with the creation of Pakistan. (Remember that until then, the RSS’ “akhand Bharat” theory had meant the opposite.)
But in 2001, Jaswant Singh, buoyed by Vajpayee’s support, was insistent. “Map-making has come to an end in the subcontinent,” he had said again and again, in the months since Kargil. He was sending the unequivocal message to Pakistan that India would defend every square inch of its territory, like it had done at Kargil, no matter the cost.
But at the same time, Jaswant Singh indicated India was ready to extend the hand of friendship and normalcy to Pakistan as long as Pakistan understood it could not undermine it with proxy wars and cross-border terrorism.
Certainly, Jaswant Singh’s masterful use of communication was singular. PM Vajpayee himself was politically astute, with his finger on the pulse of India’s millions, but he did not have a great reputation as a diplomatic communicator. Then-deputy PM L.K. Advani’s image as ‘lauh purush‘ (iron man) often came in the way of reaching out to those who didn’t agree. Defence minister George Fernandes was also very popular, but he was never in the BJP.
Both Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh were keen for the Agra talks to lead to closure and peace. Both countries had suffered enormously over the decades — Pakistan losing in each war it had fought against India, and India through the proxy wars unleashed by the Pakistani establishment. But Musharraf fancied himself, as dictators often do. Those talks failed, but as Jaswant Singh said, almost poetically, at the press conference that followed, “The road to the village is long. The caravan will go on.”
The lesson from the failure of the Agra talks was not that Vajpayee’s government had failed, but that it had tried to reach out to its troublesome and paranoid neighbour in the west.
Nuclear tests and Singh-Talbott talks
By 2001, India’s international image as a responsible and de facto nuclear power had also considerably allayed apprehensions in world capitals that the India-Pakistan enmity would lead to a nuclear flashpoint. Then-US president Bill Clinton had visited India in 2000, barely two years after tough US sanctions imposed following the 1998 nuclear tests.
Jaswant Singh had been one of a dozen people who knew about the top-secret decision to go nuclear on 11 and 13 May. But barely a month later, even as the US rained sanctions, Jaswant Singh would meet US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott in New York on the margins of a UN conference, thereby launching the Singh-Talbott talks that would enable the US to understand why it was important to have India as a nuclear weapons ally in Asia.
Singh’s team would comprise India’s ambassador in the US Naresh Chandra — who famously worked on the New York Times crossword on the way to the State Department where he had been summoned to explain India’s 11 May nuclear tests — and two diplomats, Alok Prasad and Rakesh Sood.
Jaswant Singh’s friendship with Strobe Talbott is sometimes cited as the stuff of history. Talbott was a well-known journalist who had joined the Clinton administration. He was also a nuclear hawk. And then there was this Indian politician from Jasol. They got on famously — so well, in fact, that “my friend Strobe” would often pick up Jaswant Singh in his Mercedes convertible in Washington DC and they would go for a drive or a conversation, as Singh once recounted in his famous baritone.
Talbott’s book, ‘Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy & the Bomb’, describes how he and Jaswant Singh met 14 times in seven countries across three continents to lay the groundwork for a new understanding of India.
“Vajpayee’s pauses seemed to last forever… I had never met a politician so laconic,” said Talbott in his book, while former PM I.K. Gujral’s meeting with Clinton was a washout partly because “Gujral spoke so softly that everyone on the US side had trouble hearing”.
As for Jaswant Singh, Talbott added, “I hope my regard for the way Jaswant Singh advanced his nation’s interests and sought, as he put it, to harmonise US-India relations speaks for itself…”
In 2002, Vajpayee would visit the US and describe the two democracies as “natural allies”. But by then, in 2000, Clinton had already come to India and transformed the relationship over the five days he would spend here — including an unforgettable visit to Jaipur, where he was charmed by the hospitality and reciprocated in full measure.
Trouble with the BJP in later years
In 2002, Vajpayee brought Jaswant Singh to the finance ministry — switching places with Yashwant Sinha — where he would remain till 2004, when the BJP lost power. In the finance ministry, Singh took the big-picture view, leaving the details to officials. So there was a fiscal stimulus to combat the drought that year and a debt swap scheme for states to bring down their revenue deficits. He also stopped all aid from nations below $25 million, a move that startled do-gooder nations like Denmark, Sweden etc, whose trifles were often accompanied by interventionist demands.
But he was already having trouble with the BJP and, in 2004, was forced to travel all the way to Darjeeling to fight the Lok Sabha election, because the mother party would not give him a seat from Rajasthan. The BJP lost power, Jaswant Singh won his election, and refused to stop speaking his mind. He continued to make waves with his books and his travels.
In 2006, he crossed the Rajasthan-Sindh border into Pakistan to visit the Hinglaj Mata temple in Balochistan, considered deeply sacred by Hindus, and also visited the mausoleum of Jinnah in Karachi — a fact that courted considerable controversy back home. Three years later, he would be expelled from the BJP for a book titled ‘Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence’ in which he praised Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azam.
Naturally he was upset, but unfazed. Ten months later, in 2010, he would be brought back into the party; Jaswant Singh acknowledged the credit to his fellow traveller in the party, L.K. Advani, who had helped bring him back.
“When I met him, I experienced much more gratitude, generosity and graciousness compared to the humiliation I experienced when I was expelled from the party. He asked me to come back and consider the chapter as closed,” Jaswant Singh said of Advani.
But the bitterness with the party refused to ebb. In 2014, Jaswant Singh told the BJP of his keenness to contest from Barmer, in which Jasol falls, so that he could complete the charmed circle of his political life. But the party did not agree, expelled Jaswant Singh for insubordination, and gave the ticket to former Army colonel Sonaram Chaudhary. Jaswant Singh contested as an independent candidate and lost by more than 70,000 votes.
“I am defeated, but I cannot believe I am defeated,” Singh admitted to journalists, frank as always.
A student of history
Till the end, Jaswant Singh remained a man of letters and wrote several books in and out of office. But most of all, he was a student of history. On the mantelpiece of his office in North Block, when he became finance minister in 2002, sat a pair of binoculars, an odd memento surrounded by other, more glorious dedications.
Turned out that the binoculars had belonged to one of the three hijackers of the IC-814 flight. Evidently, they had been thrown on the tarmac when the hijackers let off the passengers and drove off.
Someone brought the binoculars to Muttawakil, the story goes. He gave them to Jaswant Singh. Mementos such as these and his beloved books were his constant companions until 2014, when he slipped in his house. An injury to his brain resulted in a stroke. He passed away Sunday morning from infection and multiple-organ failure.