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The Rediff Special/George Iype

A politician and a gentleman

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Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is holding an unusual media conference to announce to a stunned world that India has exploded three nuclear bombs. The setting of the conference is remarkably different. For the first time, 7, Race Course residence becomes the swadeshi answer to the White House media briefings... And Vajpayee reads out a cryptic statement from the podium on his lawns.

Who fashioned this dramatic, distinctive style for Vajpayee? The loyal Jaswant Singh. Officially, he is only the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. But in reality he is more than that: he is Vajpayee's globetrotting trouble-shooter, who negotiates the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty with top White House officials.

In the Bharatiya Janata Party, Singh is considered a gentleman politician. His name is an anathema for the powerful Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But for Vajpayee the Loner, Jaswant is a close personal friend with whom he shares an occasional evening drink.

But why is Vajpayee overdependent on Jaswant after India's nuclear tests? Political observers believe a series of flop shows by a number of BJP leaders in the wake of the tests so embarrassed the prime minister that he roped in his close friend to manage international diplomacy. The immediate post-nuclear days saw leaders like Vajpayee's political advisor Pramod Mahajan and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Madan Lal Khurana making, to put it mildy, utter fools of themselves.

BJP insiders, however, say Vajpayee made Singh his key policy advisor and personal envoy to US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and the warring All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo J Jayalalitha because he has blind faith in his man's skill and efficiency.

"Without Singh, the prime minister feels insecure. It is as if Vajpayeeji has full confidence only in Singh," says a BJP functionary.

Naturally. When among the top echelons of BJP leadership, there are few leaders who can talk diplomacy and national security -- the 60-year old Singh is the 18-party Vajpayee coalition's international face. Jaswant is erudite, but he does not show off. Jaswant is cryptic, but he makes sense. Jaswant is refined, but he is one of the few BJP leaders who can win heated debates in Parliament.

Many believe Singh won over Vajpayee because he is a dark horse. Whatever the truth in this, the man with the bass sound and rather horsy face, ironically, does have an association with horses, literally: He began his career as a cavalry officer in the Indian Army.

The idea of a profile on the man whom Vajpayee deployed to tackle the economic sanctions leads one to Yojna Bhawan, the Planning Commission's office in Delhi.

"He is a very restricted person. We are not allowed to interact with him much because he does not like it," says a senior officer attached to Singh's office.

But upon insistence, Singh's staff throws up a cryptic bio-data that mentions him as the BJP's spokesperson on finance, defence, foreign affairs, energy and environment. His special interests: international affairs, defence, environment, ecology and wildlife. Leisure: horses, equestrian sports, books, music, golf and chess. Other commitments: columnist, author, antiquarian, historian and bibliographer.

Born and brought up in rural western Rajasthan, in the Thar desert region, Singh's ambition at an early age was to serve the army. And he ended up there, as a cavalry officer in Jodhpur. A retired army officer who knew Major Jaswant Singh in the 1960s remembers him as "a true officer and a gentleman."

"He was an intellectual in the army and we all knew that he would not last long with the horses," the officer says.

In the early '70s, Singh resigned his commission to take up politics. But it was not his intellectual pursuit that forced him to quit army for politics. It was Vajpayee's mesmerising oratory in Hindi that inspired him to embrace the BJP.

A master of Hindi, Vajpayee was impressed with Singh's formidable command over English. "It was not ideology, but language that brought them together," says a BJP leader.

Singh has been Vajpayee's companion for nearly 25 years, helping him with economic and defence lessons, both of them dining together quite often.

"Singh is now Vajpayee's intellectual companion," adds the BJP leader.

Vajpayee also utilises Singh's drafting skills in English. Singh often lifts a dull statement from the Prime Minister's Office and chisels it into a perfect piece of prose befitting an orator like Vajpayee.

This love for language has paid rich dividends for the former army officer. He has been a BJP member of Parliament five times. And when the first BJP government under Vajpayee was sworn in 1996, the prime minister chose Singh as his finance minister.

But at Vajpayee's second coronation in March this year, Singh was not so lucky. He lost the election from Rajasthan and the BJP leadership ruled defeated candidates should not be accommodated as ministers.

The RSS's veto over Singh's appointment as finance minister saddened the prime minister. But Vajpayee was determined to keep his best friend in the forefront. To begin with, the PM appointed him as the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, generally a consolation post given to eminent defeated candidates. But Jaswant's role has been far beyond handling financial matters in Yojana Bhawan. The prime minister has ensured that Singh is part of all spheres of government functioning.

Singh is now omnipresent in Cabinet meetings, he's in Madras acting as Prince Charming to Jayalalitha, in Washington and Frankfurt discussing India's security concerns. He is the organiser of the co-ordination committee of the coalition and is virtually in every task force set up by the prime minister, from security to information technology.

"Singh has a highly correct sense of political behaviour. He may be the prime minister's man Friday. But he never tries to hurt anybody by treading on her/ his toes," says a BJP leader.

The only problem Singh encounters now is from the powerful RSS leadership. BJP insiders say the RSS lobby detests Singh because they see him as a safari suit-clad, anti-swadeshi leader. Despite his long years in the party, Singh is yet to become a member of the RSS.

"He was never interested in Advani's rath yatra and the party's Ayodhya campaign. Therefore, for the RSS, Singh is an outsider. But he has managed to become a top BJP leader because of his proximity to Vajpayeeji," an RSS functionary said.

Forced by the RSS, BJP president Keshabhau Thakre has excluded Singh from the party's national executive. But Vajpayee last month managed to wrest a Rajya Sabha seat for his dear friend, over-riding opposition from the RSS bosses. Many within the party expect the PM to gift the key external affairs portfolio to Singh when he expands the Cabinet soon after the Budget session.

Meanwhile, everyone is keenly awaiting the third round of Singh-Talbott meeting in New Delhi on July 20. To see whether the prime minister's special envoy will win over the US or not.

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