Dis­il­lu­sioned with In­dia’s pa­thetic record in na­tional se­cu­rity, Jaswant Singh Of­fers a new geostrate­gic vi­sion for the coun­try in his new book

India Today - - LEISURE - By Bharat Kar­nad

What is his­tory?” asked Ed­ward Hal­let Carr, the English his­to­rian, in 1961, trig­ger­ing a de­bate that still res­onates in aca­demic cir­cles be­tween the rel­a­tivists who be­lieve that all his­tory is vir­tu­ally fab­ri­ca­tion and the em­piri­cists who think there are ir­refutable facts to con­tend with. Sid­ing with the lat­ter, Carr held that there’s such a thing as “ob­jec­tive his­tor­i­cal truth” whose view was charged with im­pos­ing a nar­ra­tive. With com­pet­ing his­to­ries, how­ever, “nar­ra­tional im­po­si­tion” be­longs to those who are first out with an au­thor­i­ta­tive take.

This bit of his­to­ri­og­ra­phy came to mind as I read the lat­est of­fer­ing by Jaswant Singh, un­doubt­edly the most cere­bral of our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, as did a con­ver­sa­tion I had with him soon af­ter the May 2004 elec­tions. Jaswant told me then that he and Strobe Tal­bott, for­mer US deputy sec­re­tary of state, would be col­lab­o­rat­ing on a book on the “strate­gic di­a­logue” they had con­ducted over sev­eral years. I urged him not to wait for Tal­bott, a pro­fes­sional writer who can turn out a book in a trice, but to pub­lish his ac­count as “first draft of his­tory” as quickly as pos­si­ble. That way, I said, his would be the dom­i­nant dis­course that Tal­bott and any­body else would have to re­act and re­spond to. Jaswant put store by Tal­bott’s prom­ise; Tal­bott mean­while pro­duced En­gag­ing

In­dia: Diplo­macy, Democ­racy, And the Bomb by Septem­ber of that year, in which Jaswant comes out sound­ing smug and fop­pish.

As re­gards his in­ter­ac­tion with Tal­bott, Jaswant says un-il­lu­mi­nat­ingly in the “Epi­logue” that he was “dis­con­certed” by the Amer­i­can’s em­pha­sis on non-pro­lif­er­a­tion rather than the me­chan­ics of forg­ing good re­la­tions. But Wash­ing­ton had made clear its in­ten­tion to cap In­dia’s weapons ca­pa­bil­ity be­low the cred­i­ble ther­monu­clear level in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the 1998 tests. Hence, Jaswant’s per­plex­ity with the “al­tered or­der of... pri­or­i­ti­za­tion” sug­gests Wash­ing­ton had ac­cepted New Delhi’s frame­work only to ini­ti­ate the di­a­logue. In the ab­sence of de­tails, such as the dis­cus­sions on the ne­go­ti­a­tion strat­egy and tac­tics within the Min­istry of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs ( MEA) he headed, and be­tween him and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Bra­jesh Mishra, es­pe­cially on the fall­back po­si­tions, the ques­tion arises: Why was the di­a­logue per­sisted with when Tal­bott had up­ended the agreed agenda in the ini­tial stages it­self?

This book is less a mem­oir than ru­mi­na­tion by Jaswant on the na­ture of wars, near-wars, and other na­tional se­cu­rity crises faced by the coun­try in the last sixty-five odd years, and why the In­dian gov­ern­ment acted in most of them with char­ac­ter­is­tic con­fu­sion about ways, means, and ends. He sets up the con­text stim­u­lat­ingly by plac­ing New Delhi’s search for strate­gic au­ton­omy in a mi­lieu in which In­dia is at “the epi­cen­tre of four col­lapsed em­pires”––Qing, Ot­toman, Bri­tish and Soviet, and “trapped be­tween four lines”––Du­rand, McMa­hon, Line of Con­trol, and Line of Ac­tual Con­trol, lead­ing to its “strate­gic con­fine­ment”. This is a stun­ningly orig­i­nal in­ter­pre­ta­tion that his chap­ters on the 1947, 1962, 1965, and 1971 con­flicts and, what Jaswant calls “the de­struc­tive decades” of Indira Gandhi’s rule, nar­ra­tives stitched to­gether from pub­lished sources, par­tially sup­port.

Iron­i­cally, it is in his con­sid­er­a­tion of the BJP coali­tion gov­ern­ment’s record that he founders. If Jaswant had dis­closed what re­ally tran­spired at the apex level of gov­ern­ment with re­spect to the Kargil bor­der war, hi­jack­ing of Flight IC 814 to Kandahar, at­tack on Par­lia­ment, and Op­er­a­tion


Parakram, and had he de­con­structed the even­tual de­ci­sions in terms of bu­reau­cratic pol­i­tics and the sto­ried clashes he had on pol­icy con­tent and choices with Mishra, who dom­i­nated the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice (and the rest of the gov­ern­ment), it would have fleshed out his­tory of that pe­riod and shone a light on the dark and per­son­alised path­ways by which In­dia’s na­tional se­cu­rity poli­cies ac­tu­ally get made. Maybe he will di­late on th­ese as­pects in his next book.

For the reader, how­ever, the mys­tery deep­ens on many counts. How and why was the In­dian Air­lines plane al­lowed to take off from Am­rit­sar when—and this Jaswant doesn’t men­tion—the pre­vi­ous year a multi-agency ex­er­cise (“Sour Grapes”) was prac­tised to pre­vent such hi­jack­ing by sim­ply mov­ing a large truck in front of the plane with com­mando ac­tion to fol­low? Jaswant’s de­scrib­ing his tele­phonic or­der to not “let the f****g air­craft leave” doesn’t help, be­cause it left any­way. Or why an im­me­di­ate puni­tive re­tal­ia­tory air strike on ter­ror­ist train­ing camps and sup­ply de­pots in Pak­istanoc­cu­pied Kash­mir in re­sponse to the at­tack on Par­lia­ment was dis­carded in favour of the largely fu­tile and waste­ful “gen­eral mo­bil­i­sa­tion” for war that re­lied on US pres­sure to have ef­fect?

Jaswant seems in­con­sis­tent on some is­sues. For in­stance, he ex­co­ri­ates pol­icy crafted un­der pub­lic pres­sure but jus­ti­fies ne­go­ti­a­tions with the hi­jack­ers un­der­taken chiefly be­cause of the hys­ter­i­cal demon­stra­tions un­der tele­vi­sion glare out­side 7 Race Course Road; and pleads for “re­straint as a strate­gic as­set” (with re­spect to Pak­istanas­sisted ter­ror­ist ac­tions) with­out defin­ing the lim­its of re­straint. He has sur­pris­ing things to say on nu­clear mat­ters, among them, that the 1998 nu­clear tests were “against nu­clear apartheid” (rather than to beat the Com­pre­hen­sive Test Ban Treaty dead­line and achieve de­ter­rence with China), tac­ti­cal nu­clear weapons are “illogical”, and that “a for­mally adopted nu­clear doc­trine” is ab­sent. His oft-used metaphor of the sub­con­ti­nen­tal states emerg­ing from the “same womb” col­lides with his be­lief that nu­clear weapons use be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan is pos­si­ble, when the fact is that ow­ing pre­cisely to the or­ganic links be­tween th­ese so­ci­eties a war of an­ni­hi­la­tion was not po­lit­i­cally fea­si­ble in the past us­ing con­ven­tional mil­i­tary means; so, how likely is it in the fu­ture with nu­clear weapons? With his seem­ingly anti-nu­clear slant, more­over, he courts dan­ger of be­com­ing a poster boy for the nu­clear Never-Never Land!

Even so, this book delves into dif­fi­cult is­sues of war and peace, and spawns a new geostrate­gic per­spec­tive on In­dian pol­icy im­per­a­tives, tes­ti­fy­ing to Jaswant Singh’s in­tel­lec­tual fe­cun­dity and­ca­pac­ity for high­value for­ays into the over-wrought world of na­tional se­cu­rity.


by Jaswant Singh Rupa Price: RS 595 Pages: 292

BE­TWEEN THE COV­ERS This book is less a mem­oir than ru­mi­na­tion by the au­thor on the na­ture of wars, near-wars and other na­tional se­cu­rity crises faced by In­dia in the last sixty-five odd years, and why the In­dian gov­ern­ment acted in most of them with char­ac­ter­is­tic con­fu­sion

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