Singh was 82, and was ailing since a fall in 2014. He was one of a very select club of politicians who held three of the four Cabinet Committee on Security berths. He was at different times defence, finance and external affairs minister in the Vajpayee government.
Popularly known as “data” in the desert region, he breathed his last at the Army Research and Referral Hospital in New Delhi due to multiple organ failure on Sunday. Starting his political career at the age of 27 after leaving the Army in 1966, Singh served five Rajya Sabha and four Lok Sabha terms till 2014.
The latter years of his association with BJP were rocky. He was expelled from the party in 2009 over a book he wrote that was seen to be “pro-Jinnah”. He did not anticipate such an action, lamenting that he was not personally informed about the party decision. There was high drama in Shimla where the BJP executive met but he was asked to stay away after reaching. This was followed by a reconciliation but he was again expelled for defying the party and filing a Lok Sabha nomination in 2014, an election he lost.
While he faded from public memory due to his illness, Singh’s association with BJP defined his political identity. Sometimes seen at odds with BJP’s Hindutva leanings, one of his finest hours was when he rose to defend an isolated BJP in Lok Sabha after the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition with most of the party brass in detention. He gave an impassioned speech, declaring that BJP was willing to face isolation but would not compromise on its ideological moorings.
He was a realist in foreign policy, who understood the utility of both hard and soft power. He was fully supportive of India testing its nuclear devices and clear-eyed when speaking of the threat China posed to India’s security, a theme he elaborated in speeches in Parliament. His tenure as finance minister was also marked by clarity of thought, as he saw the need to press reforms and support a wider role for the market and reduce government’s control over the economy. Visitors often found soft music playing in the background and a desk remarkably clear of clutter.
Singh had old world ways and charm. Scrupulously civil and courteous, it was easy to mistake his manners for an elite put on. But he believed in being proper, the sort of person who would always hold the door or draw a chair for women. His soft spoken ways, however, could hide a shrewd mind that was in close sync with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who wanted him as his finance minister in 1998 but was vetoed by RSS. Sections of the Sangh saw him as a “free market man” and therefore anti-swadeshi. Vajpayee was forced to cede but soon appointed him deputy chair of Planning Commission and later brought him into the cabinet.
The blot on Singh’s career was his flight to Kandahar with three terrorists released as a swap for hostages on an Indian Airlines flight in December 1999. He had been tasked to go to Afghanistan and he took the fall. His negotiations with US interlocutor Strobe Talbott — who paid a generous tribute to Singh — were a masterpiece of diplomacy, as the Indian leader worked skilfully to cushion India against pressure to sign CTBT and laid the foundation of a new partnership which finally culminated in the India-US nuclear deal under Manmohan Singh.
Singh will take several secrets and anecdotes with him, being witness to the inner workings of BJP and, in particular, the sometimes vexed relationship between Vajpayee and L K Advani. Singh’s book on Jinnah and Partition was the one event that put him at odds with almost everyone in BJP-RSS, with then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi banning the book in the state. He was the NDA vice-president candidate against UPA-2’s Hamid Ansari but he fell short of the numbers. Of his four Lok Sabha victories, three came from Rajasthan and one from West Bengal. He insisted on contesting the Lok Sabha polls from his native Barmer in 2009 but the party sent him to Darjeeling. He had some close shaves in elections, with the late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat once declaring him as a likely “deputy PM” to boost his prospects.
In the run-up to Lok Sabha polls in 2014, Singh, now in his in late 70s, expressed a desire to contest from Barmer. During the entire election campaign, Singh didn’t comment anything against BJP other than then CM Vasundhara Raje. He lost to Col Sonaram, an influential Jat leader who left Congress for BJP and was a key factor in the saffron calculations in Rajasthan.
Before he could plan his next move, the veteran politician fell in his Delhi residence in August 2014. Since then, he was bedridden.
Back in his home turf, he was extremely popular, especially among Sindhi Muslims of Jaisalmer and Barmer. Sindhi Muslims’ spiritual guru Pir Pagaro in Pakistan issued appeals to the community to vote in his favour in the 2014 elections. Singh’s portrait could be found in a house of a Manganiyar family. When asked why only Singh’s portrait hanging on the wall, the family head replied, “Fifteen years ago, ‘data’ personally helped by calling the Indian embassy in Pakistan to clear my ailing aunt’s pending visa application for medical treatment. She is alive due to ‘data sahab’s’ benevolence.”