It was 1999. I was the editor of RSS journal Organiser and Sushma Swaraj gave me a long interview. Those days, everyone was talking about a pitched battle between the ‘Bharatiya Nari’ and the ‘Videshi Bahu’, and Sushma Swaraj was spearheading this debate in her election campaign against Sonia Gandhi from Bellary in Karnataka.
She looked ‘Kannadiga’ in every way, even speaking fluent Kannada. “My chances of winning are poor but I am sure Organiser will not say it,” she said and smiled. But it was a stern smile, similar to the one often flashed by Indira Gandhi when she wanted to get things done her way. Could she have been the Indira Gandhi of the BJP?
Sushma Swaraj hailed from a traditional RSS family (her father Hardev ji was in the RSS). She once told me how her father wanted her to attend the Rashtra Sevika Samiti shakha, much to her dislike. She was drawn more towards the firebrand, socialist student activism than the sombre social work of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Joining BJP, opposing Congress
She did not join the BJP in 1980 when it was formed. She instead opposed it and said, “If you are Bharatiya Janata Party then are we international Janata Party”? She was then with the Janata Party. But once she joined the BJP in 1984, there was no looking back. She was more loyal than the king. She personified the party and its ideology. Yet, she would not accept any decision without strongly putting across her point of view, however different it may be.
Her opposition to anything that her conscience did not allow was commendable. She opposed the Congress party and its ways, but had excellent working relationship with some of its top leaders. After the bitter fight in Bellary, she fought the Congress leadership all the way. She went to the extent of saying that she will shave her head if Sonia Gandhi becomes the PM. Much later, she admitted that she should not have said that, but unapologetically added, “us samay woh sahi tha” (it was right at that time) and flashed the same ‘you dare not print it’ smile.
Equation with Advani
In the BJP too, it was difficult to get her on board on major decisions. She opposed the idea of a mass agitation for Ayodhya temple, but when a collective decision was taken on it, she was the first to join L.K. Advani’s rath yatra. She added value to his leadership and emerged as a key figure in the party’s central leadership.
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But it was the same Sushma Swaraj who opposed her mentor, philosopher and guide L.K. Advani for his infamous comments on Jinnah. I met her at Advani ji’s residence with late Pramod Mahajan to convince her to be less vocal about her opposition. “How can you accept this, Chari ji,” she quipped. And that was the end of the conversation.
Ironically, she teamed up with the same leader during the famous Goa conclave of the BJP to oppose the projection of one individual as the prime ministerial candidate.
Sushma Swaraj as foreign minister
The spectacular victory of the BJP under Narendra Modi’s leadership belied the calculations of many political analysts. A good team leader that he is, Narendra Modi made her the foreign minister and she changed the very orientation of that ministry.
Considered a secretive and an elite club ministry, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was not known to be accessible to people. But through her tweets and direct contact with the stakeholders, she made it a popular ministry, especially by bringing in user-friendly changes in the passport division.
When it came to giving research inputs to her ministry on multilateral institutions, she asked me to work with the Research and Information System (RIS) under her ministry.
Be it the BJP, Bellary or the Delhi election – she was reluctant to contest in Delhi and genuinely felt that she was made a scapegoat – she never let go of a contest without putting up a tough fight.
The last fight she picked up was with her own health. Sadly, she gave up this fight too soon.
The author is former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.
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