Last post for an officer

A soldier, statesman, scholar and politician, Jaswant Singh found himself at odds with his party as a narrow form of nationalism took roots

Jaswant Singh fought his last fight, as he always did, with restraint, dignity and rectitude that typified his life. Recently, life had ebbed slowly for the proverbial and literal last of the knights (former cavalry officer from the distinguished Central India Horse Regiment) as he silently passed into his Valhalla. The 82-year-old soldier, statesman, scholar and politician always stood out in public imagination with his ramrod straight posture, sartorial sense, stifled baritone, measured words and Queen’s English. Singh was the quintessential “officer and a gentleman” on duty. A pleasant oddity in the mucky world of politics. Part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s eclectic group of “diversities”, Singh brought the mellifluous imprint of his rural desert district, Rajput warriors’ ethos and scholarly correctness that won over many hard-nosed diplomats from across the world for his professional profundity and efficacy.

Once touted as Vajpayee’s trusted “Hanuman”, Singh belonged to a political era when one could be an honourable gentleman, dignified and yet a politician. He is most recognised as Vajpayee’s globe-trotting troubleshooter as External Affairs Minister, but he completed a rare “D-E-F” in ministerial portfolios, as he was also Defence and Finance Minister. Vajpayee personally stood up for his friend “Jassu” whenever the knives were out from within, against a man who was clearly uncomfortable with the puritanical section of his party. But the sagacious Vajpayee sought no echo-chamber. Instead, he cherished and valued the former soldier’s ability to uplift a simple draft in English into the most sublime expression. They were men of letters who respected each other for their “differences” and not feared the same. Such political large-heartedness was not to last and a very different and distinct strain of political instinct was brewing within his own party. It was clear that the space for independent-minded liberals and intellectuals was diminishing. Like his co-soldier and party colleague, Major General BC Khanduri, the narrow form of nationalism was on the rise. It was an unknown space and anathema for even old soldiers, and soon Singh was banished.

He was an intellectual rebel, not a rabble rouser, a fine difference and a handicap, one that he would soon discover. He had left the Army as he was sick of “Sir’ing” and “empty posturing.” To expect such a man to pander to political insecurities and insensitivities that were rising was unimaginable. In such changing times, there couldn’t be a political space for a Jaswant Singh, Arun Shourie, Yashwant Sinha and so on.

Today, when both national security and diplomacy are going through extreme turbulence and relying on hyperbole, jingoism and “economies of truth” — the reassuring and unflinching visage of Singh in the backdrop of a nuclear test, the Agra Summit, Kargil or in the midst of confabulations with Madeleine Albright and Strobe Talbott, is a fleeting memory of the distant past.

A politician’s journey is rife with incidents that are both laudatory and fetching. Singh’s political life was no different — the perennial question of him accompanying terrorists to Kandahar to secure the release of 160 hostages is the foremost. What is rarely posited in such questioning is if that was an individual decision or one cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), chaired by the Prime Minister, Home Minister and the “D-E-F” ministerial trinity? While no one really stood up and vocally clarified (though, no one denied either) that it was a collective call — Singh was left to carry this can of blemish for posterity, singularly on his hallmark epaulette-strapped shoulders. On the contrary, the post-incident questioning always left the one-time soldier bemused, saddened and even let down by his colleagues, but beyond a point, he did not stoop to name-calling; he was too much of a thoroughbred gentleman to do that. Singh was among the first to blow the bugle about his party’s changing tenor, agenda and direction, and thereafter sought a “serious inquiry.” Little did he know of the changing and irreversible winds, and soon the soldier was ironically slammed for “indiscipline.” Later, his lettered expression by way of a seminal book, Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence, was to be a convenient excuse to get rid of unwanted erudition within the new and rising ranks. Gujarat was the first State to ban the book, an indication of things to follow. Singh’s prophetic words then had been that it was tantamount to “banning thinking.” A fruition of that political reality plays out today. It was a regrettable political end for the distinguished career of the nine-time parliamentarian, who in his earlier book, A Call to Honour: In Service of Emergent India, had invoked the memories of the sun-lit land of his childhood within the four walls of “honour, courage, loyalty and faith” — old fashioned adjectives that sadly don’t resonate anymore.

His wood-panelled office was among the most impressive personal libraries and with Bach playing in the background, it was a statement of class, culture and pedigree that was equally at ease in his desert dhani with the hauntingly beautiful music of his native bards, Langas and Mangniyars.

Singh was a man of chivalric codes — a civilisational code, a soldier’s code and even an understated feudal code that understood the fine difference between respect and servility — he was gracious and respectful and was always respected back, even by people across the “aisle.” Politicians like him acknowledged their political opponents as equal patriots and human beings and he was befittingly conferred the “Outstanding Parliamentarian Award” in 2001. More comfortable with his books, writings, horses and an abiding spirit of enquiry — Singh abhorred illiberality, bigotry and the swaggering abuse of power. True to any proud soldier’s moral compass, he valued respect more than anything, but as the cavalier once invoked, he was ultimately, “put out to pastures.”

Today Vajpayee’s “Hanuman,” who seldom rested, will be laid to rest, as it were, in a better world — as they say of old soldier’s, “they never die, they only fade away.” The nation lost a patriot, a statesman, a soldier and above all, a decent man.

(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands)

Source: The Pioneer