Opinion

Op-ed: Jaswant Singh, BJP's odd one out

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(Swapan Dasgupta is a Delhi-based political commentator with avowedly right-wing inclinations)

What surprised me about last week's kerfuffle over Jaswant Singh was not so much that he failed to be included in the BJP's list of candidates but that he has survived in politics for as long as he has.

In every respect, the patrician from Barmer, who has been in political life ever since he entered the Rajya Sabha in 1982, was an oddity. I recall first meeting him at a BJP National Executive meeting in Cochin in 1987 where, inhaling deeply on his cigarette, he pronounced that many intellectuals had an "etymological block" about the BJP. Indeed, almost each encounter produced at least one memorable line which made me wonder how such a unique individual managed to remain on the front benches of a major political party. As someone who has celebrated individualism, even eccentricity, I always professed a soft corner for the man who admired Lord Curzon's tome on Persia, who made time to visit one of Rangoon's last second-hand bookshops and who celebrated the contribution of Princely Rajputana to national life.

Chronologically, he belonged to the pre-Independence Liberal Party of Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru or the Unionist Party of Sir Chhotu Ram. Apart from one wing of the Swatantra Party that lived and died with the privy purses, he did not fit the neat compartments of Indian politics. It was truly remarkable that he survived on the front benches of a major political party for as long as he did.

Actually, there was always a section of the BJP that was impatient with Jaswant Singh and his perceived affectations. He survived - and even prospered - on account of Vajpayee's indulgence and the patronage of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Vajpayee, it was uncharitably said, was overwhelmed by his mellifluous use of the Queen's English. Bhairon Singh's patronage was more earthy and grounded in Thakur equations that make sense to only the banas. Even a non-Rajput maharani like Vasundhara Raje hasn't been able to fully appreciate it.

The second feature of Jaswant Singh that is readily apparent is his temperamental unsuitability to mass politics. Unlike an earlier age, where it was possible to motor down to the constituency at half-decent intervals and send hampers to the notables on festive occasions, the life of a Lok Sabha MP has become extremely demanding.
Jaswant never seems to have acquired the aptitude for nursing a Lok Sabha seat. He contested and won Jodhpur in 1989 and won Chittorgarh in 1991 and 1996. But he lost his seat in 1998 mainly on account of the local resentment over his lack of constituency contact.

He made a surprising re-entry into the Lok Sabha in 2009 from Darjeeling as a Gorkha Janmukti Morcha-backed BJP candidate. The GJM renewed its alliance with the BJP for the 2014 election. Yet, interestingly, it favoured a different BJP candidate. The reasons were unstated but it is entirely possible that it felt let down by its sitting MP's perfunctory local contact.

If Jaswant Singh was indeed a formidable local presence, his candidature would have been recommended by the BJP unit of Barmer district. That his name was missing from the Rajasthan list is revealing.

In an age when politics demands unending constituency contact, Jaswant Singh was a clear misfit. His political approach was too rarefied.

I don't think Jaswant Singh was the victim of an ideological purge. Had that been the case, he would have been discarded a long time ago. The BJP sponsored him for Parliament on nine different occasions - a rare honour. The only occasion he was rejected, he unfurled the banner of rebellion.

Jaswant says it is a question of his "honour". The party could turn around and say it was also a question of loyalty. Both are attributes this officer and gentleman will understand.
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