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Jaswant Singh: Underneath the intimidating facade was a mellow man with a great sense of humour

It was Jaswant who paved the path for the India-US strategic partnership as natural allies though the going was not easy after the nuclear tests.

By last year, Jaswant Singh (Jassu) and I were the last two left out of the intrepid gang of four of the JSW/NDA 11th course batch. He had an electric memory — compared to mine gone rusty due to “Old Monk” — and would regale me with stories of our youthful encounters with the enemy while we were graduating from being raw cadets to gentlemen ones. We nearly did not make it. Just days before the Passing Out Parade, the “enemy” — one Major Hari Singh “The” Sandhu (nicknamed Hun) — ambushed the gang mounted on a bicycle, singing “Daisy…Give Me an Answer…Do” well past lights out and dressed somewhat casually. All “The” Sandhu said was: “The Army issue bicycle is meant for one person.” The next day, all four were marched up to Commandant General Habibullah, who dressed us down but let us go to become gentlemen.

Jaswant would recall how once, lost on a long march on the outreaches of Sinhgad Fort, it rained, we ran out of food and then on his orders, cried out loudly so that another lost patrol might trace us. No luck. The highest rank Jaswant reached at the Academy was Divisional Cadet Captain and I made it to a lowly sergeant. We were both in Fox Squadron at Khadakwasla, which I revisited last year, successfully locating our rooms. Except for the geography, most things had changed. Jaswant joined the elite Central India Horse, saw the China war and chucked up after nine years saying, “There was too much yes sir”. Still, for Major Jaswant Singh, with two generations in the Cavalry having fought colonial wars, the Army was a call to honour and bonding in an era he called the Golden Age of Cantonment Soldiering. As a poorer cousin from the foot-slogging 5th Gorkhas, I had with him a nostalgic reunion at Jammu, days after his son Manvendra was born, cheering his arrival till dawn with distinguished beverages. I was returning from the 1965 war in Kashmir en route to becoming an instructor at the Indian Military Academy and Jaswant was exiting the army for a political career.

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Jaswant rose to become a nine-term Member of Parliament and was at the time the only person to have simultaneously held the portfolios of the minister or external affairs and defence in addition to having been finance minister. He told me, “Atalji called me and said, like a commanding officer to one of his company Commanders: ‘You’ve done well in the foreign ministry. Why don’t you take charge of finance (which was not doing so well)?’” Jaswant said, “I did, but did not like it”. When he held both the defence and foreign ministries, he recounted how as a defence minister, as recommended, “I rejected the extension of the term of an officer posted in Laos but as foreign minister, I sanctioned his extension”. China-baiter George Fernandes, who had stepped aside from defence while corruption charges against his ministry were being investigated, became very close to Jaswant and would pass on to him vintage brews, presented to a teetotaler.

In those heady days, when Jaswant was considered the crown jewel of the Vajpayee cabinet, he quietly began intellectualising his legacy. He would joke: “I am moving closer to 7 Race Course Road.” He was referring to his shifting abodes – from 14 to 15 to 16 Teen Murti Lane — the last bungalow in a cul de sac. A drain, concertina barbed wire and a roving sniper separated 16 Teen Murti Lane from the Prime Minister’s stronghold. So near and yet too far — a book he wrote on Jinnah became the catalyst for his sacking from the BJP. It was the party’s betrayal of a founder-member and one of its giant thinkers. Of the 11 books he has written in English (14 others in Dingal and Hindi), the famous three are Defending India, A Call to Honour and India at Risk. Together, they encapsulated the congenital apathy for securing the country.

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A day before he passed away, I reopened India At Risk (2013) for his touchstone reference to Tibet in the chapter, ‘The Roots of Our Problems’. He quotes Lt Gen Francis Tuker (1946-47) of the Eastern Command: “India’s prime interest is to prevent military occupation by China (of the vital area) of the Tibetan plateau.” The present standoff along the LAC stems from ignoring Tuker’s warning. Although not mentioned in the book, Jaswant confided that as a foreign minister, it was he who dissuaded the hawks in the cabinet from attacking Pakistan in 2002, as the Indian Army was not prepared for a war. It was Jaswant who paved the path for the India-US strategic partnership as natural allies though the going was not easy after the nuclear tests.

To many, he appeared arrogant, intimidating and the impatient Major sahab but he was actually mellow with a great sense of humour and warmth. Jaswant became hors de combat in August 2014 after he tripped outside the kitchen of his Teen Murti Lane home, looking for his Jack Russel puppy and was admitted unconscious to the Army Research and Referral Hospital. He remained comatose and was brought back to the hospital in June, where he breathed his last on Sunday. The 1954-56 NDA Gang of Four is down to the last man.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 1, 2020 under the title ‘My friend, Jaswant’. The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army

READ | Jaswant Singh: The courteous scholar-politician who was often out of sync with his party

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