That Jaswant Singh was a remarkable politician and diplomat is known to most people. What’s known a little less is the sheer humility of the person who was labelled Vajpayee’s ‘Hanuman’ and was one of the top four in NDA 1 along with LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi.
He also had a remarkable run in both Houses, being elected on a BJP ticket five times in Rajya Sabha and four times in Lok Sabha.
It’s rare for diplomats to share praise for minister, but the former External Affairs Minister was a notable exception.
Two stories in particular show how the former military man became a sui generis politician-diplomat. The first was the IC-814 hijacking, where he might be considered a pantomime villain for some for letting three terrorists go but was without a doubt instrumental in keeping the casualty count down.
The second was the post-Pokhran diplomacy which helped not just showcase India’s role as a responsible nuclear power to the world, but kickstarted the Indo-US dosti whose benefits both subsequent UPA governments and Modi’s two NDA ones are reaping to this day.
He was also a man of exceptional intellect, a visiting professor at Oxford and Warwick, a senior fellow at Harvard, in sharp contrast to the current regime which mocks Harvard and pits it against hard work.
In a remarkably prescient conversation with Pragati in 2007 which showcased his deep understanding of statecraft and policy, he noted – echoing Tagore as he did so – that the nation-state was a post-Industrial Revolution and European construct which wasn’t territorial but instead saying that the molecular structure of the nation was defined by Indian society.
He also rued the fundamental mistake of over-centralising, comparing India’s response to terror compared to post 9/11 America which he believed had become ‘disagreeably and unacceptably militaristic’.
Post-Pokhran Manoeuvering and US-India Dosti
If one needed any instance of Jaswant Singh’s diplomatic skills, one simply needs to look at how the former EAM converted a belligerent Uncle Sam into an ally for New Delhi.
When APJ Abdul Kalam called Vajpayee to tell that ‘Buddha had smiled again’, it led to a chain reaction of international events which saw India on the backfoot initially.
If Yaswant Sinha managed to implore NRIS and PIOs to raise money through Resurgent Indian Bonds to raise $4.5 billion in 10 days, Jaswant Singh led the diplomatic broadside to chart out a new foreign policy eschewing NAM and other past failures.
Strobe Talbott, the Deputy Secretary of State between 1994 and 2001 admits that Singh ‘beat him hands down in the diplomatic marathon’, simply wearing the US down.
It eventually led to Bill Clinton coming to India to tell us that ‘we got to work together’. The goal was simple. While India wanted US to accept its nuclear status power and remove sanctions, the US wanted India to agree to benchmarks.
The tests changed India’s perception around the globe as Strobe Talbott noted: “The week was no longer normal, India was no longer merely important.” None of this would’ve been feasible without Jaswant Singh.
As veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta noted: “History & historians will find many claimants for a big success. But, Jaswant Singh was India’s first prominent strategic voice to push for a pivot to the West/US.”