I remember it like it was yesterday. Adjourning to Sushma Swaraj’s hotel room in the evening, after a full day of travelling about in Uttar Pradesh in her helicopter — from Ghazipur to Phulpur to Allahabad to Lucknow. Freshly bathed, changed into a salwar kameez, digging into dahi bhalla from a local chaat house, she was still full of beans, not exhausted by having given five speeches of 20 minutes each, met countless people, blessed several candidates, and hugged many women.
It was 2004. Her party was very different then. So was politics. Meeting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, especially affable ones like Sushma Swaraj, always meant digging into some sort of delicacies. It was the L.K. Advani-A.B. Vajpayee school of politics. Even if you were meeting your critics, it would be over a cup of hot tea and some snacks—and in the case of Murli Manohar Joshi, the best breakfast table in the city.
With Swaraj, the hospitality had an added maternal touch. Her habit of holding hands when she met you, swinging them as she walked like a happy little girl. Her shy smile, always in evidence even in trying times. Her coordinated wardrobe, the same colour for specific days of the week, her no-nonsense style of sleeveless jackets over matching sarees, with pockets to avoid the fussy handbag. Her remarkable ability to remember names and faces even if she was meeting you after years.
Also read: Sushma Swaraj, BJP leader and former external affairs minister, passes away at 67
The Bharatiya Nari
Sushma Swaraj rose to prominence when she was part of the team of lawyers fighting George Fernandes’ Baroda Dynamite Case during the Emergency. She met her future husband, Swaraj Kaushal, during this time.
Always marked out for greatness, she became a cabinet minister in the Haryana government in 1977 at the age of 25, the youngest-ever in the state. After serving in the Union cabinet, like many women before and after her, she was given the impossible task of winning the Delhi election in 1998. In management parlance, such a situation is known as the Glass Cliff—the phenomenon of women being likelier than men to achieve leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest. Marissa Mayer and Theresa May, anyone?
As India Today noted then, Swaraj was happily ensconced as Union minister for both communications and information and broadcasting when she was virtually coerced into heading a rescue operation for the Delhi BJP and becoming chief minister in the run-up to the elections. She lost the election to Sheila Dikshit, another fine politician who passed away recently. She was given an impossible situation again, when she was pitted against Sonia Gandhi in Bellary in the 1999 elections, during which she addressed public meetings in Kannada. Billed as the Big Fight between the ‘Bharatiya Nari’ and the ‘Videshi Bahu’, Swaraj would call it “a battle for Indian self-respect”.
She lost, but it would not be the last time she crossed swords with the former Congress president, the last most famously in 2004, when the United Progressive Alliance won the Lok Sabha elections and the Congress loyalists urged Sonia Gandhi to take up the prime ministership. Swaraj threatened to shave her head and wear white if Sonia Gandhi became the prime minister.
Also read: Sushma Swaraj of 2018: A pale shadow of the once firebrand leader
A hands-on minister
Whenever she was in government, Sushma Swaraj left an impact. In her first term as Union information and broadcasting minister in 1998, she gave Bollywood ‘industry status’. In her second avatar, she even hosted a Bollywood night in association with the Confederation of Indian Industry at the glitzy Cannes Film Festival. In 2003, even Harvey Weinstein came to one such sarkari party, but when the BJP-led government lost the 2004 elections, India’s appearances at Cannes became the preserve of L’Oreal and Chopard.
As Union health minister, she announced six new AIIMS, and as Union minister for external affairs, she was possibly the most hands-on minister in its history in terms of social media usage, intervening in cases of lost passports and cheekily promising help from the Indian Embassy “even if you’re stuck on Mars”. She clearly had no role in policy though, which became the preserve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
It was increasingly becoming clear that she was out of place in Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s aggressive new BJP, which wouldn’t spare even someone as senior as her if she didn’t toe the party line.
Also read: Jaishankar does a Sushma Swaraj, reaches out to distressed Indians after Twitter debut
Advani’s protege in Modi’s India
In 2018, when her ministry took action against passport officer Vikas Mishra, who had allegedly humiliated an interfaith couple in Lucknow, Sushma Swaraj was trolled viciously. She hit back spiritedly, liking two particularly nasty tweets but got little or no sympathy from the party she had worked so hard for. She did, however, get support from unexpected quarters — Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi accused the BJP of promoting its hate ideology to target its own people.
It was a sad end to an illustrious career. Once considered a frontrunner for prime minister, Advani’s protege was left far behind by her one-time rival Arun Jaitley and the former chief minister of Gujarat. The decision to formally announce Narendra Modi’s name for PM in 2013 was preceded by hectic negotiations with party seniors such as Swaraj and Murli Manohar Joshi in September—Advani was never reconciled to it—but once it was taken, the BJP ceased to be a party of many equals.
Also read: Sushma Swaraj was like Rahul Dravid, always indispensable to BJP — until now
A unique legacy
What will Swaraj’s legacy be? Her closeness to the Bellary brothers and Lalit Modi spoilt her spotless copybook, but her contribution to politics is undeniable. One is her ability as a speaker, a result of her early initiation into public speaking, winning best Hindi speaker for three consecutive years at the state-level competition held by the Haryana Language Department. The speech she gave in Parliament when the Vajpayee government fell in 13 days was a masterclass in oratory, comparing Vajpayee to both Ram and Yudhishthir in having been denied his place as the rightful ruler and referring to the conspirators as Manthara and Shakuni (“Agar ek Manthara aur ek Shakuni ke vajah se itna kuchh huya, toh aaj toh humaare saamne kitni Mathara aur kitne Shakuni hain”).
Her other legacy is the possibilities she opened up for women politicians in a male-dominated party like the BJP. By carefully walking the line between tradition (she would celebrate traditional festivals such as teej and karva chauth with great gusto) and modernity (given her training as a lawyer), she created a path for independent women professionals in her party. It is a pity that she was never an obvious mentor to them, and had a very ugly Twitter spat with Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s first full-time woman defence minister and one-time protege of Jaitley, over the creation of Telangana.
Even when she retired hurt in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, after a series of battles with ill health, which saw her getting a kidney transplant, she did so with dignity. In a series of tweets in her last days, she denied rumours of being appointed governor; confirmed rumours that she had left her official residence; and told her followers just about a month ago that talk of her ill health was exaggerated.
If only that had been true.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
The use of terms like “aggressive India”, “Hindu nationalist”, “hyper-nationalist” fosters an incorrect narrative. In many ways, Modi is charting a normal path that is followed by the rest of the world – its a path that puts national interests above personal interests or moral platitudes. In Kashmir, Modi hasn’t done anything different than what Pakistan did in terms of incorporating Gilgit or Baltistan or in gifting large parts of the territory to China. For most nations, this is normal conduct but we have journalists touting it as “aggressive” behavior.
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