As people you know, love, respect and admire immensely depart the stage, a hollowness grows in the heart, and the world gets dimmer.
Major Jaswant Singh, long time Member of Parliament and erstwhile Foreign Minister, Defence Minister, and Finance Minister of India in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government and formerly Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission (before that institution morphed into the present day Niti Ayog) passed away this (Sunday) morning after six years of being comatose. It was deliverance of sorts.
In over 40 years of living in New Delhi and becoming familiar with many political movers and shakers, there’s no person I found more policy wise and intellectually stimulating and engaging than Jaswant. Oozing old world charm, he combined courtliness with a sharp mind and a deliberate way of speaking in his deep gravelly voice that no doubt brought the regimental risaldar-majors to clicking their boots. He was delightful company, easy to converse with, his interests wide and varied. I remember sitting hours with him in his book-lined study with Western classical music — Brahms, Schubert, Franz Liszt playing softly in the background as he ruminated on some issue or the other that he wanted my views about.
Recently returned from California, I first met him in 1979 at his Tughlak Lane residence when he was the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha. Apparently, some of my op-eds had jiggled his curiosity. By way of breaking ice and aware he had resigned from the army to enter politics I wondered which infantry regiment he belonged to. He reacted like it was a slap in the face. “Infantry?!” he growled, measuring my gall. “Cavalry, man, cavalry! Central India Horse!” He related how as a Gentleman-Cadet in 1953 at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, he had won the tent-pegging contest and was handed the prize by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Another faux pas on my part occurred soon thereafter when I was invited by him to dinner at his home. In my regulation uniform of those days — shirt and jeans, I entered his bungalow and advanced to the fireplace — it was winter — there to find a large man turning around and offering his hand, and saying “Jodhpur”! Astounded and uncomprehending — I mean, how can someone announce himself by calling the name of a city? — I gamely offered my hand in return and said “Karnad” this time eliciting like incomprehension on his part. What’s Karnad — a one-two gun salute wallah, at best? Had I been more observant, I would have noticed on entry to — instead of on my way out of — Jaswant’s ministerial compound the fancy car with a flying pennant and a red plate announcing ‘Jodhpur’, and correctly surmised that royalty would be in attendance. Instead, the two of us kept peering at each other, each as puzzled as the other until Jaswant scooted in to save the situation, explaining to “Baapji” — the Maharaja of Jodhpur, who I was. He thereby offered me a handle to now and then jocularly rib him with — “Jaswant, you are a feudatory!” and his mock admonition, “Bharat, you have respect for nothing!” It was the beginning of a warm and wonderful relationship. Among other things, he introduced me to dum phukt Rajasthani cuisine.
It turns out Baapji was responsible for first discovering Jaswant’s political talent that exceeded military careering, and helped him to get elected to Parliament from Jodhpur (if I remember right). It was a short, hop, skip and jump from that running start for the erudite Jaswant to be recognized as a leader in the Jan Sangh and then for him to rise as a founding member of the Bharatiya Janata Party and, in many respects, the political go-to person for Vajpayee (Brajesh Mishra being Atalji’s alter ego).
Even as the BJP was the government-in waiting during the years of Narasimha Rao, Jaswant was the undoubted shadow foreign minister. Then BJP was in power and it continued the Congress policy of cosying up to the US. Before almost every meeting in the series of 19-odd meetings to hammer out the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership that Jaswant had with the US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in the Clinton Administration in various locations in the US, Germany, etc., I sent him a note anticipating the kind of positions the American might take and Jaswant’s options. More often than not, I was right because I’d receive hand-written notes from him saying so and how he had used this or that variation of my suggestion and why, in retrospect, he rued not taking this or that tack I had recommended! I didn’t mind his using me thus as a sounding board for ideas that he deployed in an attenuated form, always thanking me for my “impassioned” counsel. I kept warning Jaswant that the US means to hogtie India, prevent it from becoming a thermonuclear weapons power — a warning, unfortunately, he didn’t heed, arguing that an understanding would further the national interest! The NSSP was prelude to the 2005 nuclear deal with the US that, in fact, capped Indian nuclear capability at the 20KT fission weapons level.
He also didn’t take my advice that he should be the first one to write an account of his negotiations with Talbott on NSSP, reminding him that his interlocuter was a professional analyst who turned out books on a coin, and should Talbott beat him to a book, that would become the standard history, and he’d be scrambling to refute the American’s rendering of the facts, and how the unique Indian perspective Jaswant brought to the bargaining process would be lost. Jaswant kept putting it off until predictably Talbott produced his 2006 book — ‘Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb’.
The real crick in the Vajpayee regime’s joint was the unending clash of egos and bureaucratic turf battles between Jaswant (then in the Planning Commission) relying on MEA resources when negotiating with Talbott, and Mishra. The latter had parlayed the gratitude Vajpayee felt for Brajesh’s father, DP Mishra, the Congress party chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, who helped him get elected from Gwalior and tried to lure him into the Congress Party! — into first appointing him as India’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York during the Janata Party rule when Vajpayee was foreign minister and, when BJP formed the government in 1998, into getting himself installed as Vajpayee’s National Security Adviser-cum-Personal Private Secretary thus becoming, in effect, the de facto prime minister! Time and again the two — Jaswant by now in his various posts as foreign minister, defence minister or finance minister, and Brajesh — collided on policy matters, requiring Vajpayee to referee, except it was invariably Mishra who came up tops. Jaswant couldn’t abide him.
When as foreign minister, we used to sometimes sit on his lawn or his verandah for Saturday sandwich and beer, MEA secretaries would scurry around with files, appalled at the informality with which I treated their Minister whom they sir-ed while I called him Jaswant! On one occasion, a discussion with Jaswant led to his asking me to send him a note. Apparently, he passed my note to the then Joint Secretary (Americas) with ‘for action’ penned on it, resulting in the said Joint Secretary exasperatedly calling me to say “Bharat, why don’t you tell me what you want done, rather than going through my Minister?!” This may have boosted my ego but I was aware that the MEA guys were doing everything and more to divert Jaswant, water down my suggestions. It was a game they predictably won, and Jaswant owned up to it! It was all done in good humour though. But he nominated me to the National Security Advisory Board when it was first formed in 1998 and kept abreast, in particular, of developments in drafting the nuclear doctrine, a job K. Subrahmanyam as the Convenor, one other person, and I were engaged in because we seemed to be the only ones in the 27-member NSAB conversant with the nuclear deterrence history and literature. Except, the draft doctrine, to our chagrin, was made public to win some brownie points with Washington. And Jaswant was designated by Vajpayee (prompted by Mishra) to publicly refer to the finished doctrine paper as only “a draft” the better, I was informed, to preserve for the government some room for diplomatic maneuver.
Jaswant was the fixture in all my book launches, starting with my 750-page tome — ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’ in 2002 in which I was critical of the BJP government’s nuclear weapons policy and for misdirecting and limiting the country’s nuclear weapons programme. I remember Jaswant sitting stoically on the podium, with a slight smile playing on his face, as I laid out the main points in the book and then had K. Subrahmanyam and Arundhati Ghose, India’s ambassador to the UN Disarmament Commission in Geneva, dissect and debate my thesis.
He asked me in 2006 to be a panelist at the launch of one of his books — ‘Travels in Transoxiana’. At that event, I expressed my astonishment at how beautifully he wielded the English language and why I simply didn’t believe him when he said that he had a Hindi medium school education, and was introduced to the language only when he was 15 years of age! One has to read his Transoxiana written almost in Curzonian style to appreciate just how polished Jaswant’s intellect was. I often take this book down from the shelf to read a passage here, a page there, to remind me how lucky I am to have had Jaswant Singh for a friend. For my money, he is the most intellectually accomplished, culturally rooted foreign minister/defence minister/finance minister India has ever had.
I am grateful to Jaswant for great many things. Among these was that he persuaded his cousin and fellow-cavalryman, the legendary Lt General Hanut Singh of Poona Horse-fame, to meet with me. It was the most educational three days I spent in the latter’s last command, the Armoured Corps Centre in Ahmednagar.
Jaswant is no more; he will be sorely missed but will stay on in the memory of those with the good fortune to have gained from his company.
Jaswant Singh, rest in peace.