Major Jaswant Singh (1938-2020), a former Indian army officer and distinguished parliamentarian and politician passed away recently. He served high office in the first BJP/NDA regime (1998-2004) and was, variously, the Defence, External Affairs and Finance Minister. Perhaps his most enduring legacy was his deft handling of India’s foreign policy in the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests in 1998. Most famously, his dialogues with the US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott helped cement Indo-US ties in the aftermath of the Cold War era.
There are some excellent obituaries- from allies, critics and rivals alike- which give us a good sense of the man and his persona. For me, the obituary that really struck a chord was the one by the senior Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta in his Cut the Clutter show. It is worth quoting him verbatim:
“Jaswant Singh was the last Indian liberal conservative… A conservative in the sense that he brought in a Hindu sensibility, a love for Indian culture. But liberal enough…to embrace everybody… and not interfere in anybody’s way of life and allow a healthy debate… he would have fitted the Swatantra Party very well and would have brought to it the one thing it seemed to lack in the 1950s and 60s: a strong appeal to nationalism”.
With Singh’s passing, it does feel that the last vestiges of the Vajpayee era are fading away. In his obituary for Singh, the journalist Saeed Naqvi, by no means a cheerleader for the BJP says that “Vajpayee’s was a cabinet of women and gentlemen, a few rotten apples notwithstanding.” Old fashioned virtues of moderation, decency and honour were valued by Vajpayee, and there was no one who epitomised old school more than Jaswant Singh. Through his career as a soldier and public servant and his sense of noblesse oblige, this thoroughbred Rajput proved to be a worthy Kshatriya by virtue of his karma. In that, he was not alone. Dr. Karan Singh of the Dogra dynasty of Jammu & Kashmir and Captain Amrinder Singh of the House of Patiala are others of his generation who come to mind, albeit with different political ideologies.
As a self-avowed liberal conservative, it is hard to not feel a tinge of sadness at this. One got the sense that men like Vajpayee and Singh were able to balance tradition and modernity: adept at blending the Burkean with the Vedantic, and equally well versed in the Bhagavad Gita and the Indian Constitution.
I could name half a dozen prominent BJP politicians in the Vajpayee years who could have identified as liberal conservatives. I struggle to name any noteworthy ones in the Modi-Shah BJP. The closest that comes to mind is the Odisha politician Baijayant Panda, but he is not prominent or important enough in the party. Others such as the former Maharastra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis or the current Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan had the potential to tailor their politics in this direction with the right backing and support. Unfortunately the signal from the leadership is that chest-thumping nationalism and ideological purity counts for more than moderation and compromise. Unlike a Jaswant Singh, these politicians do not have the intellectual courage or independence of spirt to breach the party line and chart their own path. It is a sad indictment on Indian politics, one that would have undoubtedly greatly depressed Jaswant Singh.