There are several lenses through which you can read Jaswant Singh’s memoir, A Call to Honour. You could use one which is fashioned by those who think that everything the NDA government did was bad, and so the book is nothing but hagiography. Or you could use one made by those who think that close Indo-US ties are the worst thing that can happen to India. There is, of course, the third way of looking at things — of being objective, insofar as objectivity is possible with events that are so proximate. This requires a focus on the book through the political dynamics of our era, without necessarily calling people names, seeking conspiracies where there are none, or, for that matter, being distracted by Singh’s ponderous, even pedantic, prose and his irritating, almost child-like tendency to show off his erudition.
We live very much in the era that the book describes. The political trends it depicts are still with us, since their term is not coterminous with a government or a ministry, or the incumbency of a person in a particular office. They are those relating to the massive effort to reform the country’s economic system, promote economic growth at a pace that will actually dent poverty, defeat the challenge posed by terrorist violence and assert India’s strategic autonomy.
The UPA approach in these areas is not very different from that of the NDA because such policies are, often, not based on subjective desires but on external circumstance. Pakistan’s decision, for example, to maintain the ceasefire on the LoC has not changed, as neither has the US desire to befriend India. What is striking is the continuity of policies between the UPA and the NDA in economic, foreign and security policies — whether it is raising the limit of FDI in the insurance sector, permitting 26 per cent FDI in retail, negotiating the nuclear agreement with the US or a border settlement with China. What may have changed are nuances brought on mainly by changed personalities who make and articulate policy.
In recent decades, we have seen two kinds of politicians in the country — those who have sought to get this massive indolent country to transform by pursuing policies of change, and those who want to maintain the inertia because they are comfortable with the failed verities of the past. Inevitably — since this comes with the territory — the former are routinely pilloried by the latter as sell-outs and traitors. Jaswant Singh belongs firmly to the category of ‘changers’, and despite his ponderous demeanour, a person ready to embrace the new, sometimes with an ardour that can be disconcerting.
Yet there is an element of courage in Jaswant Singh penning this memoir. It is, of course, among other things, somewhat self-serving. But that goes with the genre. Why courage? Because Jaswant is still an active politician, one who potentially could still come to occupy the highest office in the land. Putting it out there, howsoever self-servingly, in cold print for critics to take potshots, does require some courage. Not many active politicians offer themselves as such mid-course bait. But there is a certain calculation in Singh confronting his recent, somewhat hectic, political career, without quite airbrushing the warts. It is to assist a closure of sorts for controversial issues that could cause needless embarrassment later when, presumably, the big call to honour comes.
Let us look at some of the warts. You can take issue with Jaswant Singh on this or that aspect of Kandahar. But the fact is that the game was already lost well before he got onto the same aircraft carrying the terrorists who were being released. With hindsight, we can question the belief in South Block that we could deal with the Taliban as interlocutors. Singh’s own account brings out the complicity of the Taliban authorities in the whole sordid affair. The intelligence services must have been aware that Masood Azhar and Mullah Omar shared the same pir — the late Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai of the Binori masjid, Karachi, but they do not appear to have factored it into their advice.
The immediate game was lost when the aircraft was allowed to leave Amritsar, and the longer-term one year earlier, when a panicky government headed by V.P. Singh overrode Farooq Abdullah’s advice and compelled him to release three JKLF militants in exchange for the daughter of the then Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. This has subsequently been brought up again and again whenever the need of taking a tough stand in a hostage negotiation is raised. The aircraft was allowed to leave Amritsar because the country has always had an ambivalent posture towards terrorism, some would call it soft — witness the agonising, even today, over the idea of an anti-terrorist legislation. The person on the spot simply did not find himself empowered to order the tyres of the aircraft to be shot out.
The country’s approach towards terrorist incidents has, and remains, somewhat hesitant and unsure. In 1993, when serial bombs killed nearly 300 people in Mumbai, India did little, despite a mountain of evidence of direct Pakistani complicity in the event. In 2001, after Parliament was attacked the NDA government mobilised the army, but that’s about all. Singh’s laboured defence of that response does not quite tell the whole sorry story.
Let us take the second major wart — negotiations with the US. Developing close ties with one of the major world powers is not something that the NDA government discovered. Go back to Rajiv Gandhi’s 1986 and 1987 visits to Washington and his comments on the importance of these relations to see that improving relations with the US had been a central pillar of Indian government policy since Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. This was despite what the US was doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Certainly Singh and his colleagues in the NDA were guilty of a somewhat excessive enthusiasm in the way they looked at their relations with the US, brought on in part by ideological proclivity, in part by inexperience, and in some measure, by personal inclination. But theirs was also a monumental undertaking — they self-consciously blew up the old edifice of the relationship by the nuclear tests in Pokhran, and then systematically sought out ways of rebuilding it. Singh’s accomplishment was indeed in ‘harmonising’ Indo-US ties to the point when, in quick time, the two countries were able to arrive at the Indo-US nuclear agreement of July 18, 2005. But this, to be fair, was as much a product of the Bush administration’s perception of American interests, as of Jaswant Singh’s 2001 diplomatic achievement.
There were other aspects of Jaswant Singh and the NDA’s irrational exuberance, such as the welcoming of George Bush’s advocacy of the missile defence, the post-9/11 offer of military facilities to the US and that of troops for Iraq which were born out of somewhat naïve and exaggerated expectations of the US. The government believed that the terrorist attack on America would lead to a paradigm shift in the triangular India-Pakistan-US relationship. That did not happen because big powers are far more focused on national self-interest; that is why they are big powers in the first place. Of course, all our analysis and that of Singh’s critics comes with hindsight, which is 20/20. Figuring out the course to take in the hurly-burly of real-time events is quite another thing.
History, even contemporary, can never determine policy. Because then, France and Germany can never be friends and China and Japan must forever be condemned to adversary relations. But history can certainly inform policy. Read minus the digressions and embellishments, Jaswant Singh’s book is a useful account of our recent past and provides some light to guide the path to our future foreign and security policies.