25 July 2006

A Call to Honour: Not exactly total recall

Jaswant Singh provides a partial account of a key period in Indian diplomacy. He may have been answering a call to honour but there are clearly events and decisions that are not an honour to recall.

25 July 2006
The Hindu

Not exactly total recall
A CALL TO HONOUR — In Service of Emergent India: Jaswant Singh; Rupa & Co., 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj,New Delhi-110002. Rs. 495.

Unique among Indian politicians, Jaswant Singh has had the fortune of holding four key portfolios during a period when the country had to confront some of its most complex challenges on the international front. First as Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission and later as Minister for External Affairs, Defence and then Finance, Singh was called upon to firefight India's way out of a number of crises. Some of these, like the sanctions following the Pokran-II nuclear tests of 1998, were self-induced, but others like the Kargil war, the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar and the terrorist attack on India's Parliament in 2001 were thrust upon an unsuspecting nation by others.

The six years Jaswant shuttled between South and North Block also saw the deployment of American military might in Afghanistan following 9/11 and the cataclysmic invasion and destruction of Iraq by the U.S., events which have irrevocably altered the security environment in India's neighbourhood.

Negotiating India's way through these treacherous challenges is precisely the "call to honour" the author refers to in the title of his book but the story he tells is a partial one. Both lay readers looking for "revelations" and scholars interested in India's foreign policy are likely to find his account fascinating and infuriating in equal measure. The book adds interesting details to certain events which are already very well known — like the Lahore summit or Kargil — but precious little to those which are opaque. By the time she or he turns the last page, a diligent reader will have learnt as much if not more about Jaswant Singh the man — his origins, worldview and even linguistic foibles — as about the crucial events in which he was often the star performer.

At one level, this is hardly surprising of a political memoir. If Jaswant and his Government acquitted themselves well in the aftermath of Pokhran-II and in Kargil, the record is less flattering elsewhere. There was a call to honour but there are also events and decisions that are not an honour to recall. Perhaps this accounts for Singh's somewhat incomplete treatment of the Kandahar hijacking, the Operation Parakram fiasco following the attack on Parliament and the blanking out of the dangerous debate within the Vajpayee Government on sending Indian troops to help enforce the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

A fuller, less restrained account of these years would have enriched the book immeasurably. It might also have helped Jaswant build a better case for his endeavours, even when describing such disasters as the IC-814 hijacking, which ended with him flying out to Kandahar accompanied by three terrorists. Singh provides us no details of the arguments made within government at the time, the weighing of pros and cons, no analysis of how India allowed the plane to leave Amritsar airport, no pointers for how to deal with such a crisis again. Those details he does provide differ in some respects from other published accounts, such as that of G. Parthasarathy, who was India's High Commissioner in Pakistan during the hijacking (Diplomatic Divide, Roli Books, 1994).

At variance

If Jaswant Singh can take the liberty of publishing lengthy extracts from a confidential cable sent by A.R. Ghanshyam on the aftermath of the hijacking, he might equally have made public some other cables sent from the Indian mission in Islamabad which would help to reconstruct a fuller picture of the options available to India at the time. Perhaps that picture might not paint such a flattering image.

On the Agra summit too, Singh's version is at variance with other detailed accounts published in recent years.

A.G. Noorani reproduced the portion of the scuttled draft agreement with Jaswant's handwriting in Frontline in 2005. This belies the tendentious claim — reiterated yet again in this book — that all Singh did in that draft was to correct his Pakistani counterpart's "Punjabi English". Noorani's account suggests that the major textual differences on Kashmir and terrorism had been overcome at Agra. He has yet to be refuted by anyone.

On other issues, Jaswant is honest enough to admit when his Government made a mistake. For example, he writes that it was a blunder to cite the China threat as the proximate cause for the Pokhran-II tests. This figured prominently in the letter Vajpayee wrote to President Bill Clinton, whose administration promptly leaked the same to the New York Times. Publication of the letter — which is said to have been drafted by Brajesh Mishra — unnecessarily infuriated the Chinese, Singh acknowledges. He also reproduces the letter, thereby providing the first official Indian acknowledgement of its authenticity in all these years.


One subject where Jaswant has been reasonably frank is on Operation Parakram, where he reveals that he had doubts about the strategy pursued by the Vajpayee Government following the terrorist attack on Parliament. "The nation clamoured for immediate retaliatory action. I was not sure if that was what our response ought to be. But I was in a minority." Jaswant also reveals that after the terrorist attack on the army barracks in Kaluchak in May 2002, "the Army boiled with revengeful anger and was (almost rebelliously) bent upon retaliation."

He said that he himself counselled restraint because to retaliate would have been to fall into a classical military trap: "deliberate provocation launched for inviting a predictable retaliation; thus both time and place being of the adversary's choice."

Interestingly, when asked by a senior MEA official what India's aims were during the standoff, Jaswant identifies, "to contain the national mood of `teach Pakistan a lesson'," as one of them. Of all the challenges he faced during this time, Jaswant says, "the internal was the most taxing for it involved carrying conviction with colleagues... An adjunct of this was to carry the three service chiefs... with me, and for getting them to recognise `restraint' (in that context) as a strategic asset, for avoiding conflict. Again, this was not easy. The chiefs so wanted a chance, 'to have a crack', as the military would put it — I had not only to persuade but also to convince them otherwise." One gets the feeling Jaswant Singh is itching to convey rather more than he has in this book.

Though A Call to Honour is essentially about foreign policy, Jaswant Singh feels compelled to mount a shabby defence of the BJP's "cultural nationalism." But though he chooses his words carefully, especially on the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat killings of 2002, the mask of reasonableness occasionally slips. On page 89 he asserts, "There is only one culture in India. It is Indian, thus Hindu or Bharatiya — choose what name you will."

On the subject of communalism and the Partition, Jaswant traces the roots of Pakistan to Hali and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan but is unwilling to point out that the first use of the phrase "two nation theory" was made by V.D. Savarkar, a man the Vajpayee Government chose to honour by unveiling his portrait in Parliament House.

Current concerns

It is on certain substantive issues of current international concern that his book is something of a revelation.

In his concluding chapter, he makes a well-reasoned argument against the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emption and preventive war. He also stresses that there is no way India should even think about emulating such an approach in its own fight against terrorism. Though his account of the lengthy negotiations with Strobe Talbott following Pokhran-II is nowhere near as detailed as the latter's own account (Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb, Viking 2005), Jaswant Singh is honest enough to accept that the July 18, 2005-March 2, 2006 India-U.S. agreements on civil nuclear cooperation are the logical culmination of efforts he had himself once led.

At the same time, he warns against the loss of India's strategic autonomy that the deal might entail. Jaswant points out how in the "arc of instability" around India stretching from Pakistan to a "post-Sharon, post-Abu Mazen Israel and Palestine," New Delhi does not really have much influence. "Currently, the principal forces that influence the situation in our neighbourhood are all extra-regional. Imperialism of the colonial variety is gone but its successor certainly lives, whether through the U.S. presence in Pakistan, Nato in Afghanistan, the Americans entangled in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon or now Iran."

As Foreign Minister, Jaswant offered the U.S. the use of Indian military facilities following 9/11 and as Finance Minister he is reported to have not been averse to India sending troops to Iraq. Now he is hinting that India and the United States have vastly different strategic interests in Asia. On this point, at least, he is certainly right. He has put his finger on a key problem that will haunt Indian foreign policy-makers in years to come.

For reasons of space, I deleted the following paragraph from the version which appeared in The Hindu:

There is one final though minor point that needs to be made, about the language. During his tenure as external affairs minister, Singh achieved a certain degree of notoriety for the floridness of his spoken English. Unfortunately, there are many passages in the book -- hideous and orotund -- which reflect this penchant for verbal circumlocution. In the first chapter itself, the author speaks of a "spatial recreation of past events that reappear randomly but in all their vivid, unfragmented entirety". His grand-daughter, born even as the crisis of IC-814 was emerging, is described as a "mutedly mewing baby". One wishes the editors at Rupa had made more use of their blue pencil.

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