Remembering a true friend

With the passing away of Jaswant Singh, India and the BJP have lost a great scholar, statesman and soldier

The only photograph I have of Jaswant Singh and me together was the one he gave me a year before he was admitted to the hospital in August 2014, never to regain consciousness. It was taken on December 10, 1957, when we were on stage enacting a play, Choice of Arms, at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, during the silver jubilee of the academy and our passing out parade celebrations. Portraying the hallmark cavalry officer, Jaswant reflected its mirror image: suave, stylish and snobbish. I played the rough and ready infanteer, his poorer cousin, crew cut et al. As Jaswant Major Saab bade farewell to arms in 1966, complaining about excessive employment of “Yes Sir,” his sputnik political rise saw him become Defence, Finance and Foreign Minister. In those heady days, he would tell Jeeves, Pep Singh: “General Sahab ko man-pasand whisky pilao”. During these convivial encounters, he would recount in fits of laughter, incidents in the academy — of lost patrols, enemy ambush and one dereliction that nearly delayed graduation. His passion for Western classical music, literature and history never deserted him. Bach, Beethoven and Mozart played softly even at 35,000 feet on Air India or in his offices in South Block and 16 Teen Murti Lane.

A conspiracy hatched by Army Chief, General SF Rodrigues, marked my parting from the Army. I sought Jaswant’s help which came unflinchingly. As a member of the Lok Sabha and a rising star in BJP, one evening over sundowners, he invited two of the country’s best legal minds — Ram Jethmalani and Arun Jaitley — both from his party but with their mutual dislike never camouflaged. Only Jaswant could have brought them together and along with Jaitley’s junior, Arvind Nigam, they managed, 20 years later, to defeat the Government for the first time in India’s independent history over its imposition of Army Act Section 18 and the Pleasure Doctrine. All three legal eagles became good friends.

Jaswant also introduced me to his tailor in Khan Market, Mukhtar Ahmad, who patterned his black mazri bush shirts in the Army’s Walking Out style. The trademark epaulette bush shirt — Jaswant’s copyright — is now worn by all and sundry.

Jaswant’s mastery of the English language and his gorgeous handwriting were legendary. He wrote a dozen seminal books, three focussed on defence and national security: A Call to Honour, Defending India and his last before he was hospitalised, India at Risk. In 2013, he invited me to Mumbai on a whistle-stop tour to promote his book and quiz him on the risks facing India. I recall vividly an earlier evening at his home that was rudely interrupted by Defence Minister Sharad Pawar’s call announcing that he was on his way. I was urged to knock back my drink and leave. Then Army Chief Rodrigues, in an interview to this newspaper, had indiscreetly called neighbouring countries as bandicoots and counselled for good governance. This created a furore in Parliament which forced Pawar into administering a warning to Rodrigues. It was the draft of this admonition that Pawar wanted Jaswant to edit and embellish that led to my retreat. With his Sheaffer pen, Jaswant corrected the parliamentary reprimand which Pawar read out the next day in Parliament, pacifying the Opposition ranks of which he was one.

Perhaps Jaswant’s most anxious moments were during the Kandahar hijack of IC 814. He told me that relatives of passengers made good copy for television and that IB was reporting that the incident could trigger communal disturbances. During the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) meeting, he volunteered, since no one else did, to accompany the three Jaish terrorists to Kandahar for release of Indian hostages. The stigma of this enduring ignominy he parried bravely.

During the Kargil skirmish, on the day Tololing heights were captured (June 11, 1999), I accompanied Jaswant to Beijing as part of the press delegation in my post-Army avatar. India had carried out nuclear tests the previous year and attributed them to the threat from China. His mission to China was to restore bilateral relations gone in deep freeze since the tests. The frosty meeting with Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan began with Tang insisting that China was never a threat to India, adding that we “have a saying in Chinese that those who tie the knot must untie it first” to which Jaswant recalled a Rajasthani aphorism from his village Jasol: “you need two hands to untie a knot.” The strategic difference was not allowed to become a dispute.

Jaswant was full of witty repartees. After the nuclear tests, which stunned and annoyed the Americans, he met Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who remarked with dripping sarcasm that “India had dug itself into a hole”. “Madam Secretary of State, India is a civilisational state, it does not dig holes,” he replied with exceptional grace. The two developed healthy respect and affection for each other. Through the ‘Next Steps in Strategic Partnership’ Jaswant discussed with Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, and over 16 meetings in different parts of the globe, they sketched the path towards the landmark India-US nuclear deal.

In the last of his nine stints as a parliamentarian, Jaswant represented the Gorkhas from Darjeeling. Since I was from the fifth Gorkha regiment, had widely trekked in Nepal, was fluent in Gorkhali and familiar with the problems of India-domiciled Gorkhas and their demand for Gorkhaland, I became his occasional advisor in his constituency. I once accompanied him to Darjeeling, meeting Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leaders Bimal Gurung, Roshan Giri and Ramesh Ale, who was from my regiment. Jaswant would park himself in a quaint 19th century English hotel — below Kalimati temple — which was then under American ownership but would annually fly in English actors to stage plays like that year Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest.

As convenor of India-Pakistan Track Two dialogue, which ran for nearly 15 years till the ruling dispensation forced it to stop, I tried to invite Jaswant to participate when he was not in Government. I suggested “you could meet your Kargil counterpart Sartaj Aziz, with whom you refused to shake hands” but he steadfastly refused.

Jaswant was a prolific rider and played horse polo and cycle polo for the academy. He continued riding for several years and owned ponies till a back problem forced him to stop. While I have lost a true friend from whom I learnt a lot, India and the BJP have lost a great scholar, statesman and soldier.

(The writer, a retired Major General, was Commander IPKF South, Sri Lanka and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff.)

Source: The Pioneer