There are only a handful of women who have made it to top political positions in India without belonging to a political family. Sushma Swaraj was one of them.
Not having contested the 2019 Lok Sabha election and out of the Modi government, in which she was External Affairs Minister in its first term, she could be viewed as a ‘has-been’. Politics is, after all, a ruthless game about who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘not in’ the charmed circles. But the way people thronged to pay tributes to her after her sudden death by a cardiac arrest on Tuesday showed that she had touched the lives of so many in some way or the other.
Three qualities characterised the public persona of Sushma Swaraj, making her a success story, and whose loss is being felt all over.
One, she was a master orator and she learnt this skill early on. She used to tell the story of her father — they lived in Ambala — encouraging her to learn poems, and most of these used to be about heroes and bravery. Once at an antakshri competition, the competing team of which her father was a part ran out of ideas to recite, and young Sushma volunteered to recite a poem. From then on, there was no looking back. In some ways, it was her oratorical skills which led her into public life.
I was tracking LK Advani’s Swarna Jayanti Yatra in 1997, and Sushma had joined it in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa (now Odisha). The yatra arrived at 2 am at a meeting in Odisha, but thousands of people were waiting. When Sushma came on the stage, a thunderous applause greeted her. People had heard her blistering speeches in Parliament in 1996, televised live, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was made and unmade in 13 days and HD Deve Gowda finally took over as PM. The speeches had made her an icon for the young and helped catapult her as a mass leader.
Her ability to connect with all manner of people was phenomenal, and she knew what idiom to use. In 1977, soon after the Emergency was lifted and she had joined the then formed Janata Party, she was campaigning all over Haryana. At meetings of ghunghat-sporting women in villages, she would ask them, “Have any of you named your daughter Kaushalya (Lord Rama’s mother in the Ramayana)?” Many hands would go up. “Have any of you named your daughter Sumitra?” (Laxman’s mother). Again, hands would go up. “Have any of you named your daughters Kaikeyi?” No hand would go up. “Do you know why? Because she banished Rama to benefit her own son.” This is what Indira Gandhi had done, she would explain. Suddenly, the penny would drop, and the women would nod in agreement. Jayaprakash Narayan (‘JP’) noticed her talent and she was given a ticket to fight the election in Haryana, which she won, to become a minister at the age of 25.
The second attribute for which Sushma Swaraj would be remembered are her public dealings. So many today are referring to her ‘warmth’ as a human being. When she was the spokesperson of the BJP — the first woman spokesperson, just as she had many other firsts to her credit in her 42-year-long political career — and there were hundreds of presspersons at the big press conferences, she could call by name the journalist asking the question.
After she became the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha in 2009, she forged a working relationship with the Congress, and with Sonia Gandhi. This, when five years earlier, she had threatened to tonsure her head and take political "sanyas" if Sonia Gandhi became PM. At the same time, it was under her stewardship of the Opposition — and of Arun Jaitely who was leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha — that the UPA became a ‘dirty word’. The opposition hammered the Congress over scam after scam, be it the 2G or the Commonwealth Games, or the mining scandal, denting its credibility, and laying the ground for the BJP — and Narendra Modi — to take over in 2014.
In fact, in 2012, Sushma Swaraj’s name was doing the rounds as a possible prime-ministerial candidate of the BJP in 2014, till Modi outstripped her. The RSS was considering her as a possibility, just as it had given its go-ahead to her taking over as LOP in the Lok Sabha. Advani had sent a three-member team to the RSS brass recommending her name, once he lost the 2009 election.
But Sushma urged Advani not to resign till an alternative arrangement had been made for him. He was made the chairman of the Parliamentary Party. Sushma was Advani’s protégé, and she was among the four who accompanied him on his famous 1990 Rath Yatra to build a Ram mandir in Ayodhya. Along with Advani and some others like Venkaiah Naidu and Nitin Gadkari, she had opposed the projection of Modi as the party’s prime-ministerial candidate.
The third quality of Sushma, which lent her that never-say-die spirit, was to turn adversity into opportunity and then to give it her all. She was sent as CM of Delhi only 40 days before the elections were due in 1998. Many had felt it was a ploy to sideline her. Though she lost the election to Sheila Dikshit, who too passed away last month, she left her mark. Her famous one-liner at the time was: “Maain jaagungi taaki Dilli chain ki neend so sake.”
She was sent to take on Sonia Gandhi in Bellary (Karnataka) which was the Congress’ fiefdom for decades, and given only three weeks to mount her campaign. She learnt a smattering of Kannada, lost by only 60,000 votes and kept in touch with Karnataka thereafter.
But it was the way she steered the External Affairs Ministry in the last five years, for which she is being remembered the most today. Handling External Affairs in 2014 was no easy task, when Modi was his own foreign minister and the PMO controlled decisions.
Despite all odds, Sushma managed to carve a niche for herself, giving the ministry, and indeed the administrative machinery, a human face that it had lacked. Many hope that with her going, this will not be lost. For, whenever there was an SOS for help from Indians stuck abroad and in distress, she moved in with despatch, sometimes even at midnight, telling the Indians that the Indian Embassy was their home away from home, and conveying a ‘maain hoon naa’ message. And she did this, using the new-age media — putting to use Twitter with great effect — though she was an old-school politician. Sadly, she lost her old touch with journalists during this period.
A daughter of Haryana who made good, she embraced India and, in turn, India embraced her. But she went too soon, and suddenly, when her talent and mission were needed to grapple with the many challenges the country faces today.