Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Jaswant Singh who served as minister of finance, defence and external affairs in the union cabinet was born on January 3, 1938 at Jasol village in Rajasthan’s Barmer district to Sardara Singh and Kunwar Baisa. A student of Ajmer’s Mayo College and the National Defence Academy in Khadakwasla, he was an officer in the Indian Army in the 1960s.
Recollecting his army days in his book A Call to Honour: In Service of Emergent India, Singh later wrote: “On 15 December 1957, I was commissioned as an officer. I was a second lieutenant in the Indian Army. I had opted for the Central India Horse…I had become an under officer in my final term and was amongst the top ten in the Passing Out Order. So that, I thought to myself, ‘was a bit of all right, was it not?’, at least for the time being. I already knew, had perhaps always known, that I was not going to be in the Army for good. I was, when commissioned, still only nineteen. I informed my father that I had been commissioned only when I met him upon reaching Jodhpur.”
He would look back at his years in the army with fondness and as a time of learning some important lessons of life. In an interview to the Outlook magazine in September 2009 when he expressed his anguish for being expelled from the BJP (he later rejoined the party), he said: [A]s gentlemen cadets in the academy, if you were found unsuitable to continue your training, you were withdrawn from training. You were not expelled…[I]n the army, the leader takes the flak. If you transfer responsibility, and if you do not stand up for those who are colleagues, then you are not a leader.”
Singh left the army in 1966 to join politics. He unsuccessfully contested his first election in 1967 as an independent candidate. Later he got to know senior Jan Sangh leaders Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Jaswant Singh eventually tasted real political success when he got elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1980.
After the mid-1980s the BJP’s popularity began to rise when its Hindutva agenda became a central plank of its political strategy. The party managed to form the government at the Centre for the first time in 1996 but it barely lasted two weeks. During this short phase,
Singh became the union finance minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet. Later, he served as minister for external affairs in the Vajpayee government from December 5, 1998 to July 1, 2002. Relations with Pakistan hit a low patch during this phase, particularly after the Indian government’s Lahore bus diplomacy was followed by the Kargil War and the terrorist hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 to Kandahar.
In an interview in August 1999 after the Kargil War ended, Singh said Kargil was both a military and a diplomatic success for India. “I say this as essentially a military man that the challenge the armed forces were confronted with was formidable,” he said. “We ought to be very clear in our minds that we are the initiators of the dialogue. We took the Lahore initiative. We remain committed to the dialogue and the moment Pakistanis able to turn this bus from Kargil back to Lahore, it can resume.”
The BJP government faced pointed criticism for its handling of the hostage crisis after Singh took three militants, Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Omar Ahmed Saeed Sheikh, on a plane to Kandahar, Afghanistan, to secure the release of 161 passengers and crew of flight IC-814 in December 1999. The defence and strategic affairs correspondent Praveen Swami wrote in Frontline magazine in January 2000: “If the Taliban and Pakistan must share blame for events at Kandahar, the hijacking has exposed the National Democratic Alliance Government's utter inability to shape a coherent internal security doctrine. From the moment IC-814 was hijacked, the highest levels of government failed to respond to the emerging crisis.”
In his 2006 book A Call to Honour Singh, however, described how it was a very difficult call to make: “For three terrorists, 161 men, women and children. Is it right? Wrong? A compromise? What? At first I stood against any compromise, then, slowly, as the days passed I began to change.”
Another book, another controversy: Singh’s 2009 book Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence caused a furore and he was expelled from the BJP for his views on the Partition and Jinnah. But a year later he was again a part of the BJP.
With the BJP sitting in opposition after 2004, Singh’s engagement with important issues continued in his columns in various publications. Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, he called for “a thorough re-examination and full public debate” before going ahead with construction of any new nuclear plant in India. “With nuclear safety suddenly becoming a global imperative, the costs are simply too high to do otherwise,” he wrote in an article as part of Project Syndicate.
A gentleman in politics, Jaswant Singh has friends and admirers across the political divide. He is known to be personally honest and his image is that of a moderate in the BJP.
Also on this day:
1941 — Sanjay Khan, film and television producer, director and actor, was born
1966 — Chetan Sharma, Indian cricketer, was born
1979 — Gul Panag, Indian actress and model, was born
2013 — M.S. Gopalakrishnan, Carnatic violinist, passed away