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Book of the week - A Call To Honour

Jaswant Singh?s book of recollections is self-serving and disingenuous.

india Updated: Jul 30, 2006 17:49 IST

Eating words has never given me indigestion Winston S Churchill it is unusual for an ex-Foreign Minister to review a book written by another ex-Foreign Minister. Jaswant Singh and I have several things in common. We both went to Mayo College, Ajmer. Both are voracious readers. Our libraries are stocked by many common au thors. Both come from Rajasthan. He from the Thar region of Western Rajasthan, speaking Marwari. I, from the far east of Rajasthan, within a few kilometres from Govardhan, Vrindavan, Gokul, Nand Gaon Barsana and Mathura. My mother tongue is Brij Bhasha. Finally, we both have jettisoned our aristocratic/feudal baggage.

Politically, we are like chalk and cheese and have often clashed in Parliament on several foreign policy issues. His manners are exquisite; mine Oxbridge, whatever that may mean. He has been in Parliament a very long time, and Minister of three great offices of State — Defence, Foreign and Finance. I can make no such claims.

I am not allowing my personal and professional prejudices to colour my judgment while reviewing his latest book. A Call To Honour: In the Service of Emergent India is a serious book, written with ele gance. I read it with care and concern. Care because I have respect for the intellectual shrines of individuals of Jaswant Singh’s calibre. I am judging the book on merit. And merit it has in several chapters. He evokes and invokes his childhood with brilliance.

However, the architecture of the book is chaotic. I find the central premises of his book flawed, self-serving and ponderously disingenuous. The Nehru-baiting is in poor taste; Agra, a total fiasco, poorly planned; Kandhar, a personal and public disaster that has left a scar — the last episode will continue to dog the author till the end of his life. There are unbearably dull discourses with the lamentable Strobe Talbot. The longer they lasted, the more bewildering they seemed. The net result of a dozen or so encounters between the two peripatetic gentlemen produced the proverbial mouse out of a crumbling diplomatic sand dune. It is such a disappointment.

The Congress Party had opposed the CTBT. Jaswant Singh was hell bent on signing. The Congress deprived him of that satisfaction. His justification for parleying with the No. 2 man in the US State Department is entirely unconvincing. As a Cabinet Minister, he should have talked to his counterpart.

On CTBT, Jaswant Singh writes: “An interpretation, rather a controversy that persists even now in some quarters is that, during this dialogue with the US, India had come close to ‘signing’ the CTBT, also that I was the principal architect of taking India towards this course. Of course, signing the CTBT had been a principal US requirement but it was the US Senate that had derailed this on 13th October 1999. Thereafter, the US Administration lost whatever moral pressure they earlier could put on India. If occasionally during the dialogue, and when discussing the issue of adherence to the CTBT, i.e., deflective ambiguity was taken recourse to, that can scarcely be termed as adherence.” This is Jaswant Singh at his coruscating best.

Here is Strobe Talbot’s version of the CTBT discussion in his near-unreadable book, Engaging India. Talbot writes: “Jaswant said that India would sign the CTBT by the end of May. If this were actually to happen, it would be a significant development, but it would still leave ratification of the treaty for the indefinite future. When I pointed this out, Jaswant assured me that under the Indian system, signature was tantamount to ratification, which he called ‘a mere formality’. Signing he added, carried a ‘higher degree of finality’ than was the case in the US — a subtle but unmistakable dig, since even though President Clinton had signed the CTBT more than two years earlier, the US Senate had so far refused to ratify it and might never do so.” Who is right, Talbot or Jaswant? Or are they both wrong? In my judgment, Jaswant has committed a cardinal sin on pages 121 and 122 — details of activities before and after Pokhran II have been given. Then something even more reprehensible is committed: “In 1996 when PV Narasimha Rao demitted office of Prime Minister, he took aside his successor Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji and quietly said, ‘I could not do it though I wanted very much to, so it is really up to you now’.” Never should such a grave — nay, gravest — matter be talked about to prove that one was among the inner-most circle.

Finally, there’s Jaswant’s ‘mole’ needle. Why can’t he name him or her?

This book has another merit. It brings out the distinction that Karl Marx drew between price and value. It has a high price, which many people will and should pay. As for value, each reader must make his own assessment.

The writer is a former Foreign Minister of India Return gifts from January 1, 2000 AROUND 1100 hrs….one of the young officials of the control tower who spoke English, came and whispered in my ear that nobody was likely to come and see me and no one knew what had happened to the famous bag [a ‘red bag’ that belonged to one of the hijackers containing explosives and possibly real passports] after it was unloaded and taken to the city. He also handed over a packet containing some almonds and raisins, a pocket comb, a nail cutter, a handkerchief and a pair of nylon socks saying that the minister for civil aviation had sent (these) for me as a gift because he knew that I never had time to go to the city throughout my stay at the airport in Kandahar.