28 October 2006

"A Call to Honour: in service of emergent India" by Jaswant Singh

Jaswant Singh is a solider turned Statesman inspired by another soldier turned Statesman: Charles de Gaulle. No wonder the book’s title mimics de Gaulle’s war memoir “The call to honour”.

The first paragraph is erudite; scholastic and a put off. After that the book gets very warm, inviting and enjoyable.

Early days in Jasol and Khuri are described in a vivid Arundathi Roy style. The sense of freedom and joy a young bride (Jaswant's mother) feels when traveling from her in law’s place to her parent’s place; the mild anxiety of a grandfather to get his weekly fix of opium; the anguish of a grandfather whose peace and prosperity is challenged by a mindless partition in 1947 are all conveyed in a style that would win attention.

Jaswant Singh does not waste your time. He moves fast forward from his younger days in Jasol and Khuri to becoming a Minister in Vajpayee’s cabinet.

The reader gets a first person’s account of

(a) India’s explosion of nuclear devices; the philosophy behind the bomb; and the management of the impact the explosion had in India’s relationship with US, G8, China and Pakistan
(b) Blow hot blow cold relationship with Pakistan where people are courteous to each other in person and vitriolic in their public postures
(c) The Kargil war in 1999 and the Military stand off with Pakistan in 2001
(d) The Kandahar hijack incident
(e) Building a relationship with US that is independent of US relationship with Pakistan and
(f) Building a relationship with China.

One gets the comfort that politics is not all that bad in New Delhi:

(a) R Venkatraman, Minister of Defence in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, takes into confidence Jaswant Singh in the Opposition benches of the cabinet’s decision to explode nuclear devices in 1980 (though the explosion was cancelled in the last minute by Indira Gandhi)

(b) Prime Minister Narasimha Rao while transitioning Government to Prime Minister Vajpayee says “I wanted to explode these devices but could not. Now it is up to you”.

Both incidents point to a deep respect for other players in politics and a willingness to put India ahead of competitive advantage in politics.

Jaswant Singh too displays this maturity. He has strong criticisms against Congress party and Jawaharlal Nehru. However these criticisms seem to stem from anguish and not hatred; does not reduce the respect a reader may have for Congress or Nehru.

The book has some disappointments. Jaswant Singh does not talk about Ayodhya incident or Godhra incident in great detail. He does not talk about divisive politics between Vajpayee and Advani. Or the Tehelka scandal and how his party tried to stifle an investigative reporter. They too were part of India’s history when Jaswant Singh was in the ring and the reader would have had a more balanced understanding of Jaswant’s time.

All said, an outstanding book by an outstanding son of India who served his country well.

His grandfather who told him to “Go to Delhi and tell them that this (partition of India and Pakistan) was wrong” would be very proud of Jaswant Singh.

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