A gentleman politician (1938-2020)

One of the founders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Jaswant Singh was born on 3 January 1938 in Jasol in Barmer District of Rajasthan in a Rajput family. He was an alumnus of the Mayo College and
later continued his education at the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Khadakvasla. After a ten year stint as army officer he plunged headlong into politics in the 1960s as member of the erstwhile Jan Sangh.

Jaswant Singh was also affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) from the 1960s.He was first elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1980 and was either a RS or LS member from 1980-2014 earning the distinction of being one of the longest serving parliamentarians. He was elected four times to the Lok Sabha from Barmer. Jaswant Singh served as the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha from 2004-2009. Among the high watermarks during a long and eventful political career was the Best Parliamentarian Award that was conferred on him in 2001.

Jaswant Singh was among the closest associates of late Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and served as Finance Minister during his short-lived prime ministership. Later, when Vajpayee was the Prime Minister for a five year period, Singh handled the pivotal portfolios of Finance, Defence and External Affairs.  He also served as the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission for a year between 1998 and 1999. Singh was credited with the deft handling of the tensions across the border between India and Pakistan and after the Kargil war he was the chosen representative of PM Vajpayee to convince nations about India’s bona fides. Singh essayed the role admirably earning encomiums from the PM and the cabinet. He had a similar role to play after India’s nuclear test at Pokhran in 1998 and was again the PM’s representative in long drawn talks with the US representative Strobe Talbott.

Singh’s diplomatic skills came in for fulsome praise from Talbott. Singh did full justice to the portfolios he held. One of the thankless jobs was during his tenure as External Affairs minister when he had to escort three dreaded terrorists to Kandahar in Afghanistan to secure the release of 180 passengers hijacked from an Indian Airlines flight. Singh braved opposition criticism that the government had bowed to the demands of the hijackers.

Jaswant Singh was National Democratic Alliance (NDA) choice for Vice President in 2012 but he eventually lost out to Hamid Ansari of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Singh was a scholar, orator and authored several books. Ironically, one of his books ‘Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence’ made laudatory references to Mohammed Ali Jinnah and earned him the party’s wrath. Amidst mounting criticism from within, Singh was expelled from the BJP. His expulsion was later revoked but by then the relations between him and those occupying the party’s top echelons had soured. Singh, denied party ticket from Barmer in 2014, contested as an independent against the party’s official candidate. Singh lost and was expelled yet again.

Jaswant Singh suffered a fall in his residence on 7 August 2014 and slipped into a coma thereafter for a period of six years and passed away on 16  September 2020 at 82. The only leader from Rajasthan to have served in the three vital ministries of Finance, Defence and External Affairs, Singh was regarded as a man of unimpeachable integrity and had friends cutting across party lines. Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid handsome tributes to the departed leader and observed that he served the nation diligently — first as a soldier and later as people’s leader.

C.V. Aravind

C.V. Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.