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Jaswant Singh, an upright politician and Vajpayee's Hanuman

By G Sudhakar Nair
September 27, 2020 15:55 IST
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During Vajpayee's tenure, he was there as an indispensable insider, witness to every action that had an impact on history: Pokhran-II (nuclear tests in 1998), the 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, the Indo-Pak Agra Summit in 2001, intense engagement with the United States on nuclear issues besides the Kandahar hijack.

IMAGE: Former Union Minister Jaswant Singh with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and late former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee at Parliament House in New Delhi on July 22, 2002. Photograph: PTI Photo

An army officer-turned-politician, Jaswant Singh, a founding member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was a trusted associate of Atal Behari Vajpayee and established a reputation of being his own man with moderate political views.

A self-described liberal democrat with an aristocratic background, 82-year-old Jaswant, who died on Sunday, had the rare privilege of handling three key portfolios in the Union Cabinet -- defence, external affairs and finance -- all during the tenures of Prime Minister Vajpayee(1998-2004).

But it was the hijack crisis in December 1999 which dealt a body blow to his image for escorting three hardcore terrorists in an official aircraft to Kandahar in Afghanistan.

Jaswant was the then external affairs minister.

The three terrorists including Maulana Masood Azhar, who later founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed, were released by India in exchange for the release of more than 150 passengers and crew from the hijacked Indian Airlines plane (IC 814).

The terrorists had killed one passenger.

 

No stranger to controversy, Jaswant often faced ridicule and criticism for personally escorting the terrorists to end the eight-day-old hijack crisis -- an episode that marked one of the low points in the six-year Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance rule from 1998.

An upright politician, Jaswant, who often sports his trademark shoulder-flapped shirts, enjoyed a lot of clout during Vajpayee's rule.

Jaswant was also dubbed as Vajpayee's Hanuman as the two maintained an extraordinary bond.

During Vajpayee's tenure, he was there as an indispensable insider, witness to every action that had an impact on history: Pokhran-II (nuclear tests in 1998), the 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, the Indo-Pak Agra Summit in 2001, intense engagement with the United States on nuclear issues besides the Kandahar hijack.

Right from the start, the top BJP leadership took a liking to Jaswant for he deliberated in English with authority, something not many in the party could do.

With his education and army background, Jaswant stood out inside what was dubbed as a party of the 'middle-class'. And that deep baritone voice, with the slightest hint of a tremble completes the persona that he so consciously presents.

A man of few words, subtle nuances, but most importantly, an aficionado of liberalization to the core, the suave politician, whose long political career has seen several ups and downs, had first served as finance minister in the short-lived 13-day government of Vajpayee in May 1996.

Known for his self deprecating humour and who exuded style combined with a powerful gravitas, Jaswant during a Parliament debate after finance minister Pranab Mukherjee presented his budget in July 2009, said the amount of tax relief given for senior citizens was not enough for him to buy even a "bottle of whisky".

"Kick the bottle", was the advice of Mukherjee.

Jaswant, who does not have a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh background, was expelled twice from the BJP -- once in 2009 for his praise of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the second time in 2014.

He was readmitted in 2010 but expelled again after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls for defying the party directive to withdraw his candidature as an independent from Barmer in Rajasthan.

He, however, lost the elections.

Jaswant left the Army in a huff in 1965 after serving for eight years.

Asked for the reason for quitting as Major, he said he wanted to join politics.

IMAGE: Jaswant Singh at sits outside Parliament. Photograph: PTI Photo

In contrast to several hawkish senior leaders in a party known to be a right-wing organisation ever since its inception, Jaswant's was a moderate voice that represented the English-speaking, progressive view in the party that had helped it to reach a wider urban constituency beyond its conservative, Hindu chauvinist, trader base.

Jaswant, who considers himself a Rajput with a profound sense of history, maintained a low political profile through his decades-long career.

Jaswant was never a mass leader as he was not seen as a popular figure with whom party cadres identified with.

He was a political lightweight who enjoyed power because he was considered a 'thinking politician'.

After Vajpayee became prime minister for the second time in 1998, Jaswant served as minister for external affairs from December 5 until July 1, 2002.

Responsible for foreign policy, he dealt with high tensions between India and Pakistan during the 1999 Kargil war and in the aftermath of the 2001 Parliament attack and Pakistan's nuclear tests in 1998.

It was his innings as India's foreign minister from 1998 to 2002 that is most talked about.

He not only steered the country successfully through the turbulent days of the sanctions imposed by the West after the Pokhran nuclear blasts of 1998, but also played a big role in taking India's ties with the US to a higher plane.

Jaswant is widely regarded for his handling of relations with the US which were strained after the nuclear tests but which improved soon culminating in the 2000 visit of US President Bill Clinton to India.

His skill as a negotiator and diplomat during talks with the US has been well acknowledged by his American interlocutor Strobe Talbott.

His protracted engagement with Talbott on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and related nuclear issues is considered a high point in Indian diplomacy.

In July 2002, Jaswant became finance minister again, switching posts with Yashwant Sinha.

Jaswant was instrumental in defining and pushing through the market-friendly reforms of the government.

The first big 'action' during Jaswant's stint as finance minister from 2002 came in the form of the Unit Trust of India restructuring which involved a huge amount of taxpayers money to bail out the two million unit holders of US-64.

Photograph: PTI Photo

Jaswant was the candidate for the post of vice president for the National Democratic Alliance in 2012.

He lost to Hamid Ansari who was United Progressive Alliance's nominee.

He was at the centre of a controversy in October 2007 when he was accused of illegal drug possession after he allegedly offered 'kesar' milk laced with opium to his guests during a function at his ancestral house in Barmer district in Rajasthan.

Jaswant, who was dragged to the court, denied the charge.

In 2008, a special court gave a clean chit to him and nine others in the opium case.

An alumnus of prestigious Mayo College in Ajmer and the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla, he also has been the Leader of Opposition from 2004 to 2009 in the Rajya Sabha and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission (1998-99).

Though Jaswant entered politics in the late 60s, the first few years of his political life lacked success and recognition till he was initiated in the Jan Sangh by BJP stalwart from Rajasthan Bhairon Singh Shekhawat who is considered to be his political mentor.

In 1967, contesting the national elections for the first time, Jaswant, then a lanky young lad of 29, got a mere 18,564 votes in Bikaner in Rajasthan, and lost.

He tasted success in his political career in 1980 when he was first elected to the Rajya Sabha.

He served five terms in the Upper House, and another four in the Lok Sabha.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Jaswant was the BJP's surprise candidate from Darjeeling in West Bengal from where he won with the backing of Gorkha Janamukti Morcha(GJM).

Son of Thakur Sardar Singh and Kunwar Baisawas, he was born on January 3, 1938 in the village of Jasol in Barmer. Married to Sheetal Kumari, the couple had two sons one of whom is Manvendra Singh, a former BJP MP.

Jaswant has varied interests and has penned over a dozen books.

An avid reader, he is a self confessed horse lover and rider, and likes playing chess and loves golf.

The man, who stands erect despite a serious equestrian accident long back, exudes style and used to go riding frequently.

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G Sudhakar Nair
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