The irrelevance of Sushma Swaraj to politics is fast becoming obvious, and her silence on MJ Akbar & MeToo is tellingly reflective of her diminished position.
New Delhi: Amid the blazing controversy surrounding sexual harassment allegations against Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar, conspicuous by her silence has been one of the senior-most woman BJP leaders who has always been known for her firebrand oratory and uninhibited views.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj — Akbar’s direct boss, the most senior woman in the Union Cabinet, and a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) — has refused to utter a word not just on the charges against him, but on the MeToo movement altogether.
This, even though her fellow women ministers — Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Textiles Minister Smriti Irani, and Drinking Water and Sanitation Minister Uma Bharti — have made statements, albeit non-committal ones, on the issue.
While Sitharaman and Irani said they were not the right people to comment on allegations against Akbar, but supported the MeToo movement, Bharti said the matter was between “Akbar and the women”.
Only Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi took a strong position on the matter, calling for an investigation.
Even so, coaxed several times for a comment, Swaraj has refused to offer one.
From her famous declaration in 2004 that she would tonsure her head and live like a widow if Italian-origin Sonia Gandhi, then the Congress president, became Prime Minister, to her deafening silence on the MeToo movement — the Swaraj of today is a pale shadow of her former feisty avatar.
Her silence, one might say, is reflective of her diminished position in the BJP and fading political stature.
A basic parameter to judge the influence of a leader in their party is often the weight they carry in decision-making on important internal matters — whether determining the election strategy in a state, or picking poll candidates, framing parliamentary strategy and tactics, shaping the political narrative of the government (if in power) or opposition, and deciding on organisational positions within the party structure.
Take any of this, and the irrelevance of Swaraj to the BJP’s politics becomes obvious.
“Sushmaji is hardly a part of any decision-making process with respect to the party,” said a highly placed source in the BJP who did not wish to be identified.
“Imagine, for someone who was once such a vocal voice, an asset and a key part of the BJP’s strategising, to not be involved in taking party-related decisions at all,” the source added.
Between 2009 and 2014, Swaraj was the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, the most visible face and vocal voice for the BJP in the House, with an important say in its floor strategy.
Today, she has little say in how the government decides its parliamentary strategy.
Someone who has fought elections for over four decades across states is completely out of the loop on the party’s big decisions on elections — except as part of the parliamentary board, which merely rubber-stamps decisions taken elsewhere.
Swaraj has been one of the party’s sharpest communicators, a leader who was often fielded to defend the party in tricky situations.
Since 2014, however, when the BJP catapulted to power after a campaign led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Swaraj has been near-invisible when it comes to defending the party on difficult issues of the day, or even attacking the opposition.
Swaraj’s proximity to the Modi rival camp, led by veteran leader L.K. Advani, was hardly a secret, and her political trajectory in the party has been more than just a side-effect of that.
Sources in the BJP said although Swaraj is a tall leader who occupies the front benches in Parliament, the fact that she is a “far diminished leader today is for all to see”.
“That is how she has made peace with Modi,” said the party source.
“Despite being uncomfortable with his rise, Swaraj recognised that if she wanted space and respect within this set-up, she would have to let go of any ambitions to shape the party,” the source added.
“She accepted the portfolio she was given but also accepted that she would only be a pale shadow of her political self,” the source said. “It is this trade-off that has preserved her position, but left her diminished.”
What has further added to her woes is her fast vanishing mass base. Swaraj is a Lok Sabha member from Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, but hardly has a voter base to speak of anymore, despite her extensive stint in electoral politics as a four-term Lok Sabha member, an MLA in home state Haryana and Delhi chief minister.
Swaraj is hardly the mass, popular face the BJP would use in an election campaign, despite her impressive oratory skills.
“The fact that Swaraj is an MP from a state to which she does not belong makes her political base even trickier,” said another party leader.
“Add to this the fact that she has been a socialist, who participated in the JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) movement,” the leader added. “This means that she does not have a base in the Sangh, and that she does not fully fit in. This makes her political position in the BJP currently even less solid.”
What further dented Swaraj’s position was the 2015 ‘Lalitgate’ scandal, where she was accused of helping the tainted former Indian Premier League boss Lalit Modi.
The opposition demanded Swaraj’s resignation and an adjournment motion was moved by the Congress in the Lok Sabha to hold a discussion on the allegations. Although the Modi government did not ask her to step down, no one stuck their neck out in her defence either.
Her isolation was on full display earlier this year, when the party failed to address the abuse she received from trolls for pulling up a passport officer accused of harassing an inter-faith couple during the application process.
The lone voice of condemnation came from Home Minister Rajnath Singh days after the attack began, with her women ministerial colleagues choosing to stay silent.
The minister who isn’t
It is not just in the realm of politics, but also in policy that Swaraj stands on the periphery.
She holds one of the top four ministries in the government but has often been referred to as ‘Twitter minister’, handling consular issues and helping Indians in distress on the social media platform.
To be fair, this initiative is one Swaraj should get credit for, and party colleagues admit her annual briefings do reflect that she actually “comprehends her ministry well and can speak with remarkable sharpness on a range of issues”.
But again, it is no secret that she is does not exercise the influence a minister should over her/his domain.
While the foreign ministry has always been less autonomous because the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has directly had a say in relations with other countries, Swaraj’s tenure has seen a near-complete takeover in this arena by Modi’s powerful PMO. As a result, she has had a limited role, except in relations with a few countries.
For one, this is an exceptionally centralised government where the PMO is even more assertive than usual. Then, within the PMO, there is an all-powerful National Security Adviser (NSA) who plays a big part in foreign policy. NSA Ajit Doval is now the head of the Strategic Policy Group, a post earlier held by the cabinet secretary.
This effectively makes Doval all-powerful and raises questions about the role of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and whether its members, the top four ministers, including Sushma, will have any say in crucial decisions at all.
Sources in the government pointed out how, for much of Swaraj’s term, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar had a direct line with the PM. Meanwhile, the Sangh and the BJP too have an interest in world affairs. BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, in particular, has played a significant role in determining policy.
“These facts are for all to see,” said a government source. “So, ambassadors who want to make a push in a particular direction know they can press other buttons. It weakens the minister’s authority considerably.”
It doesn’t help that her health hasn’t quite been on her side either. In 2016, Swaraj underwent a kidney transplant at Delhi’s AIIMS.
Catch ThePrint’s in-depth, extensive coverage of the #MeToo movement in India here