'Traveling out of the village was a great adventure'
Negotiating a place to meet Jaswant Singh for a meal was tricky. He hates going out to eat. We struck a compromise: We would have a drink at his Teen Murti Lane residence, his abode for the last 20 years or more.
Nothing had changed in the house. A small oil lamp in the porch burnt brightly, welcoming visitors. The living room was lit dimly as always, a throwback (possibly) to Singh's growing-up years in a desert village of Rajasthan where flickering lanterns were the norm and electricity was a luxury. The village had a train once a week which would pass through at 2 am. To reach the railway station, you had to take a horse-drawn cart over 8 to 10 miles of rutted road.
"As children, traveling out of the village was always a great adventure," he said, as we settled down to our drinks. Tea for me and vodka and soda for him, and no dinky little napkins wrapped around the glass to disguise it, thank you.
Text: Aditi Phadnis
Image: Jaswant Singh at a press conference in New Delhi
Photographs: Amit Kanwar/Reuters
Why Jaswant opted for the Air Force
As a teenager, Jaswant Singh led an outdoor life: His fondness for horses endures to this day. When he finished school with honours (he got Mayo College's best all-round boy medal and did exceptionally well in his school-leaving exams), his father asked him what he wanted to do. "Go to university, study," replied young Jaswant. His father was silent. "We can't really afford it, you know," he said. The matter was not discussed after that. "We'd suddenly become very poor," reminisced Jaswant.
It was a time of transition for a number of 'thikanas' (small jagirs) in Rajasthan. The abolition of privy purses was effected through the 26th Constitutional Amendment in 1971. The years leading to it were traumatic for those who knew no other way of making a living.
In the midst of that anxiety, the road ahead for Jaswant Singh's father was simple: Send him to armed forces, like his cousin Hanut Singh who later rose to be a controversial (though not as controversial as Jaswant) lieutenant general. Hanut Singh had already joined the cavalry. Without anyone knowing it, Jaswant Singh filled up the forms. Determined to do his own bidding, eternally perverse, he opted for the Air Force!
Image: A file photograph of President APJ Abdul Kalam presenting the outstanding parliamentarian award for the year 2001 to Jaswant Singh as Speaker Somnath Chatterjee looks on
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
'We were on our own'
Having reached the Joint Services Wing Dehradun "I soon found out I was not a natural driver of airplanes," he said. He shifted to Central India Horse, the 152-year old cavalry regiment that used to be known as 21st King George V's Own Horse when it was constituted in 1857. The rest of his family belonged to Poona Horse, another cavalry regiment. This was Jaswant Singh's insurance against "being bullied and brainwashed".
His book, 'A Call to Honour', explains why he decided to leave the Army without even being eligible for a pension. "I wanted more time for my own pursuits. But I realised later that nothing gives you as much time and leisure as the Army," Singh said. In any case, "I thought that after 1962 and 1965, there won't be any more wars. I joined the army when I was 19. I was just 28 when I resigned".
What followed was a period of great privation, a story very few know. He had Rs 2,600 in his bank account. His parents had been shocked by his decision and his father refused to speak to him. In any case, he was the younger son. His wife Sheetal's family too would have nothing to do with the young couple. "There was no question of either of us asking for help from our families. So we were on our own," said Jaswant.
Image: A file photograph of Jaswant Singh at the United Nations General Assembly.
'Meat? Eggs? How would I buy all this?'
How was the family to eat? His elder son Manvendra (Maggu) was two-and a-half years old, the younger one, 19-months old. For four years, Jaswant Singh worked as a sharecropper on a relative's land. That debt, he says, he can never repay: He tended land, milked animals (and would carry the milk every day on a bicycle to the nearby villages as dawn broke) and kept body and soul together somehow.
I finished my tea but Jaswant Singh barely touched his vodka. It was as if a key had been turned. "Dimpu (his younger son) had fever. It wouldn't break. Dr Chatterjee had to be called in. Every home trip cost Rs 10. He diagnosed the fever as glandular TB. 'You need to feed him nutritious food: Meat, eggs,' he told me. Meat? Eggs? How would I buy all this?"
The institution that Singh resigned from came to his rescue when his own family turned him away: The extended family of the Army. "SP Bhatia, one of my dearest friends, was posted in Jodhpur. When he saw us struggling, he came one day with a cheque for Rs 260. He was not rich. But he thought I needed the money more. My Commanding Officer's family owned half of Delhi. His wife called one day: She had booked a flat for us in Delhi, paying the booking amount and asked merely that I sign the papers. For years I worked to pay back that Rs 10,000. How can I ever forget those days?"
Image: A file photograph of Jaswant Singh signing the guest book during his visit to Al-Azhar University in Gaza
Jaswant lost his first election
In 1967, Singh fought his first election as an independent. He lost. Bhairon Singh Shekhawat asked him to join the Jana Sangh. Singh told him he was uncomfortable with the thought of joining the party because of its position on the minorities.
Maharani Gayatri Devi asked him to sign up for the Swatantra Party. He refused that too because he told her 'there are far too many princes there'.
Later, he met Atal Bihari Vajpayee. That launched his political career. He moved to Delhi with his family in a small apartment in Delhi's Uday Park when it was not the tony neighbourhood it is today. In her tiny kitchen, Sheetal would cook for 30-40 people, especially during the Emergency when those opposed to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty would plot ways to overthrow it.
His first stint in the Rajya Sabha was from 1980 to 1989, a period of serious eclipse for the Opposition. Since then he's been elected to both houses of Parliament, has been finance, defence and foreign minister of India and has been Leader of the Opposition in the Upper House.
Image: A file photograph of former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with Jaswant Singh
Photographs: Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters
'I'm not going to join any other political party'
Because he is opposition-minded by political training, Singh's answer to the question was categorical. What would he do now? "Do? Well, I'm certainly not going to join any other political party. All political parties today are private limited companies. The BJP was an exception. But the BJP seems to have been taken over as well -- I won't say by whom. I don't see another BJP on the horizon."
"I have written a daily diary for 30 or 40 years. I will see if I can add to the 18 books I have written. I will spend convivial evenings with my friends, and visit my beloved horses. I have invitations to visit and speak at a number of foreign universities. The Jinnah book is being published in Pakistan by Oxford University Press. Yale University Press is publishing it in the United States." he said.
Image: Jaswant Singh with BJP leader Yashwant Sinha
'I will dispel Muslim fear about Hindus'
A friend told his wife the BJP had given him a golden handshake. He just smiled. Authors don't make money. But for him, the Jinnah controversy and his subsequent expulsion from the BJP is a validation of his beliefs.
"I told the Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) once: Until we resolve the Hindu-Muslim question within India, the neighbourhood can never be at peace. So long as I am in public life, I shall engage my self in the endeavour to dispelling fear in the minds of the Muslims about the Hindus -- and fear in the minds of Hindus about Muslims," he said.
His glass was half full. That's the note on which we parted.
Image: A file photograph of Jaswant Singh with L K Advani and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah