Jaswant, an upright politician and trusted associate of Vajpayee
New Delhi: An army officer-turned-politician, Jaswant Singh, a founding member of the BJP, was a trusted associate of Atal Behari Vajpayee and established a reputation of being his own man with moderate political views.
A self-described liberal democrat with an aristocratic background, 82-year-old Jaswant, who died on Sunday, had the rare privilege of handling three key portfolios in the Union Cabinet–Defence, External Affairs and Finance, all during the tenures of Prime Minister Vajpayee (1998-2004).
But it was the hijack crisis in December 1999 which dealt a body blow to his image for escorting three hardcore militants in an official aircraft to Kandahar in Afghanistan. Jaswant was the then External Affairs minister.
The three militants including Maulana Masood Azhar, who later founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), were released by India in exchange for the release of more than 150 passengers and crew from the hijacked Indian Airlines plane(IC 814). The terrorists had killed one passenger.
No stranger to controversy, Jaswant often faced ridicule and criticism for personally escorting the militants to end the eight-day-old hijack crisis–an episode that marked one of the low points in the six-year BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rule from 1998.
An upright politician, Jaswant, who often sports his trademark shoulder-flapped shirts, enjoyed a lot of clout during Vajpayee’s rule. Jaswant was also dubbed as Vajpayee’s Hanuman as the two maintained an extraordinary bond.
During Vajpayee’s tenure, he was there as an indispensable insider, witness to every action that had an impact on history: Pokhran-II (nuclear tests in 1998), the 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, the Indo-Pak Agra Summit in 2001, intense engagement with the US on nuclear issues besides the Kandahar hijack.
Right from the start, the top BJP leadership took a liking to Jaswant for he deliberated in English with authority, something not many in the party could do.
With his education and army background, Jaswant stood out inside what was dubbed as a party of the ‘middle-class’. And that deep baritone voice, with the slightest hint of a tremble completes the persona that he so consciously presents.
A man of few words, subtle nuances, but most importantly, an aficionado of liberalization to the core, the suave politician, whose long political career has seen several ups and downs, had first served as finance minister in the short-lived 13-day government of Vajpayee in May 1996.
Known for his self deprecating humour and who exuded style combined with a powerful gravitas, Jaswant during a Parliament debate after Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee presented his budget in July 2009 said the amount of tax relief given for senior citizens was not enough for him to buy even a “bottle of whisky”.
“Kick the bottle”, was the advice of Mukherjee.
Jaswant, who does not have a RSS background, was expelled twice from the BJP–once in 2009 for his praise of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the second time in 2014. He was readmitted in 2010 but expelled again after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls for defying the party directive to withdraw his candidature as an Independent from Barmer in Rajasthan. He, however, lost the elections.
Jaswant left the Army in a huff in 1965 after serving for eight years.
Asked for the reason for quitting as Major, he said he wanted to join politics.