New Delhi: Former Union minister Jaswant Singh, one of the founding members of the BJP and a close associate of ex-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, died here on Sunday following a long spell of illness. He was 82.
President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union ministers and top leaders from across the political spectrum paid rich tributes to Singh, recalling his contribution in handling crucial portfolios of finance, defence and external affairs.
Singh, a former Army officer, had a fall at his home in August 2014 and was admitted to the Army Research and Referral Hospital. He was in a coma for a long time and had been in and out of the hospital since then. He was admitted again in June this year.
“It is with profound grief that we inform about the sad demise of Hon’ble Major Jaswant Singh (Retd), former Cabinet Minister at 0655 hours on 27 September 2020,” the hospital said in a statement. Despite the best efforts of specialists to resuscitate him, he could not be revived and passed away, it added.
Singh was cremated at his farmhouse in Rajasthan’s Jodhpur on Sunday evening. His son Manvendra Singh lit the funeral pyre amid chanting of Vedic mantras.
The President said the demise of the “veteran soldier, outstanding parliamentarian, exceptional leader and intellectual” was distressing. “He combined many difficult roles with ease and equanimity. My heartfelt condolences to his family and friends,” he said.
Modi said that Singh served India diligently and will be remembered for his unique perspective on matters of politics and society. The Prime Minister later spoke to Singh’s son Manvendra to convey his condolences. True to his nature, Jaswant Singh fought his illness with immense courage for the last six years, Modi said.
In his eclectic career, Singh donned many hats – army officer, author, Union minister – but his handling of the Kandahar hijack crisis as the then external affairs minister in 1999 was one that looms large.
Singh, considered close to Vajpayee and veteran leader L K Advani, was one of India’s rare politicians to have held the portfolios of defence, external affairs, finance and the post of the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, in BJP governments under Vajpayee.
In a statement, Advani described Singh as one of his closest colleagues and a dear friend. He said Singh was an “outstanding parliamentarian, astute diplomat, great administrator, and above all, a patriot.”
Advani noted that a “very special bond was formed between Atal ji, Jaswant ji and myself” while handling tenacious issues during those six years (1998-2004) in power. “As a person, Jaswant ji was a true gentleman and will be remembered as a soft-spoken, erudite and warm-hearted person. He was known for his sharp, analytical mind and was respected by people across the political spectrum,” Advani said.
Born on January 3, 1938 in village Jasol in Barmer district, Singh served the Indian Army in the 1950s and 60s. He resigned his commission to pursue a political career and had a distinguished tenure in Parliament being a member of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha multiple times.
Singh, who commanded attention with his measured words spoken in a rich baritone, had been associated with the BJP since its foundation in 1980. He was twice expelled from the party, the first time in 2009 after his book ‘Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence’ was published. He came back into the party fold in 2010 but faced a second expulsion in 2014 when he defied party orders and contested from Barmer as an Independent after being denied a ticket.
Though there were several highs and lows in his political career, his role and decision-making in the Kandahar hijacking has been the subject of much debate and dissection. In a book, Singh, while talking about the IC 814 flight that was hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar in Afghanistan on Christmas eve in 1999 with over 150 passengers and crew on board, said it was “most demanding and emotionally a most draining period” of his life. Singh had accompanied the three released terrorists, including Jaish-e-Mohammed head Masood Azhar, on a flight to Kandahar for a hostage swap deal with the hijackers.
Singh had recounted in his book how the hijacking had taken place about an hour after he had become a proud grandfather to a baby girl, and that it was not an easy decision to agree to swap the terrorists. He said he was opposed to any compromise to start with but slowly began to change as time passed.