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Beyond Twitter Mama role, Sushma Swaraj isn’t one to let herself be overshadowed by Modi

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Despite a hyperactive Modi, Sushma Swaraj isn’t going to quietly stay away from the limelight on foreign policy. She can still be a spoiler if she wants to.

At her annual press conference Monday celebrating four years of the BJP government, a combative external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj defended herself from the Congress criticism, re-laid the red lines for her own government on Pakistan, and even let slip a demure swipe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s best-known slogan.

“Na main sotee hoon, na main sonay deti hoon,” Swaraj said (I don’t sleep and I don’t let anyone else sleep), insisting that Indian ambassadors around the world come to the aid and rescue of Indians of all caste, colour, creed and gender, both on Twitter and in real life.

As the audience burst into a volley of laughter at her reference to Modi’s “na khaoonga, na khaane doonga” catchphrase, Swaraj said she had taken “elitist” foreign policy to the masses.

As for the Congress’ accusation that she had been reduced to a Twitter handle, while all key foreign policy decisions were taken in the Prime Minister’s Office, Swaraj pointed out that thousands had benefitted from her quick responses on social media to Indians stuck in all kinds of situations. “Let me see what Congressmen say when they find themselves or any of their families in similar situations,” she said.

It has certainly taken the warm and empathetic BJP politician, once a candidate for prime ministership, a long time to come into her own in the forbiddingly cold corridors of the ministry of external affairs. With a prime minister as hyperactive as Narendra Modi, she has mostly stayed away from the limelight. Even when Modi hardly took notice of her in public, as at the Madison Square Garden event on his first trip to the US in 2014, Swaraj remained deferential to her leader, but never obsequious.

Tough talk on terror

But as the seasons change, and Modi seems less invincible as he did in 2014, Swaraj has made good use of her eloquence to remind the PM and the RSS that the government cannot change its hardline on Pakistan, simply because it wants to. It’s a warning shot across the bows that she can’t be taken for granted.

Asked if talks between the coast guards of India and Pakistan indicated that something had changed in Delhi’s Pakistan policy, Swaraj reiterated that “terror and talks cannot go together.” But she admitted that some channels of communication had been renewed, including those between the two national security advisers (NSAs), Ajit Doval and General Nasser Janjua, but these “talks are about terror.”

Having been more or less sidelined from Delhi’s key Pakistan conversation these past four years, Swaraj was making it clear that she was keenly aware of feelers from both sides to carefully bring about a possible rapprochement – but that she could still be a spoiler if she wanted to.

Nearly three years ago, as talks between the NSAs of India and Pakistan faltered, she had done exactly this, issuing a deadline at a press conference telling the Pakistani NSA to respond to the Indian invitation to talk. Of course, the Pakistanis refused. Another initiative to break the ice between Islamabad and Delhi had fizzled out.

Who remembers, for example, her demand in January 2013 to decapitate 10 Pakistani soldiers in response to the decapitation of two Indian soldiers on the Line of Control? That statement had been significantly responsible for building a case of “softness” against the erstwhile Congress government.

Grandmotherly empathy

Certainly, Swaraj’s grandmotherly empathy has warmed the cockles of many a heartless bureaucrat who would rather stick by the cold-blooded rigour of the rule book. A couple of months ago, she went where Maneka Gandhi, women and child development minister, had refused to go. She allowed an adopted Indian sister-brother duo in a middle-eastern country to be adopted by another Indian couple when their adoptive parents were killed in an accident. The rules had said that this was simply not possible. Swaraj made it happen.

Apart from her Twitter Mama incarnation, Swaraj has, in recent months, finally started insisting that foreign policy decisions be routed through her to the PMO. For the first time in nearly four years, she travelled to Israel in January and to Japan in March – both had been informally out of bounds these past months. She has also taken control of India’s foreign policy towards Nepal, invoking her RSS connections to make bridges with that country.

As she defended her ministry’s successes Monday – isolating Pakistan and forcing it to seek dialogue with India, reaffirming an old friendship with Russia, and maintaining status quo in Doklam – Swaraj also pointed out that government officials had worked hard to win the case against Vijay Mallya, which meant that London courts had allowed Indian banks to sell his assets in the UK.

Swaraj also recounted what Modi told his British counterpart on Mallya’s extradition.

When British prime minister Theresa May indicated that the terrible state of Indian jails had persuaded human rights activists in the UK that Mallya was better off in the UK, Modi told her: “These are the same jails in which you had imprisoned Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and several other Indian leaders during the freedom movement”.

Why did she recount this story? Was it another googly with regard to the prime minister or a confession that the situation of jails, at least, had not changed in 70 years? Certainly, Sushma Swaraj won’t be forgotten in a hurry. As she told a questioner at Monday’s press conference, “I have one year left. Wait to see what else is coming”.

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  1. Honourable Madam,
    Your an admired personality in society and politically, I have followed your bold decisions from standing against Mrs Indira Gandhi even though you were a friend.
    You have deplaced your humbleness in leadership , but determined. At times you always gave a devil it’s due even be in foreign affairs, undoubtedly a force to reckon with in international affairs, yet your sincerity and commitment to assignments is laudable. India Needs You.
    Personally when you were unwell, my family prayed for your full recovery.
    Goodness of God has shown to you and everyone that you a blessed person from God above.
    It’s always my desire if I could sell to meet and seek your blessings one day as you are a great human being.
    May God Bless you with long life and for you to be a blessing to us all.
    Bless you.

  2. Dear respected Sushmaji,
    Please continue doing the great work that you have been doing and don’t be swayed by others who don’t keep the welfare and greatness of our dear Bharat Mata. You are doing excellent and we Indians living in other countries are extremely proud of you. You are a great daughter of India and may you long to serve India, Poor and backward people from everywhere, bring peace everywhere and continue to remain a shining star for everyone. Mera sahasra pranam aapko pujya mantriji.
    Raghavendra Rao

  3. For Indian missions abroad to respond effectively to citizens in difficulty is something EAM can certainly take credit for. Many of them are blue collar workers, sending home precious remittances. 2. As far as the larger strategic framework of Indian foreign policy is concerned, there the record is distinctly mixed. Fortunately, recalibration is underway.

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