New Delhi: It has been a turbulent week for the Government and the Army Chief, with the controversies surrounding Army Chief General VK Singh dropping two letter-bombs. Today, on Your Call, former Defence Minister Jaswant Singh talks to NDTV's Sonia Singh on the row.
NDTV: Good Evening and welcome to Your Call. This week I am honoured to be joined by a man who is a politician and a gentleman. A man who has been a former Finance Minister, External Affairs Minister and Defence Minister, BJP leader Jaswant Singh. Thank you very much Sir for joining me tonight. I mention Defence Minister, but of course that's though relatively short compared to your other two stints. It's something, which I think you felt particularly close to because of your background in the Armed Forces. When you see what's happening today, what is your reaction at the end of the week, which has been a turbulent one?
Jaswant Singh: I am filled with great concern and if I use the word despair it is not exaggerating. Because I think in an earlier talk with you I used the phrase. This is the saw down of the country, gone blunted and what the last week; just the week. The previous so many years, what it is demonstrated, is an absence of understanding of what the Armed Forces really are; and an absence of grasping the sensibilities of the Armed Forces. A total, near total, this junked between the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces, and an absence of leadership from the political community. By which I really mean both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister. After all the Prime Minister is the Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Security.
NDTV: No, but given that Sir, and given the shocking details that seems to be in that letter which became public. This isn't something that happened overnight and of course the people in the UPA will say, look at what happened in Kargil. And we have seen recommendations by the expert committee in Kargil, recommendations by a group of Ministers. Then nothing happened, with successive governments, whether it's NDA or UPA. So in that sense the political class; can you single out just the Prime Minister and the current Defence Minister, it's a larger issue.
Jaswant Singh: I don't do that but because you referred to Kargil. I had quite a good deal to do with Kargil. I don't want to speak in first person singular, but the reality is, and this is a fact. The Kargil attack on India is the only battle, should I put it, that India has fought since Independence, after which, in which firstly not a single inch of land was conceded. Secondly after the battle, war or whatever you wish to call it, the government of the day ordered a full review of what had happened. And it's a brilliant report that the late Subrahmanyam, because the review comprised of Subrahmanyam, then George Verghese and others. The committee or Group of Ministers was constituted under Mr Advani ji. It's a wonderful report, it addressed all issues. There were recommendations about the Defence Ministry. But you are right.
NDTV: But nothing happened with this recommendation?
Jaswant Singh: Nothing.
NDTV: Very little.
Jaswant Singh: That is a qualitative term, little, but not satisfactory. The approach is once issues or matters get trapped in the liberance of bureaucracy; l meant by a huge gap between the Ministry, that is the civil part of it and the Armed Forces, though they inhabit the same physical territory in the South Block. And we did, have one of the recommendations, and it was on paper implemented that there should be total integration between the Ministry of Defence and the three services of the Armed Forces. There were various other recommendations, we were told they were, but they are not integrated, there is a separation, us and them. This must not be.
NDTV: In fact, I would also like to go to someone else when we brought up Kargil. Somebody whose son died in Kargil, his parents are Colonel Thapar and his wife, their young son Lt. Vijender Thapar had died in Kargil, and let's just go across to them to see what they have to ask. And we will come back to that issue which was raised about hostilities. Let's go across to Col Thapar and his wife.
Mrs Thapar: I want to know why the tenth anniversary of the Kargil War was not celebrated? Why was there no leader there on that day? It made me sad nobody bothered. I felt very hurt, because we are bringing politics into Army and that is very damaging. It is damaging to the morale of the Army.
Jaswant Singh: I agree with you. I share totally what you say. It is not just Kargil. With great difficulty we observe the achievements of the Indian Army in Bangladesh. We have virtually forgotten the IPKF and the suffering examples of IPKF. Why has this happened? Because I think the conflict of political interest between political parties has caused a lot of casualty in the spirit.
Mrs Thapar: My son didn't die for a party. He died for his country.
Jaswant Singh: I agree absolutely I agree. I mean how can I refute what you are saying. I don't want to speak in this sense, but for example my wife, she is an Army daughter, she married me, she is an Army wife and her elder son is also an Army officer. So we are Army. But if I am not Army or she is not Army she fully empathises with what you are saying. And she is bitterly, deeply, critical of the way that; in fact when I told her that I was coming on this programme, she said you must say it then. I don't know if I should or not, but I will say it. She said all that we are witnessing that is happening, is so to ensure that some chain or promotion etcetera takes place at the cost of the entire interest of the Army. It is this new thing, which has brought the bonding in the Army into such a state.
NDTV: Col and Mrs Thapar, thank you so much for joining us on this show tonight. Now let me go across to a question with someone from your constituency, but let's just see what he had to say. Let's go across to Darjeeling.
Col K Tshering: I am Col K Tshering from your matrabhoomi that is Darjeeling. The kind of scams surrounding North Block and South Block, low morale of troops, at least I am not very happy, my morale is low. I'm sure my friends on the borders, their morale is also low. Now in view of these circumstances, do you think that in case of an outbreak of hostility with our adversaries, do you think we will do well in that?
NDTV: The question raised by the gentleman from Darjeeling, who made the point that, the morale of Armed Forces at the border.
Jaswant Singh: The key to your question is about morale. Surely this is an example of very poor morale. Of course if deficiencies, the deficiencies become public, but you must know that these soldiers, sailors, airmen, they deal with that. They are familiar with what is and what is not. They know what the deficiencies are broadly, not in detail. Now it's the appalling ignorance that, unfortunately, about the Armed Forces and their functioning that broadly causes this kind of, I think, unwanted comment. But it does dent the state of morale. What damages moral much more is squabbling within the senior ranks of the Army. This is very damaging. And morale is to physical, is four is to one. Not so much equipment deficiency which dents the fighting quality of a force, it is the absence of model and effective leadership.
NDTV: In fact when we come to that, we have seen the case of one Lt. General now taking the Army Chief to court, a former head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, a crucial post. Leave aside the politicians, this squabbling within the army, your wife mentioned over promotions, whatever this may be about, a CBI case against another man who is in line to be the Army Chief; is that really something which you would like to tell seniors to rethink about it?
Jaswant Singh: This is very shabby, this is not acceptable and this is not behoven conduct of an officer and gentleman. There is nobody to judge, you have to judge yourself and I occasionally, very painfully, to write and say it's of the Chief, who am I to judge? After all this is a very distinguished soldier. But all that I said you have to do is to remember that inscription by Field Marshall Chetwode on Chetwode Hall. Because after the parade on passing out, the cadets slow march to Chetwode Hall and on top there is an inscription, "The security or welfare of your country comes first, always and every time." There are of course the men that you command and then last, is your own. I don't want to judge, because I think I diminish, not so much the person, as the great Chief of the Army Staff; in judging personally I cannot claim the objectivity, the office is more important than the individual. If you keep chipping at the office then you will damage the effectiveness of it, and will of course damage effective morale. You have a situation, I am very sorry I have to say, my colleagues in Parliament start shouting, throw him out, and you can't. Can they imagine what effect this has? On television, which is everywhere, the troops they watch, and troops watching this, what will they think?
NDTV: You have MPs like Lalu Prasad Yadav, other MPs, who, I think, Armed Forces and other people would not regard as say the epitome of morality. Taking on an Army Chief, the institution on corruption, what do you think? He says the Army Chief wants to fight elections.
Jaswant Singh: Oh come on don't gather all this, don't reduce everything to the level of absurd politics, this is absurd. It's so absurd it's almost an obscenity. Politics is not the end of our life. Everything is not politically oriented. Here the issue is, the combat effectiveness of the Armed Forces is the issue; of the national security, the issue really is the effectiveness of the slowdown of the country. For heaven's sake, don't reduce it to a kind of level we witness every day in Parliament.
NDTV: I think one of the other worrying aspects was about the question of corruption in Defence procurements and this information about Tatra trucks now, which has come up. Now the question that has been raised that these have been in use since 1986, the irregularities in procurement have clearly been in place since pretty much then. Why has no former Defence Minister, Government , Army Chief raise this earlier?
Jaswant Singh: I am guilty. In between I have been Defence Minister. I must admit this never came to my mind. And so in that sense even if I make a comment here I am just as guilty as any of the previous Defence Ministers would be. I cannot cite ignorance as my defence, I did not know of it; I did not take any action. It is no good saying that I was not there long enough. Yes you are right I am partly to blame. But what has happened is at another level of; why this became, why has this become not just Tatra. You see in 1986, around '86-'87, I believe was a kind of climactic year, because that is when the infamous Bofors hit India. I had gone with General Sundarji to the trial of Bofors. I had said to him this is a very good gun; it's very badly procured. Because I said it's a very good gun my party got annoyed with me. But I also tried very hard to find out. I also went to Sweden at my own cost and I fought for this issue until I came against the wall of non-cooperation. Then I realized that Bofors will have very long-term consequences in Defence procurement. Because if we were not able to identify and award punishment to the wrong doers, then of course people can say that we can do it. And then of course it was only about 86 or 84 crores, now it's hundreds of crores.
NDTV: The Tehelka scandal in the NDA tenure. I think the saddest part of this is that you will have Defence Ministers come and go, you have Army Chiefs come and go, but the corruption and procurement system has not gone. And the worry is, that on the other hand you have become so conscious that you slow down the normal procurement modernization, yet the rot has not been stemmed at all.
Jaswant Singh: I think two things that have happened. You are right absolutely right, what has happened is that we have now a system that has become dysfunctional and because it is dysfunctional, if we were to assume it is, therefore pure and unsullied. On the contrary, the reverse has happened. George after Tehalka etc etc reinstated as Defence Minister, started sending any proposal for any procurement as an aspect to the CVC, before he even looked at the file, and I told him George this is wrong. The CVC or the CMDGE or CBI, I did also use that phrase once, that we are crippled these 3Cs, the tyranny of the C. If I am Defence Minister, then I am responsible for all the good, if I take credit for all the good, then I must also take the discredit for what is not good. Stand up and be recognized, you knew, ye thik nahi hua kahiye ki galti ho gayiaage hum sudharenge. George by then was so traumatised that he couldn't take a decision. Now we are suffering because of that. No decisions are taken, because suppose we were to take a decision, for heaven sake, governance is all about taking decisions, not about immobility of thought, what if I make a mistake? For heaven's sake again, take a decision and out of ten, even if you make five mistakes, at least from five every mistake will teach you something. This is what is happening. The government is paralyzed in action because the possibility of the mistake paralyses them.
NDTV: Let me shift Sir. The large part of the episode has been discussed on what has happened last week. Let me also shift to somebody who has also been in politics from 1967 onwards.
Jaswant Singh: This is my last, ninth, do you realize Sonia it is, the other day purely by chance, somebody sitting next to me and looking at the who's who in Parliament said, Sir you have been, this is your ninth term in Parliament.
NDTV: Since 1980 you have been in the Rajya Sabha as an MP, a remarkable feat I have to say. And the Rajya Sabha interesting because we have seen this week a very sad situation in Jharkhand over the Rajya Sabha elections, and what happened with an Independent candidate and the charges back and forth. The BJP went through a state of great turbulence after the last General Elections; we are now looking towards the next one. What do you think, has the BJP managed to course correct, why this issue at his point?
Jaswant Singh: No I am afraid I can't realistically and honestly say that we did the course correction; recognition of what the deficiencies are; or that the course correction has been fully recognized and implemented. The state of the party is well known to the leadership in the party. I have often pointed out, what is the situation today, rather like the late Mugadha, an account of the late Mugadha by a great historian, who said the Mughals were declining, but the Maratha constituency was also declining. Now that is very bad for the country, because you can't have, the decline of the Congress party is evident, but then simultaneously, there cannot, just cannot, be a decline of the BJP, because it's a national imperative. There cannot be a political vacuum in the country.
NDTV: Is it a battle for who will be the next Prime Ministerial candidate, because I will be covering the elections or following the elections?
Jaswant Singh: Na nahi aisa hai, if you permit a very interesting phrase. I think it's more in UP that is "shayari in Hindi". It's not as if the premier share of the country, it's there for anybody. So it's not anybody fighting for the premiership. I don't think that can, ought to, at all. It's to be able to meet the challenge of the circumstances and nahi aisa kuch nahi hai because then I would not be candid. I don't want to be dishonest to myself.
NDTV: We are finally at the end of the show, Sir and I'd like to go back many years to your school, may be your college, where we have some young students to ask you a question.
College student: Good evening Sir, being your grandson and the 4th generation at Mayo College I wanted to ask you a question. I have seen your name prominently on the Honour Board in the Assembly Hall. What is the mantra to success at Mayo College?
Jaswant Singh: What is the mantra to success? You must look at two things. Believe that you can reach the horizon. It is not as if the horizon is not reachable. Dream to reach there and work for it. Secondly realize and accept that you can catch both ends of the rainbow in your two hands. This is not dreaming. Do that and you will succeed.
NDTV: I was going to ask Sir, to achieve great success you often have to achieve great failure as well.
Jaswant Singh: Of course.
NDTV: When you look back at your years, the greatest regret you have had in these many years in public life, what would you define that as?
Jaswant Singh: Kandahar was not a mistake. The priority was to save lives. See governance is not about; it's not a choice between good and not so good. The choice is always between bad and worse. It is terrible to let a 166 human beings perish because you feel that you must not take step A or B. It's very bad to compromise on the fight against terrorism and say okay, take these three back and leave 166.How do you decide? Look, government has a clear, it's not as if it's a yes or no decision. So you decide government must work for preserving life. I went because, if I hadn't gone, on a last minute decision, had to be who to take them? But I also don't want to say it. It's not that my going there was without risk. But I don't want to side, somebody had to go. And coming back in that aircraft. The stench. The relief of men and women trapped in the tube of Airbus for seven days in the freezing cold of winter in Kandahar, with one toilet. One of the passengers said to me, where are my children, why did you come so late? Caught hold of me; this is of course traumatic. Because these decisions were so important to me; how can I explain how these decisions become so necessary? But of course it's part of governance. So you take a decision and stand up and be counted for it.
NDTV: Stand up and be counted and that's what you focused on throughout this interview. Take a decision and be responsible for it however it eventually turns out. Jaswant Singh ji, always did the best as you can and the country expected. Thank you so much Sir for joining me tonight, it was wonderful to have you.