Jaswant Singh: The Last Liberal Conservative

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.

Jaswant Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The last of the Liberal Conservatives. Source: Indiacontent.in

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.

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I am an Indian professional based in London. I am interested in history, philosophy and politics, especially that of the Indian subcontinent.

8 thoughts on “Jaswant Singh: The Last Liberal Conservative”

  1. below are my current thoughts not very deep i must say at the start.
    Jay Panda yes; Not Fadanvis IMO – Fadanvis is a hardcore RSS man unlike Jaswant Sinha – The liberal qualities of Fadanvis are owing to the Liberalish polity of Maharashtra I guess. Fadanvis could be categorized as a liberal Hindutvavadi like Gadkari, but not conservative in the sense of the word I guess. Congress party had some of these liberal conservatives but even they are getting purged from the party I feel – Likes of Pranav Mukherjee or even to an extent Kamal nath.

    Maybe on the intellectual side, Bibek Debroy would be a liberal-conservative?

    1. I think Bibek Debroy would qualify, although he isn’t a politician and I was more focused on politicians. Amongst public figures, someone like Hindol Sengupta is also quite interesting. As regards Fadnavis, being part of the RSS is not necessarily a disqualification. Vajpayee was in the RSS. I think temperamentally Fadnavis probably has the potential to be a Liberal Conservative, but not sure if he has enough intellectual conviction. Gadkari and Rajnath are two others who fall in a similar bucket. Interestingly both are holdouts from the Vajpayee era. I’m not sure where someone like S. Jaishankar would fall. I still see him as a bureaucrat rather than a politician, so don’t consider him relevant for this sort of analysis.

    2. “Fadanvis could be categorized as a liberal Hindutvavadi like Gadkari,”

      TBH Considering how misogynist our politics is, his public support for his wife to have an active career , would put some of the ‘liberal’ Congress folks to shame .

      Debroy i think is just a non left guy. And since back in the day, everyone not on the left used to be bunch together so he just became liberal conservative (?)

  2. “Liberal Conservative” is an oxymoron. It’s basically a moderate liberal. Yashwant, from everything I have read about him, seemed like genuinely gentle soul. A rare thing in politics. But let’s be clear about the terminology.

    More generally, it seems to me that NDA-I had the highest concentration of highly gifted people aside from the 1991 cabinet under Narasimha Rao. Arun Shourie, Yashwant Sinha and of course Ajay Shah. These were cosmopolitan yet moderate liberals who essentially had a ‘secular right’ world view. I wonder if we’d ever get such a cabinet in India ever again.

    I, for one, am not mourning their loss of influence. If they were successful, you’d get a neoliberal, highly westernised India with just the outside trappings of Indic civilisation but an empty core.

    1. Liberal conservative is different from a classical liberal is different from a left liberal. Vajpayee and Rajaji were liberal conservatives. Dadabhai Naoroji, Minoo Masani and Raghuram Rajan were/are classical liberals. Nehru and Shashi Tharoor are left liberals.
      All of the above are similar (“liberal”) in the sense that they share a respect for British-style parliamentary liberal democracy. However, it is only the first category who want a role for “Indic” values in the public sphere. The first and second categories are generally pro free market, which distinguishes them from the left-liberals (aka Nehruvians in the Indian context).

      Also who is Ajay Shah?

  3. I think Shekhar Gupta put it best. Jaswant oversaw of the BJP into a less liberal and more nativist party, AND grew stronger politically as a result of that.

    Thats the lesson for all of us

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