Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Mighty Fine Guy: Remembering Air Cmde Jasjit Singh...RIP


Years ago, at one of the many conferences discussing India, Pakistan, nukes and South Asian security, a young kid asked one of the speakers this question: “What do you think is the solution to the Kashmir problem?” The speaker, in his inimitable soft-spoken style, his voice laced with a whisper of mischief, winked at a bunch of us and said: “Well, if I knew the answer to that, young lady, I’d have won a Nobel Prize by now!” Immediately after that, he proceeded, in all seriousness, to reply to that near-rhetorical query, making the person asking the question feel like hers was perhaps the most important one at the conference.

That was Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, in a nutshell, who passed away on Sunday. A man people looked to for near-impossible answers – a man who gave me my very first break more than a decade ago. I remember wandering into the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), one fine day – a freshly-scrubbed, jeans-sporting history buff who had been newly-initiated into the fascinating world of International Relations – wondering whether I should perhaps intern in India’s premier thinktank dealing with defence and security issues.  A tall, distinguished-looking Sardarji asked me whether I was lost and I told him that I was looking for the Director’s office, as I wanted to drop off my CV. To my utter horror he said: “You mean my office?”

Unperturbed by my lack of recognition, he asked me to step into his office. What followed was a 20-minute intense grilling about what I wanted from life in general, why IDSA in particular, which ended astonishingly with a simple question: ‘How soon would you like to start?’ That’s just how it was working with him. He usually knew what you were all about, but would allow you the courtesy of coming to that very same conclusion yourself. That’s what made him a good boss and an exceptional leader – as well as the longest-serving Director of IDSA – besides being a mentor to JNU’s countless free electrons.

I remember going for a brief fellowship to the LSE while I was at IDSA – a couple of years after he had left the Institute. We travelled to various cities and visited countless places within London itself as part of the course curriculum. In about 80 percent of these places, which included a handful of thinktanks, the EU Parliament and NATO, every time I would introduce myself as being from IDSA, someone in the room would ask: “Oh how’s Jasjit? Give him my regards!” prompting my batchmates to finally ask: “Just who the hell is this guy? Batman?”

That’s just what he did for IDSA – carrying forward and leaving behind, in equal parts, a legacy that made it synonymous with the best in Indian strategic thinking. At conferences, he never forgot to introduce us ‘little people’ to the biggies who responded to his invitation. I remember being absolutely awe-struck meeting Bob McNamara – straight out of a long-forgotten American history course-book – at my very first Pugwash Conference, having been generously introduced to him first by an alert boss who realised I was wistfully debating my move over the rim of a beer glass!

I just wish I had gone a little beyond the chance meetings and the holiday messages I sent every year – always replied to promptly and with much warmth. For he always made the time when we met – even after I had moved on to chase yet another dream – to remind me to ‘stop being possessive’ about my writing and just ‘letting go’ of that article that had been sitting on my desktop for days, on the odd occasions that we spoke or met briefly. I remember him telling me to stop being shy about what others thought of my writing and let them critics worry for a change...

...for he knew how to deal with those too – and how! I remember thinking, if I can “give it off” to those smart-mouthed India bashers at random conferences (in my rookie opinion), even half as well as he did – with measured logic, clarity of thought, conviction, unmatched grace and without ever raising his voice – I could run for President one day!


I wrote this in half an hour. I took your advice, Sir, and this time it was easy to let go. For you were just one damn fine guy, Air Cmde Singh, and you will be missed by at least two generations of proud patriots, thinkers and wannabes alike. We were lucky to know you…

Monday, August 5, 2013

Whose battle is it anyway?

...and may the worst man win?
A lot of people ask me: how the hell do you work with government? Why? Isn’t it really bugging to deal with one of the world’s slowest systems that works at a pace and in ways that are incomprehensible to most mortals?

Yes, it’s bugging. Yes, it’s slow. Yes, I often feel I am doing penance for much evil in a previous life every time I wait patiently for meetings in dusty extensions of air-conditioned offices, chatting with myriad co-passengers bravely navigating the world of the Indian sarkar. Yes, I feel like I could be doing something much better with my life every time an arrogant PA hangs up on me or makes me call after yet another ten minutes, without once telling me that – maybe, just maybe – sahib can’t really talk to me today. Yes, I want someone – anyone – to go to hell every time I have to pimp a just cause, by couching it in so much undeserved politeness I feel like chewing my own head off.

Yes, sometimes it’s that bad. Because, yes, it’s true that if waiting on the Government of India was a sport, we’d beat the pants off everyone else at the Olympics.

So why do I do it?

It’s because for every arrogant, self-entitled ‘babu’ I meet (unfortunately they’re all too real), there are ten who make me believe that maybe we’re not betting on the wrong horse here. Just like it’s true that the Government of India hires the best and the brightest, it also nurtures some of the most innovative and creative heads in the business, burnishing them into some of the most committed and determined individuals I have come across. Let’s face it: they have to be. Being a wimp is simply not an option when you’re working for the Indian sarkar.

We Indians love to complain about everything that’s wrong with the ‘system’, not once stopping to think that if the system works at all, it’s because someone, somewhere is doing their job. And they’re often doing it not in the absence of constraints, but despite them. What makes some succeed within the same ‘system’ we are so quick to write off is what stands them tall and apart from the others.

I see evidence of this every time I visit different states where there are stories of hope, scripted by determined administrators that find scant column space in mainstream media. I see it in the reverence reserved for senior bureaucrats who continue to inspire long after they hang up their boots, and hear it in the stubborn passion of their worthy successors.

Strangely, I also see more convincing evidence of this in every email that is politely answered, every decision that is quickly taken, every request that is politely declined and every over-sweet, chipped cup of tea I am offered with an apology for being made to wait despite an appointment. Most importantly, I see it every time I am treated with respect as a fellow professional who is perhaps as busy – if not more – than the person with a three-alphabet suffix in that high-backed chair with a white towel cover.

So when I first heard that the IAS officers of the country were getting seriously ready to take up the cudgels against injustice meted out to one of their own, I felt a strange sense of vindication for my, some would say, ‘unreasonable’ conviction over the years – that there is only so long that a government can treat the world’s largest democracy’s administrators so badly. This is one battle that has been brewing for years, it seems. Now as I see the debate deteriorate to the usual one-upmanship between career commentators over everything but the issue at hand, I’m dangerously close to questioning my pick.

In fact, as I sit chewing on my lip and letting my love for conspiracy capers run amok in my head, I wonder if there’s a plan that goes beyond a wild-card draw - where the end result will depend on which political party finally manages to pull that veritable ace from up their sleeve. Or – and this is a comforting thought – is someone secretly plotting the Indian Babu’s Great Comeback? For if I was to choose a moment, that would be, like, now.

Sometimes it seems the only one demanding any answers is Arnab Goswami with his dedicated Band of Brothers. Well, this time the nation can rest. It's time for someone else to speak up or hold their peace forever.

I know that things are sometimes not as simple as they seem. But, really, how much more complicated do you need to make them before it all starts to make sense? I hate to say this, and perhaps lose a few friends in the process, but if the country's cream can't do anything to prevent such strange high-handedness, perhaps they deserve to be insulted by bottom-of-the-barrel scum.

As for me, and not that it matters, but I'm keeping the faith...for now.

And yes, I'm back to re-claim my blog - even if you never missed me.