Updated: September 28, 2020 11:24:03 am
A soldier, a scholar, a lover and author of books, a stalwart of the BJP who believed in an inclusive and kinder India, a trusted colleague of both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani, and a politician who would be a complete misfit in the BJP of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, is no more.
Jaswant Singh, who passed away yesterday at 82, was a leading intellectual of the BJP from the time of its founding in 1980 till the beginning of its decadal decline in 2004. He was a pillar of strength for the Vajpayee-led NDA government from 1998 to 2004, in which he served in the defence, finance and external affairs ministries. He was a senior figure in the second tier of the party’s leadership, along with Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. All four have departed from this world. The only other person, Modi, who belonged to that category, and was indeed junior to them in the party hierarchy, became India’s prime minister in 2014. Singh could not witness his party’s meteoric rise in the Modi era because, even though he was alive, he spent the final six years of his life in a coma. Had he been in good health, he would have been deeply disillusioned with Modi’s politics of communal polarisation, his government’s assaults on India’s democratic institutions, and the all-pervasive atmosphere of jingoistic intolerance. Like two other former stalwarts of the BJP — Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie — he would have been a strident critic of the Modi government.
Life was unkind to him in its last lap, just as it was to Vajpayee and George Fernandes, Singh’s close friend and another pillar of strength for NDA-I. Prolonged coma — that liminal state between life and non-life — pushed him into national oblivion. Nevertheless, remembering some signposts from his life helps us better understand a turbulent period in India’s recent political journey. They also make us aware of the inherent complexities of the issues he dealt with and the controversies he courted.
Major Jaswant Singh quit the Indian Army in 1966 and joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the previous avatar of the BJP). One of the reasons for this decision — the India-China war in 1962 — has resurfaced in a different form right now at the LAC in Ladakh. In his book A Call to Honour, he squarely blames Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership for India’s debacle in the war. “Leaders at the very top, military, diplomatic and political, failed India, criminally and unforgivably.” But as a minister in Vajpayee’s government, he advocated cooperation with China, along with cautious talks on solving the boundary dispute.
He played a more central role in formulating the government’s policy on Pakistan. However, this road was strewn with more thorns. Vajpayee’s Bus Yatra to Lahore in 1999 was followed by Pakistan’s betrayal in Kargil. Not one to remain jubilant over India’s victory, Singh, along with Advani, wanted Vajpayee to continue the peace process. The result was the Agra Summit with Pervez Musharraf in July 2001. Singh tried his utmost to save it from failure, but failed. Between these two events came an episode that landed him in a big controversy — the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane by Pakistan-backed terrorists in December 1999. He was heavily criticised for escorting Masood Azhar and other terrorists, who were swapped to secure the release of hijacked passengers. Singh, in his defence, later said, “I was not going on a holiday jaunt, 166 lives were involved.”
He risked another controversy when he said in a TV interview that India was prepared to discuss with Pakistan conversion of the LoC into the “final border”. Many Indian — and Pakistani — politicians privately hold this view, or a variant of it, such as transforming the LoC into a “soft border”. Sadly, public posturing in both countries has remained inflexible. Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s former foreign minister, whom I met him in Islamabad two years ago, said to me that Singh and he had discussed innovative solutions to the Kashmir dispute.
The BJP’s defeat in the 2004 parliamentary elections, and its second consecutive debacle in 2009, led to Singh’s marginalisation. By this time, Vajpayee had quit active politics. Advani had been disempowered by the RSS after his 2005 visit to Pakistan, where he made some perfectly factual remarks about Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Among the few BJP leaders who stood by Advani was Singh. This was not surprising because he had, at this time, begun writing his book Jinnah — India, Partition, Independence, which became a bestseller upon its publication in 2009.
The book was highly critical of the founder of Pakistan, tracing his “epic journey” from being the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity to a cynical advocate of the Two-Nation theory. However, it also countered a lie that still survives in India — that Jinnah was the sole villain of partition. “…Jinnah did not win Pakistan,” Singh wrote, “as the Congress leaders — Nehru and Patel — finally conceded Pakistan to Jinnah, with the British acting as an ever-helpful midwife”. Singh was by no means the first one to state this unpalatable truth. Ram Manohar Lohia’s classic Guilty Men of India’s Partition (1960) uncovers the culpability of the Congress, and is even more devastating in its criticism of Hindu communal forces. Singh had to pay a heavy price for writing this book. He was expelled from the BJP. The book was banned in Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister. Even though he returned to the party briefly, yet another humiliation awaited him in 2014, when he was denied a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha polls. His self-respect thus shattered, he suffered a stroke after a fall in 2014, from which he never recovered.
Why was Singh admired within the BJP earlier, and reviled later? A plausible answer lies in the fact that, under Vajpayee’s leadership, the BJP was attempting sincerely to broad-base itself by becoming a liberal and secular party. Hence, it welcomed and empowered persons like Singh even though they had no RSS links. Singh frequently voiced his dissenting views in party forums, for which both Vajpayee and Advani respected him. After the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992, they even encouraged him to conduct a reconciliatory dialogue with Muslim leaders and BJP critics. Singh later wrote a book on this subject.
All this is unthinkable in the new BJP under Modi and Shah, who abhor democracy both within the party and in India’s larger socio-political life. Had Singh recovered from his coma, he would have found the party he devotedly served for over four decades unrecognisable.
The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Vajpayee and worked closely with Jaswant Singh
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