Jaswant Singh: Bidding adieu to a political stalwart
Jaswant Singh, a founding member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who served as the external affairs, defence and finance minster at different points of time in the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004), passed away on Sunday after a prolonged illness. He was 82.
Tributes for Singh, an army officer-turned-politician, poured in from top the brass of the BJP, with whose leadership he had a bitter falling-out in 2014 when he was denied a party ticket to contest the Lok Sabha election from Barmer in Rajasthan. He contested the election, which was his last, as an independent candidate and lost. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote in a post on Twitter that Singh served the nation diligently, first as a soldier and later during his long innings in public life. “…During Atal Ji’s Government, he handled crucial portfolios and left a strong mark in the worlds of finance, defence and external affairs. Saddened by his demise,” the PM wrote.
Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi and former PM Manmohan Singh penned letters to former MP Manvendra Singh expressing grief over the demise of his father Jaswant Singh.
A former Major in the Indian Army, Singh’s four-decade-long political journey traversed through highs and the lows. His stature in the party, his scholarship and erudition as a parliamentarian secured him a position in the Vajpayee cabinet despite the reservations the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fount of the BJP, harboured about him. In 1998, the Sangh put up stiff resistance to two Vajpayee picks -- Brijesh Misra as the National Security Advisor, and Singh as the possible finance minister. Eventually, Singh was given the defence portfolio.
A nine-time member of Parliament, elected four times to the Lok Sabha and five times to the Rajya Sabha, he was the minister for external affairs minister when an Indian Airlines flight headed to New Delhi from Kathmandu was hijacked to the Afghan city of Kandahar on December 24, 1999. Singh had to escort Maulana Masood Azhar and two other terrorists to Kandahar to secure the release of the passengers and crew who had been held hostage. After India conducted the nuclear tests in 1998 and the US imposed sanctions on India, Singh was the lead negotiator for talks with the then US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott. The two-year-long negotiations paved the way for the visit in March 2000 of then US President Bill Clinton, which was considered a turning point in India-US relations. He was first expelled from the party in 2009 when the BJP parliamentary board, following an uproar, took a dim view of his book Jinnah - India, Partition, Independence.
When he was expelled from the party, he did criticise the BJP for turning sycophantic, but rejoined the party after 10 months of being out in the cold. He faced a second expulsion in 2014 for six years, when he chose to defy party orders and challenged the BJP’s decision to not field him as its candidate from Barmer.
The deftness and political acumen he showed as the leader of the party in Rajya Sabha helped him forge connections with the opposition leaders and was counted as the moderate face of the Vajpayee-era BJP. Supporting his candidature for the Vice President’s post, the then AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa with whom he shared a rapport had said there were two reasons for backing Singh. The first being her “personal regard” for Singh and the second being the “association that goes back 28 years”.
Singh, who was a leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, which oversees government spending, was upset by the party sidelining him, yet chose not to join the political adversaries of the BJP.
In May 2014, when he was constantly asked about his political future outside the BJP, he said the Samajwadi Party “was very kind” and that he had received calls from Mulayam Singh and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, but he was not looking forward to joining any other party.
Veteran BJP leader L K Advani described Jaswant Singh as a dear friend, and said he was an “outstanding parliamentarian, astute diplomat,and above all, a patriot.”