The death of the veteran politician, thinker, writer and former Union Minister Jaswant Singh is immeasurably saddening even though, since he had been in a coma for the last six years, he had been absent from our public space for so long.
One cannot escape the sense that India’s impoverished public life has lost someone of rare quality, one whose like will not easily be seen again.
I first met Singh when he attended a talk I gave in 1982 on the publication of my first book (my rehashed doctoral dissertation on Indian foreign policy), Reasons of State. He was a first-term Member of Parliament then, still known proudly, in recognition of his years of Army service, as Major Jaswant Singh. He was unstinting in his praise for my book and urged me to keep in touch.
But in those pre-email and pre-mobile days, this was easier said than done, and I did not see him again for a decade and a half.
From First Time Parliamentarian to Sought-After Minister
But in that time I followed his increasingly illustrious career from afar: his elections as a BJP MP to the Rajya Sabha in 1980, 1986, 1998 and 1999, and to the Lok Sabha in 1990, 1991 and 1996 (he managed one more RS stint in 2004 and a final Lok Sabha success, from Darjeeling of all places, in 2009).
Atal Bihari Vajpayee admired his robust intellect and intellectual integrity, and made him Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission (1998–99) before giving him the three most sought-after portfolios in the Cabinet – Finance, External Affairs and Defence.
It was when he visited the United Nations in his first year as External Affairs Minister that we renewed our acquaintance.
I had received a call from India’s Permanent Representative, Ambassador Kamalesh Sharma, that the Foreign Minister wished to meet me. I went over, expecting a small gathering of desi notables (as was often convened by the Indian Mission for visiting ministers).
Instead, to my surprise, Singh received me alone in his hotel room, without any aide in attendance, not even the Ambassador. The frank and probing discussion that ensued on India’s place and posture in the world, its role in the UN and its stances on a number of geopolitical issues, laid the tone for our decade of interactions to follow.
Suave & Skilful Negotiator
This time I did stay in touch. We met during some of his many visits to the US to pursue the remarkable, indeed unprecedented, dialogue he conducted with the USA’s Strobe Talbott on Indo-US relations on nuclear policy and strategy, which ultimately were to conclude, though not on his watch, in Dr Manmohan Singh’s Indo-US nuclear deal.
This was an era-defining undertaking, launched in the aftermath of India's widely-denounced nuclear tests of 1998, that earned him international respect as a suave and skilful negotiator.
But it was by no means his only contribution to defining and defending the Indian polity. Singh’s work as a politician, his insights as a writer and speaker, and his vision of India’s destiny were substantial. He was fittingly asked to step into the breach as Defence Minister when George Fernandes was forced to resign after the Tehelka scandal.
Distaste For Communalism Set Him Apart
At the same time, he never imbibed the Hindutva bigotry that increasingly consumed his party. I would call on him during my annual visits home while I was at the UN, and he left me in no doubt of his distaste for the communalism that had inflected many of his colleagues. He told me he had specifically banned the likes of Sadhvi Ritambhara from campaigning in his constituency, rejecting the notion with vehemence when his party suggested it.
Perhaps the one genuine black mark of his years in office was the episode in which he escorted to Kandahar, Afghanistan, the terrorists released by the Government of India in exchange for the passengers on a hijacked Indian Airlines plane.
In doing so, he unfairly became the symbol of his government’s mishandling of the episode, its failure to take swift and decisive action when the plane landed in Ahmedabad for refuelling, and India’s craven surrender to terrorism. He always argued that public opinion had left the government no choice, but I remain convinced that left to himself, he would have handled the situation very differently.
Fascination for Ideas & the Betrayal on a Notorious Occasion
Singh’s decency and courtliness were legendary. I still remember our conversations over tea while he sat surrounded by books, one of which he would always be immersed in when I arrived. His fascination for ideas and concepts was an unusual strength for a BJP leader.
But it betrayed him on one notorious occasion, when in 2009 he published his unwieldy book on Pakistan’s founder, ‘Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence’. Its thesis (arguing that it was not Jinnah’s obduracy but that of the Congress leadership, which favoured a strong central government, that made Partition unavoidable) was not startlingly original, but the BJP was horrified by its author’s praise for the reviled Quaid-e-Azam, and Singh was suspended from the party he had helped found three decades earlier.
His ostracism only lasted a few months – he was readmitted into the fold in 2010 – but the experience deeply hurt him, and things were never the same again between him and the BJP establishment.
Though he was named the NDA’s candidate for the vice-presidency in 2012, he was aware the result was fore-ordained and his role was merely that of the sacrificial lamb.
Thus it was that one of India's longest serving parliamentarians – a member of one or the other House from 1980 to 2014 – was denied a ticket in the seminal election that brought Narendra Modi to power. The man who had served as Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha from 2004 to 2009 was forced to contest against his own party as an independent from his ancestral constituency of Barmer in Rajasthan, lost and was expelled from the BJP. Just a few weeks later, Singh suffered a serious head injury after a fall in his bathroom and went into the coma from which he never emerged.
Singh wrote 11 books, the title of one of which summed up his approach to the world of ideas: ‘The Audacity of Opinion’. I will miss both his intellectual insights (the “opinions”) and his political courage (the “audacity”). India’s barren national discourse is all the poorer for his passing.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 21 books, most recently ‘Tharoorosaurus’ (Penguin). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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