The Loneliness Of Jaswant Singh

New Delhi, May 17: | Updated: May 18 2003, 05:30am hrs
The distance between North Block and South Block is barely a hundred yards but for Jaswant Singh, it is a long and winding lane, paved with memories of triumph and loss. The sense of loss is particularly poignant right now India has once again offered an olive branch to Pakistan, efforts have been renewed to mend ties with the US post-Iraq, and the summer-time tour of foreign capitals have begun. But the man who was once central to it all now gets only a glimpse from the sidelines through his North Block office window to be precise.

Jaswant Singh is too much the suave cavalry officer to complain about his present job or express nostalgia about the old one. In his sonorous voice, once so familiar to television audiences as he traversed the globe and played a stellar role in drama surrounding Lahore, Kargil, Kandahar and Agra, Singh insists that he takes life as it comes. I have been given a job and responsibility here in this office. And I try to do it as well as I can.

That may well be true but even a few moments here in this office reveals how much the External Affairs portfolio meant to him and how his interests remain wedded to strategic issues and international affairs.

There are no files on his table, no copious reams on VAT and CENVAT and taxation rates. The books piled by his side and filling his book case have little to do with micro or macro economic policy. He is juggling two books at the moment Eric Hobsbawms autobiography Interesting Times (I may not agree with everything he says, but he has such a fine mind, says Singh of the famed Marxist historian) and Bernard Lewis What Went Wrong about the clash between Islam and modernity in the Middle East. And then there is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, that stoic philosopher of ancient Rome who is probably an inspiration for Singhs own deadpan stoicism.

The bookshelf too is choc-a-bloc with tomes on world leaders and world events, Roy Jenkins biography of Churchill and the three-volume set on The Origins of the Cultural Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar (or Roddy as Singh intimately refers to him) finding pride of place.

But if a picture tells a thousand words, it is the photographs stylishly framed and often flamboyantly autographed that hint at a thousand tales. Placed on tables and mantlepiece are scores of pictures Singh with Clinton in one, with Bush in another, with the Pope, and with the King of Spain, with Vladimir Putin and alongside Khatami.

The one he is most fond of perhaps is a black-and-white picture of him and Strobe Talbott, walking side by side, paving the new path of Indo-US friendship that was the highlight of Singhs term in South Block. Talbotts inscription on the photograph says it all A couple of guys on their way to a village - Thanks, Jaswant, for helping me find the way. And just behind that is one of Singh and Madeliene Albright with the Taj Mahal in the backdrop which says, Our efforts made a difference great meetings WOW and this photo what a setting.

Singh, sources close to him maintain, is doing a fine job at North Block and has no regrets. But they also admit that he has been interested in international affairs all his life an interest that he cannot give up simply because he has moved office from across the road. Visitors from abroad (Richard Armitage was the most recent) continue to drop by, MEA officers who served under him still keep in touch, and his long and warm relationship with Atalji makes him privy to strategic moves at the drawing-board stage.

Still, the sources concede, that once in a while, when he takes a break from pre-Budget and post-Budget exercises, you can find him standing by the window in his room, looking wistfully at his old office, quite like Emperor Shahjahan spent his last days gazing at the Taj.

But North Block is no prison and Atalji no Aurangzeb, and Singh who has commanded the coveted DEF ministries (Defence, External Affairs, and Finance) is nowhere near the end of his innings. There is time yet, he may well say, for nostalgia.