On Tuesday the vice-presidential election will take place. Hamid Ansari is already assured of a comfortable and convincing victory. When it happens, the focus of the news and commentary will be entirely on him. But, today, I want to write about the man who’s likely to lose.
Jaswant Singh is an enigma although I’m not sure that’s the best way of describing him. He’s not easy to get to know and even more difficult to interview. Ask him a simple straightforward question and rather than grab the opportunity to say his piece, as most politicians would, he responds with a question of his own. Or he’ll quarrel with your use of language.
At such times, a quizzical disapproving look will cover his face and his eyebrows will furrow. And he can make his interjection in the most pedantic of ways. The result is your conversation starts going around in circles. It can be exasperating.
Consequently, he’s not the sort of politician journalists seek out. They find his sentence construction difficult to follow. Worse, the thoughts that lie behind it are often complex. And to compound it all the delivery is slow, precise but uninterruptible.
Most journalists feel Jaswant Singh is not of this world or, at least, not of our time. The truth is he’s not made for television sound bytes. And he’s certainly not made for hard-hitting interviews that make headlines. However, he could be for longer, thoughtful feature profiles, if any one still writes them. But he’d be best in a reflective conversation over a brandy and cigar, provided you get the opportunity.
Fortunately, that’s how I first met him. I was in my late teens and home on holiday from Cambridge. My cousin, Romila, who felt I had become cut off and needed grounding in India, arranged the meeting. Jaswant Singh invited me over for a drink.
I can’t pretend to remember our conversation. It was far too long ago. But I can never forget the interest he took in a young 19-year-old stranger and the time he spared for him.
We sat in his drawing room. There was a fire in the grate. We were on either side of it. He offered me a drink and I accepted. In fact, I had three! He was smoking Dunhill cigarettes which he generously shared.
I was with him for almost two hours. I wasn’t scintillating company. Far from it. I was self-absorbed and loquacious. But he was indulgent and he was encouraging.
More importantly, Jaswant Singh treated me like an adult. He was attentive. He asked questions to find out more. He shared his own experiences. He took me seriously.
When you’re 19 that’s a wonderful feeling. Most people you meet tolerate or patronise you. They can’t wait to finish the conversation and move on. Jaswant Singh gave me time.
Three decades and more have lapsed since then and we’re not friends. Although he chose to give me the first interview to launch his Jinnah book — and some in his party have claimed it led to his expulsion — there were many more he refused. There were even times when I felt he distrusted me. In particular, during the years the BJP was in power.
But all the while he’s been a gentleman. It’s an old fashioned term that few today understand. Yet I can think of no better term to describe him. And I know he’ll recognise it as the compliment I intend it to be.
Views expressed by the author are personal