Born on 3 January 1938 in village Jasol of Barmer district of Rajasthan, Jaswant Singh lived through perhaps the most turbulent and tumultuous periods of India’s history, encompassing the partition of the country, all the major wars with Pakistan and China, terrorism in all its facets and a rather rough and bumpy political environment.
Born in a clan of warriors, his father was Thakur Sardar Singh Rathore and his mother Kunwar Baisa. An alumnus of Mayo College, Ajmer, and the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla, he was commissioned in the Central India Horse (CIH) in 1957 at the young age of 19 years. Nine years later in 1966, he quit the Army and took up a career in politics, believing that to be the area where he could make a difference.
His political career was defined by his entry into the Jan Sangh, which later went on to become the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He was soon active in the political field and his manifold talents got him a nomination, in 1980, to the Rajya Sabha. He remained a Member of Parliament thereafter till 2014, being nominated to the Upper House a total of five times and winning a seat in the Lok Sabha four times. He thus remained an MP for nine terms—a stupendous achievement, which was but a reflection of his abilities on many fronts.
In May 1996, Jaswant Singh was made the finance minister in the short-lived Vajpayee cabinet. In the second Vajpayee government from March 1998-May 2004, he served as India’s Minister for External Affairs, Defence and Finance at different times. He also served as the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. As the External Affairs Minister, he was instrumental in taking up India’s case for the removal of US sanctions after the nuclear tests in Pokhran. His close personal friendship with Madeline Albright, US Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, helped a great deal in diffusing tensions between the two countries.
But his public life was not without controversies. The Kandahar hijack story was one such, which got him a great deal of flak for the manner in which the entire episode was handled. He fell foul of the BJP, a party of which he was a founder-member when he authored a book, “Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence”. Published in 2009, he praised Jinnah in his book and blamed the partition on Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel.
Denied a ticket for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he broke away from the party and contested as an independent candidate. While he lost the election to the BJP candidate, he came a close second, garnering over 4 lakh votes. Soon thereafter, on 7 August 2014, he suffered a fall in his residence and received a severe head injury which put him in a coma. He never came out of the coma and passed away, six years later, on
27 September 2020 of a cardiac arrest.
An honourable life
His life was exemplary, lived with honour and an uprightness that is so rare today. Gifted with infinite charm and tact, soft-spoken but with a razor-sharp mind, he was a man of many parts. A voracious reader, he had a passion for music—both western and Indian classical. His masterful oratory was not just confined to the English language, but extended to Hindi, Sanskrit and his native dialect, in which he wrote extensively. An erudite scholar, he wrote a number of books, but that is but a small part of the legacy that he leaves behind. He was a statesman, a scholar and a soldier all rolled up in one.
The one and only time that I met him on a one to one basis was at a seminar in Delhi. I was one of the speakers and after the function, over a cup of tea, he sent for me. We spent a few minutes together where he asked me some searching questions and then complimented me for the talk I had given. The utter simplicity and humility of the man was beyond compare. He truly epitomised the concept of an officer and a gentleman in the finest tradition of the Indian Armed Forces.