Jaswant Singh’s life encapsulated evolution of India
From his birth in rural Jasol in 1938, the six years he served as minister of all portfolios with the first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and his eventual seperation from his own party, Jaswant Singh’s life encapsulated the evolution of today’s India. However, Singh strode through these years with a gentlemanly demeanour that disarmed even his worst adversaries.
Singh served as foreign, defence and finance minister during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. They were among the most tumultuous periods in India’s recent history, encompassing the Pokhran II nuclear tests, the Lahore peace process and Kargil, 9/11 and the war on terror. Singh’s most lasting legacy was to use the shock of the nuclear tests to force Washington to hold a dialogue with New Delhi, and then use those talks to turn around decades of contentious relations between the two countries.
It helped that the Americans were impressed with him. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who cold shouldered Singh over Pokhran II, told him later, “A masterly handling of the Kargil crisis, You did not put a foot wrong.”
Singh saw the Vajpayee regime’s purpose as ending Nehruvian stagnation, being prepared to take bold and risky steps. His transformation of the US relationship has proved to be an overwhelming success – a generation of Indians barely remember how estranged the two capitals once were. However, his repeated attempts at finding some common ground with Pakistan left little impact, though this can be blamed more on Islamabad’s flawed nature.
Those who worked with Singh say he was a minister with a genuine sense of the strategic, who sought to derive first principles from long studies of history and the experience of power. He would say that for every problem -- military, diplomatic or domestic – there was a “core” that had to be identified and addressed. Singh felt independent India’s lack of a territorial consciousness, an easy willingness to accept undemarcated and undefended borders, was an invitation for trouble with neighbours like China.
Singh’s personal study of history, independent of the sangh parivar, led him to conclude it was the common Indian’s faith that had allowed Indic society to survive for so many millennia. The BJP had to be a proponent of a self-confident Indian nationalism, though one with “pronounced emphasis on the civilizational and cultural identity of India as being Hindu”. But his view of Hindutva was civilizational more than religious, one that encompassed everyone who claimed Indian origin.
Some of this derived from his early life on the Rajasthan border, a place where Muslims were, “just as much our kin as any other.” A sense further strengthened by his nine years in the Indian army and his enormous appetite for reading, a habit he took up in earnest while at Mayo to bolster his English but was to be lifelong passion. The Babri Masjid demolition and “the loss of state control” in Godhra were, for him, two black marks on the BJP’s record. He found it difficult to reconcile all this with Narendra Modi’s rise and precipitated his break with the BJP.
Another set of experiences, including the humiliation of watching India being defeated by China in 1962 even as his tank regiment was stranded south of the Brahmaputra, led him to sour of Congress rule. Ironically, for a man whose first government job was deputy chairman of the planning commission, he despised five-year plans and their ilk. As finance minister, he sought to “free the productive capacities and the creative genius of India from quibbling bureaucratic tangles”. He told the then Reserve Bank of India governor, YK Reddy, that he wanted to “start the process of a reverse economic imperialism” and the central bank needed to support Indian businessmen “conquer the world”.
Singh could not avoid responsibility for a number of the Vajpayee government’s worst moments, including the failed Agra summit and the freeing of terrorists to rescue the passengers of the hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814. He permanently kept a small field binocular from Kandahar on his mantel to remind himself of the humiliation. In his post-political life, Jaswant Singh often wrote and spoke about the need to redress what he saw as the weakest point of India’s national security: the decision going back to 1947 to “reject the centrality of strategic culture”.