A soldier, diplomat, politician, mentor

Published in The Hindu on 29th of September, 2020

I first met Jaswant Singh in the days following India’s nuclear tests on 11 and 13 May 1998. As the MEA official dealing with nuclear issues, I was to draft PM Vajpayee’s address to parliament due to open on 27 May while handling the flood of communications with our Embassies and outreach with Delhi-based Embassies and media.

Every few days, Vajpayee would convene a meeting to take stock of the international fallout and Jaswant Singh, then Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, was a permanent invitee. As the draft speech and the nuclear policy paper went back and forth, Vajpayee’s trust and regard for him soon became evident. Jaswant Singh had spent under a decade in the army but clearly had studied and thought deeply about India’s security dilemmas and challenges. He also had a vision of 21 st -century India that Vajpayee shared. Hardly surprising, then, that the following month, he was entrusted with the responsibility of opening dialogue with the USA, a daunting task because the Clinton administration had come down heavily on India, taking the lead in the UN Security Council in drafting a highly critical resolution and imposing sanctions.

Bill Clinton had originally planned a visit to India in early 1998, postponed to late 1998 because of the elections that brought the Vajpayee government to power. The nuclear tests left the US administration stunned and embarrassed. Jaswant Singh was visiting New York for a UN meeting in early June; a message was conveyed to the White House that he would be available to come to
Washington for talks. While he was not Foreign Minister, he held cabinet rank as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was travelling, so it was appropriate that Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott (who would be acting Secretary) could engage the visitor.

And thus began the dialogue between India and the USA, an engagement that is best described as the most intense, the most inconclusive and yet, the most productive. After 16 meetings between June ’98 and September 2000 in seven cities, the tide turned with the highly successful Clinton visit in March 2000 and Vajpayee’s return visit in September when Clinton hosted his largest state dinner at the White House. From “estranged democracies”, India and the US became “natural partners for the 21st century”. I was privileged to be a part of the team and consider it a masterclass in diplomatic negotiations.

The US position was guided by progress on five benchmarks for India that were also part of the UN Security Council resolution – sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that had been concluded in 1996; join the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty negotiations being pushed in Geneva; accept a freeze on developing nuclear arsenal; tighten export controls on sensitive materials and technologies; and engage in dialogue to reduce tensions with Pakistan.

Jaswant Singh took Vajpayee’s speech and the nuclear policy paper tabled in parliament as his reference frame. He elaborated on India’s security concerns, elements of credible minimum deterrence as evidence of India’s restraint, adoption of a no-first-use use policy to ensure stability, voluntary declaration of a moratorium on further nuclear testing and India’s continuing commitment to responsible non-proliferation despite not being party to the NPT.

While both agreed that neither was looking for short cuts, Strobe emphasised compliance with the benchmarks while Jaswant focussed on securing better appreciation of India’s security compulsions that would compel any democratic government to do what India had.

Ramrod straight, beetle-browed, wearing his trademark army-style khaki bush shirt, Jaswant Singh’s most distinctive feature was his resonant baritone that he used equally skilfully, to make a short, decisive point and close a discussion or to spin long, complex sentences to stymie an inquisitive journalist or leave his interlocutor pondering.

Another hallmark was his recourse to homespun aphorisms. In the early days of his dialogue with Strobe, Jaswant cited an old saying, “There is merit in asking for directions only if we know the village we are going to”. As Strobe later acknowledged, “Jaswant’s strategy was more directional than destinational” and laid the grounds for the lifting of sanctions, introducing the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership leading to the 2008 civilian nuclear deal.

On another occasion in Manila in July 1998, we had our first meeting since the tests with the Chinese on the margins of the ASEAN Regional Forum. The meeting began frostily, with Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan blaming India for itsprovocative actions. He added, “There is an old Chinese saying – he who ties a knot must untie the knot”. Jaswant arched his eyebrows and said, “In my
village in Rajasthan, we too have a saying – it takes two hands to untie a knot”.

The meeting with Tang, scheduled to last for 20 minutes lasted an hour. Before the end of the year, I was in Beijing to lay the ground for a new security dialogue between the two countries.

Rest in peace, valiant soldier, for you did your country proud.

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