A tribute to Jaswant Singh: The soldier-scholar-politician

To me, Jaswant Singh will remain the most eloquent and scholarly man with great poise, etiquette and deportment. Au revoir, my Minister!

 |  5-minute read |   09-10-2020
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Not even Samuel Huntington, who ventured to write a seminal book — The Soldier and the State — on civil-military relations (CMR) in 1957, would have imagined the power of the combination contained in the title above. He did put together a wide range of possibilities while outlining the theory and politics of CMR. While analysing the import of the soldier and the state, a task that I periodically undertook in my nearly four decades of colour service, it was almost in the last decade of my service that I came across Shri Jaswant Singh.

It was serendipity that gave me the opportunity to observe him from a distance at the Rashtrapati Bhavan grounds where he came to ride the horse once a week. As just a staff officer at Naval Headquarters, I neither had the desire to introduce myself nor did he appear to be in a mood to be disturbed while enjoying his passion without any disturbance. But what was noticeable and somewhat impressive were his impeccable manners and courtesies, not to mention the gait and demeanour while on horseback. A few exchanges of greetings, the famous baritone response with a calm and measured voice gave him a non-existing halo.

In due course of time, I got kicked upstairs in the stiflingly narrow pyramid of promotional avenues available in the Navy. I watched him and Strobe Talbot matching wits and exchanging thoughts on history and geopolitics which ultimately opened the doors for meaningful Indo-US relations. These are not traits of one who has either accidentally made a mark or left footprints in the sands of time. His books reveal the depth of knowledge that he possessed.

main_jaswant-singh_r_100920050757.jpgOne of a kind: Jaswant Singh. (Photo: Reuters)

Then, three significant events occurred. The first was the Kargil episode and the second was George Fernandes being asked to step down temporarily while the reins of Raksha Mantri (RM) or the Defence Minister were handed over to the then External Affairs Minister. The third and memorable incident for me was when Pervez Musharraf offered to visit Delhi-Agra for a summit. These were significant not only historically, but also in the context of my story.

During the Kargil episode, the fact that I was the head of joint operations by protocol seniority, brought me into all the briefings by DGMO to the Cabinet Committee on Security. Jaswant Singh had searching questions on our preparedness for a full-scale war should one happen. Fortunately, the then Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS) late Adm Sushil Kumar had already mobilised the Eastern Fleet to swing to the West. I had to answer most questions pertaining to joint operations. I had the liberty to state my mind.

When the External Affairs Minister (EAM) donned the hat of Minister of Defence in addition, at least on two occasions I was summoned directly to the office of EAM along with CNS. The most soothing entry into a minister’s office was to hear Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven or Mozart playing just at the right volume perhaps with surround setting. All the anxieties were drowned trying to guess the symphony, concerto, piano sonata etc. You floated in with a problem and floated out with an answer — except on one occasion.

I was carried away with my question and went on to state that at the operational level we had no white paper on the type of assistance to be given to Sri Lanka. Most ministers were chary to answer pointed questions as they preferred to operate in the grey zone. We, in the Military, need black or white answers. No shilly-shallying or dilly-dallying. Here was a soldier-scholar-politician who empathised with my situation. In the next 20 minutes, he gave a historic perspective and the sensitive element of politics of the Tamils and Tamil Nadu. He ended with a baritone “Understood?” I walked out cursing Bach as my mind was diverted while the Minister spoke. But the empathy and that he heard me out in the presence of my CNS, appeared to have answered my question.

The EAM/RM introduced a very interesting concept of including a two-star officer from the Armed forces to accompany him for official tours abroad. It is in this context that I was asked to report to his office for a scheduled ministerial-level meeting in Russia. The Sec East who handles Russia did not have a clue on what my role was. Neither did I. I was merely advised that the Minister would task me after he arrived in Moscow. In the few minutes that I had before the reception protocol descended on him, all he told me was that I was to accompany him for the one-on-one meeting with the Russian Prime Minister.

I had the distinction of sitting through the meeting — the contents of which I shall not reveal. Had he been alive, I would have sought his permission to do so. Bottomline was what was I doing there? That evening I asked him if I was expected to record the minutes. He asked me why I thought I was there. I replied that it was an experience on how two matured and well-informed ministers conducted a dialogue on the prevailing geopolitical environment. He smiled and said, “That was the idea”— an exposure to realpolitik. I shall forever be grateful for this opportunity.

Lastly, as preparation for Musharraf’s visit for the summit in Agra, CNS had asked for a military input. I was asked to cover a part of it. My superiors gave me a free hand to state some facts. I started with a Sherlock Holmes story which had a message. As I started my narration, I saw red faces in the audience, including a doubtful look on the EAM’s face. The Prime Minister, as was his wont, never interrupted a speaker but had an expressionless face but with many thoughts in his head.  I was all set for a dressing down from my CNS or the Minister. In the event the essence of the story appeared to have been hoisted. No backlash — at least none known to me!

To me, Jaswant Singh will remain the most eloquent and scholarly man with great poise, etiquette and deportment. In short, compared to the leaders around the world, both in the West and East, he was one of a kind. Au revoir, my Minister!

Also read: Hijacked Logic: As politics over 1999's IC 814 rages now, are we really different today?


Vice Admiral Suresh Bangara Vice Admiral Suresh Bangara @scsbangara

The writer is former Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command.

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