“We are going to come down on those guys like a ton of bricks,” US President Bill Clinton had thundered soon after the US establishment had got over the shock of not getting a whiff about India’s five nuclear tests in three days at a site 1,200 km away from major Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) facilities.
A month after those tests and Clinton’s dire admonition, Jaswant Singh bravely landed in Washington to engage the US President’s college-mate and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in the first of 14 meetings over the next 30 months in 10 locations on three continents. It finally turned out to be the most intense and prolonged set of Indo-US exchanges ever at a level higher than that of ambassadors.
The jury is still out whether those exchanges in Rome, London, Frankfurt, Moscow, etc., turned around US policy. As per Talbott, they didn’t. The sanctions were lifted not because it was a mistake to impose them but because by then they had passed the point of diminishing returns.
But as his most trenchant critic A G Noorani conceded, that serial dialogue, conducted with not a single paper, file or folder in Jaswant’s hand, lifted Indo-US relations out of the trap of cyclical ebbs and flows. He deployed elements of conciliation and contest to catch the deep and constant undercurrents, enabling the duo to set the foundational basis which then matured into the specifics that we see today.
Jaswant, however, was more than the man of the desert who set out to defend his government’s policies for conducting nuclear tests not more than 100 km from where he was born.
He was the man who intimately knew the story of the cold war through protagonists from both sides of the fence. For, his life-long friends were the famous communist power couple Romesh and Raj Thapar. A person who took a liking for him was P N Haksar, the man who shaped the Indian foreign policy’s sunshine years of the 70s. It is little wonder that he never hid his admiration for Nehru that was also gained from years of deep scholarship.
Apart from the nuclear tests, there were other tumultuous episodes in his stint as Foreign Minister in the Vajpayee government. The seven sleepless nights during the hijack of the Indian Airlines plane, the double crossing when he bravely landed in Kandahar—because “somebody had to go”. And at the end, “there was relief because so much accumulated pain and agony had burst open like a long throbbing carbuncle”.
Fortified by spirited interactions with the framers of India’s security and strategic environment such as K Subrahmanyam, Maj Gen Rajinder Singh Sparrow and Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh, Jaswant was as much at home in discussions of disarmament as he was on regional issues with Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Though this Rathore from the deserts is best remembered for telling the world not to negotiate with him on nuclear issues “as if with a gun to my temple”, his interactions and experiences straddled a range of other issues.
But in the end, Jaswant Singh walked the path mentioned in the Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi which he so loved: “Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause; The noblest lives and noblest dies who makes and keeps his self-made laws.”