Jaswant Singh, who passed away last Sunday after being in a coma for nearly six years, was an aristocrat by birth which gave him a broad conservative outlook of which gentlemanliness — in his day — was an essential part.
By training he was a soldier, which was common enough in his native Rajasthan. But in his personal inclinations, he was a man of books, which is far from common in that state or anywhere else for someone of his background.
This unusual mix, which was on a straightforward view in his personality, set him apart from any politician of my acquaintance — and his tenure in Parliament as an MP and this writer’s as a journalist ran almost in parallel.
Contemplating the life he lived after he is gone, it is hard to see him in any role other than that of a politician at an exalted level. This is because, at heart, he was a strategic ruminator who was happiest being in action at the junction of political grappling, and military and international affairs calculations.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee saw this straight off. In his first, very brief 13-day term as leader of the government, Singh was named finance minister, surprising everyone since the former Army major had had little to do with economics or finance in his life.
But there could be no question about his integrity, a critical requirement for anyone in public office, especially for the holder of the finance portfolio at the highest level. The finance minister also needs to have a strategic view of the society and the politics of the country.
Jaswant Singh summoned this, unlike most politicians, though it was evident that handing over Dabhol to Enron, without doing due diligence, was a serious error. It raised the spectre of corruption, and this would be easy to believe if the minister in question weren’t Jaswant Singh.
It is probable that the Vajpayee government saw the courting of Enron as a way of taking the first — seemingly harmless — steps toward courting America, with which India’s ties had been without warmth practically from the start of the Indian republic. If so, it turned out to be poor judgment.
But the late PM’s judgment in subsequently making Singh his external affairs minister bore the country profit.
Jaswant Singh was new to diplomacy on the world stage but he proved more than equal to the task. He courted America but was not recklessly, or foolishly, right-wing in doing so, as a less sophisticated first-time external affairs minister from the right side of politics might have been.
Singh was never craven.
He always appeared mindful of his own and his government’s and his country’s dignity, without being chauvinistically awkward or stiff-backed, as he went about choreographing the score for India-America relations in the post-Cold War setting.
This was evident in his numerous interactions over several years with Strobe Talbott, then US deputy secretary of state and President Bill Clinton’s pointman for India.
These two laid the scaffolding of India-US ties in a new era. Many had feared the rise of a Hindu nativist boor in the foreign office and heaved a sigh of relief as Singh went about his business.
When Vajpayee went for the Pokhran-2 thermonuclear test in May 1998, codenamed “Smiling Buddha”, the only political colleague who was in on the super-secret was Jaswant Singh, and not deputy PM L.K. Advani, Vajpayee’s buddy in politics over the decades and a BJP leader of the first rank who could himself have been Prime Minister.
This spoke of Vajpayee’s political trust in Jaswant Singh as much as his awareness of Singh’s astuteness in matters of high politics, although the external affairs minister had not come through the RSS; indeed among many of whom he was sought to be reviled as a “CIA agent”.
But perhaps there was more to Vajpayee’s almost subliminal alignment with Jaswant Singh. One rose up the RSS stream, and in its political front the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (later BJP) on the strength of his many remarkable attributes as a person and as a politician.
The other first veered toward the Swatantra Party — that attracted many former feudal elements who were not of a communal bent — and later moved towards the Jan Sangh as the Swatantra had no political future and would die.
Both Vajpayee and Singh had a larger vision of India than the RSS or Jan Sangh allowed, though for obvious reasons they could hardly repudiate the Hindu right-wing in public.
At the top tier of the Jan Sangh (and BJP), perhaps there was also Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the former vice-president of India and a mass leader from Rajasthan who had once been the state chief
This writer once had the rare privilege of being in a private conversation with them in which Singh and Shekhawat (Singh treated Shekhawat as his elder and accorded him enormous respect) lamented the lack of vision and openness in the foundational precepts and the actions of the organised Hindu right-wing.
There was a phase in the BJP when Advani thought in a somewhat similar way without abandoning the core political moorings of Hindutva.
This was a time when he sometimes spoke of his wish that the BJP could evolve into a party like Germany’s Christian Democrats, but he never spelt this out for the public record, perhaps fearing that the RSS would fry him if he did. But Advani did defend Jaswant Singh when the chips were down and the BJP was in the process of hounding the latter, eventually expelling him.
After Singh passed away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did issue some lukewarm words in tribute, but the BJP largely ignored his contribution.
Between the Jan Sangh’s founding in 1951 and the start of Modi’s tenure as PM in 2014, there was an interregnum of about two decades in which the BJP had the potential to transform into a normal rightist party, and being spiritually in tune with the Constitution.
Jaswant Singh was a product of that milieu. But the thought of such change was probably just wishful thinking by a few at the top. The urge had no roots at the mass level in the RSS-BJP, which continues to see the vision of Golwalkar’s India.