Jaswant Singh: The realist who reshaped India’s foreign policy discourse

In spite of being a founding member of the BJP, he struggled to find a political centre amidst the party's rapid evolution.

ByAnand Vardhan
Jaswant Singh: The realist who reshaped India’s foreign policy discourse

For all his measured words, stifled baritone voice, and somewhat stoic face, Jaswant Singh couldn’t have missed the irony of the controversies that found a way to define his eventful journey in public life. In the last few years of the 20th century and the first few of the present, his role in some of the key offices, policies and moments in the country’s power corridors went far beyond what a few headline-making images would suggest in the public recall.

A clear example of this was his stint as the external affairs minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government. Jaswant’s diplomatic efforts in securing international engagement and strategic autonomy for post-Pokhran nuclear India in a sanction-inflicting world could not replace the Kandhar swap from collective memory.

Almost six years after escorting three Pakistan-backed terrorists to Kandhar, Afghanistan, in 1999 in exchange for 175 captive passengers of the hijacked IC814 aircraft, he recalled the dilemma that the government had to wrestle with. In his 2006 book, A Call to Honour: In Service of Emergent India, he described how amidst the difficult choice between two moral rights — saving the lives of innocents and fighting terrorism — lay a "hollow, unfilled space of the undetermined”.

Born in 1938 at Jasol village in Barmer, Rajasthan, Jaswant Singh belonged to a family of soldiers. He followed by serving the army as an officer before leaving for a life in politics in the latter half of the 1960s.

“It's not a job. It's a calling,” he recalled his decision three decades later. “I quit and entered this disorderly world of politics because I was persuaded enough to answer the call.”

Attracted to the worldview and leadership of the Jan Sangh while struggling to make his mark in state politics, he joined the party. When the dissolved Jan Sangh was revived and renamed Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980, Jaswant was one of its founding members along with Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. The same year he was sent to the Rajya Sabha by the BJP, beginning the first of his five terms in the upper house. He also won the popular vote to find his way to the Lok Sabha in 1990, 1991, 1996 and 2009. His last win was from the Darjeeling constituency in West Bengal.

In the second half of the 1990s, when the BJP finally took power at the centre, Jaswant was entrusted with key ministerial responsibilities – finance, external affairs, and defence. However, it was as the external affairs minister that Jaswant made his mark. Through his consistent pursuit of a definite vision, he redefined the country's engagement with the world, particularly with powers such as the United States in the West and Israel in the Middle East. The more remarkable part of his tenure was the 14 rounds of comprehensive talks that he held from June 1998 to September 2000 with the US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott on various aspects of Indo-American relations. The talks proved crucial in resetting India's ties with the US, leading to Washington easing sanctions in the wake of the Pokhran nuclear tests. The talks found favourable mention in Talbott’s 2006 book Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb.

His imprint on foreign policy was largely driven by a realist approach. Seen as a close associate of Vajpayee, he enjoyed a good deal of autonomy in his work. Although a reshuffle saw him swapping the external affairs ministry with Yashwant Sinha’s finance portfolio, he seemed a reluctant finance minister. The short stint as the minister of defence was necessitated by George Fernandes’s resignation in the wake of the Tehelka expose. Jaswant presented the last budget of the Vajpayee government which was seen as a please-all exercise in view of the forthcoming general election. The banner headline in the Economic Times caricatured Jaswant singing Bryan Adams’s Everything I Do, I Do It For You.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was voted out in 2004 and Jaswant found more time to write. The two books he wrote in the next six years became contentious for various reasons.

His first book, A Call to Honour, which a reviewer described as “part memoir, part history, part reflections, part revelations”, stirred controversy by alleging that there was a mole working for the US in Narasimha Rao’s Congress government of the 1990s. It led to a verbal duel between Jaswant and Manmohan Singh, then prime minister.

His second book, Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence, took a view of Pakistan’s founder that was considered sympathetic and didn’t go down well with the historical worldview of the Sangh Parivar. Recent scholarship too has tried to counter Jaswant’s approach to Jinnah’s ideas and historical role, such as Ishtiaq Ahmed’s Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History and MJ Akbar’s Gandhi’s Hinduism, the Struggle Against Jinnah’s Islam.

The book had arrived close on the heels of his letter demanding a serious inquiry into the causes of the BJP’s defeat in 2009 Lok Sabha election. The critical reactions to the letter found an ideological ground within the opposition to Jaswant’s book, and he was expelled from the party in 2010. Though the new party president, Nitin Gadkari, reinstated him in the same year, the denial of a ticket for the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Barmer was the last straw that led to a bitter parting with the party that he had helped found.

He contested the Barmer seat as a party rebel but was defeated by BJP’s Sona Ram Chaudhary. In August 2015, he fell accidentally in the bathroom, slipped into a coma, and never recovered from it. It was at this moment that the last vestiges of his connection to the BJP could be seen with prime minister Narendra Modi visiting him to inquire about his health.

In straddling different spheres of public life, governance, and eventually power politics, Jaswant ended up struggling to find a political centre amidst the party's rapid evolution. In the meanwhile, he did leave an indelible mark on the foreign policy discourse of the right-of-centre stream in Indian polity.

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