Jaswant Singh, a personal remembrance: Recounting a little-known story from the Kargil days

One of Jaswant Singh's finest meetings was with the New York Times editorial board, where members extensively asked about the Indian nuclear programme and why India wasn’t signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He patiently and firmly placed India’s position, writes Sanjoy Hazarika for South Asia Monitor

Sanjoy Hazarika Oct 05, 2020

Jaswant Singh,  a founder of the present-day Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a ministerial colleague and close aide of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was a decent politician and a good human being. I think that, in the many words that have been written about him after his death on September 27, 2020 after suffering a stroke six years ago.  it would be appropriate to share one of the virtually unknown but significant stories which he pivoted and where I had a small role.

The 1999 war with Pakistan had just begun.  The heights of Kargil were being scaled by soldiers from either army as bitter pitched battles and hand to hand combat took place; the much maligned Bofors guns boomed and performed well; air battles and bombings shattered the peace of the Himalaya.  

Meanwhile, intrepid journalists and television teams covering their first major conflict scrambled for news in Jammu and Kashmir, seeking to get as close as possible to the war zone as possible while the government did its best to keep them away. Hundreds of millions of Indians anxiously scanned the news channels  - of which there were few - and newspapers as they participated in the first televised war that the country had seen.

In Delhi, the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), the first of its kind, was meeting with Vajpayee and his top cabinet members as well as the National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, at Hyderabad House, the imposing building near India Gate, where visiting heads of government have been hosted for meetings and banquets by successive prime ministers.   

Members of the NSAB included its chair, K Subrahmanyam, the redoubtable analyst who set up the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analysis (IDSA) (and father of the current Minister of External Affairs (MEA) Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar), former diplomats such as Muchkund Dubey and C V Ranganathan, tough as nails cops like Prakash Singh and K P S Gill, journalists and academics such as B G Verghese, Sanjaya Baru and myself.

The interaction with the prime minister - he listened to all members attentively and wrapped up the meeting with succinct remarks - there was a lunch laid out for the NSAB and various cabinet ministers who had stayed on.  Jaswant Singh, the then external affairs minister, whom I had known since 1983 when he was the fledging BJP’s observer for that ill-fated and bloody Assam elections, called me aside.  In his immensely courteous manner, the minister said that he wished to chat with me soon on an urgent matter, and could I come to his office? 

Meeting with Jaswant Singh

Within a day or two, I was sitting with Jaswant Singh in the sprawling room of the external affairs minister at South Block. There was no one else in the room.  He wanted to discuss an idea with me.  The international media needed to be briefed about the Kargil conflict from India’s perspective, he said, well beyond the daily official briefings which were being done by the affable and competent Raminder Jassal, Joint Secretary (XP or External Publicity). The JS XP has for decades been the official spokesperson of the Government of India, except when he/she decides to go on the background and “off the record”.  

This could happen only if someone who knew the international media could meet them on their own turf, engage directly with them and gave them the kind of background briefings which only a professional journalist and not a government officer, no matter how well informed and well meaning could do.  I knew the international media, Jaswant Singh said, citing my long assignment with the New York Times, could I consider doing this for India at this time as his international media adviser, he asked.

It would be kept out of the public eye, no journalist would know, all Indian missions where I went would be asked to cooperate, I would be given support to set up my own office; I would work and travel independently and report directly to him. And he would report on progress directly to the PM.

I agreed almost unhesitatingly because I knew and respected Jaswant Singh as a man of dignity, who kept his word.  It was an honour to be approached at a critical time especially when there were many other bigger journalists around. 

Strategic outreach 

Within a few hours, I started working the phone lines, faxes, and emails: NYT reaching out to my contacts, old and new, scouring out the big names, developing a strategy that would involve editors and foreign editors, special correspondents focusing on Asia, old India hands, offering special access to the foreign minister and to information that would change their views on the war. 

I traveled to Bonn and London, New York and Paris, briefing Indian ambassadors and diplomats first and then with senior mission staff and my own reaching out to the top correspondents and anchors. I still, remember what a senior British diplomatic correspondent said to me; “For the first time, the Government of India has done something really sensible on an issue as this – they’ve sent one of us who speaks our language and knows what we want”.

I was amazed at the receptiveness of the Western media. I was under no illusion that it was because of my outreach to them but because of immensely newsworthy events that were taking place – a war between two nuclear-armed enemies. I remember one ABC producer at a discussion in Washington asking to my utter surprise. “How can we help” after a colleague from the embassy and I had made a presentation.

We shared the best information and offered special access. I had amazing conversations with top anchors like Peter Jennings – an ABC news star whom one of his colleagues described as a “prime minister of the broadcast world.” We set up a special trip to India with him, we had a story to tell, not one that needed spin doctors and pricey PR firms. The facts were on our side. We weren’t defensive but went on the front foot. 

MEA pushback

There were a couple of times when senior officials of the ministry pushed back – I remember one point of sharp difference was whether Jaswant Singh should do an interview with Tim Sebastian.  At the time, the combative Sebastian was running Hard Talk, one of the toughest and most widely watched interview-based shows in the television world. It could be visceral. If the interviewee didn’t know her/his facts, s/he could be gutted.  

The MEA diplomats were worried, Sir, it’s not a good idea, he’ll ask all sorts of questions.  My response was along the lines of well let him, what do we have to hide.  We prepared for it, it wasn’t the minister’s most brilliant performance and I could see that he was getting irked at the end. But he got through it. 

One of Jaswant Singh's finest meetings was with the New York Times editorial board, where members extensively asked about the Indian nuclear programme and why India wasn’t signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He patiently and firmly placed India’s position.  That was the only meeting where I felt a bit anxious.

Pakistan was outmaneuvered 

But it worked. The media offensive captured the imagination of the press and Pakistan found itself completely outmaneuvered.

It was a short assignment. I did not want it to go on beyond four months and as I wound up, the war had ended, and Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif had been deposed by Gen Pervez Musharraf.  The New York Times came out with a cracker of an editorial on India just after the general elections which returned  Vajpayee and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to power.

“Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India has won an impressive election victory that gives his coalition a chance to survive longer than recent governments in New Delhi … Voters also appear to have been impressed by his confident but restrained handling of the intrusion of Pakistani-backed militants in the disputed state of Kashmir during the summer. Indian forces repulsed the invaders without widening the conflict, while Indian diplomats got the United States and other countries to press Pakistan for the militants' withdrawal”. 

And one savoured its praise for India’s democratic traditions: “As 360 million Indians voted over the last month, the world's largest and most fractious democracy once again set a stirring example for all nations.”

I handed the editorial over to Jaswant Singh, saying I could not have concluded my term a better way. He smiled and in his sonorous baritone, with elegance and grace, thanked and wished me. 

That experience underlined to me that you don’t need a spin doctor or expensive PR agencies if truth and facts are on your side. For we too have served the State.

(The writer, who is an author and specialist on India's Northeast and its neighborhood, is a former reporter for the New York Times and currently International Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). The views expressed are personal)

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