In a political fraternity where early women entrants faced stiff resistance unless they were the mothers, wives or sisters of top leaders, she carved a niche for herself, albeit not without struggle. Even after having established her utility for the party by the early 1990s, she was often thrown into the deep end. Yet, Sushma Swaraj battled along, creating space and marking her presence mark against all odds.
Much of the paeans sung in her memory for having been a “people's foreign minister” and humanising the staid precincts of South Block, making the highbrow world of diplomacy within the reach of ordinary people when faced with bureaucratic apathy, stemmed from the necessity to seek a meaningful role for herself in a ministry where most policy decisions were made by the boss and officials. Yet, whenever the opportunity came her way, she left a little reminder of a belief that was a shade divergent.
In one such occasional opportunity on the high tables of global diplomacy came her way at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Abu Dhabi in March this year. By then, she had declared her intention not to contest the Lok Sabha elections. Sushma Swaraj spoke a vocabulary which was more inclusive that what this political leadership uses. In her address, the then foreign minister spoke what was expected from her when it came to cross-border terrorism — without mincing words she stated “states that provide shelter and funding to the terrorists” must be reminded of the necessity to dismantle the “infrastructure of the terrorist camps and stop providing funding and shelter”.
But what marked her distinction from others piloting Indian diplomacy was the emphatic opinion that the “menace (of terrorism) cannot be fought only through military, intelligence or diplomatic means”, and that the “battle that must be won through the strengths of our values, and the real message of religions”. Swaraj further delineated her finely nuanced position that “faiths must speak to faiths; cultures must engage cultures; communities must build bridges, not erect walls”.
Paradoxes are integral to political leaders and Swaraj too was human. Despite this statement, she published her widely-publicised tweet about having awaited all her life to see the day when Article 370 was abrogated. But while this may have been her goal, Swaraj would have certainly baulked at the path used by those now in charge of her party and government. If her memory is to be truly cherished by the party and its leaders, they would serve the cause by abandoning seeing Kashmir only as a a law and order tangle and instead look at the issue with the prism of Atal Behari Vajpayee.
With opening up of the media industry in the 1990s and the advent of television news, the BJP felt the need to put forth more persuasive voices , and Lal Krishna Advani zeroed in on her as one of the leading public advocates for the party. She often took the place of dour leaders who had spent decades in the Jan Sangh and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Although they were not exactly from the Paleolithic Age, they nonetheless were an era past and unwilling to learn that TV news had different necessities. Swaraj realised this early enough and had little hesitation in enquiring after interviews if she was sufficiently communicative and succinct. Yet, both traditionalists within the party and the emerging “boys-only” club of the party continued either being dismissive of her or, at best, remained sceptical of her abilities. It did not help that she was born into a wrong caste and in a state dominated then by Jat politics and an endless narrative of alternating loyalties. It mattered little that by now she had served two credible stints as a minister in the state, as labour minister initially and later in the ’80s as education minister and BJP representative in the Devi Lal-led coalition government.
Swaraj eventually enamoured herself with the ideological conservatives not just with her sanskari persona — courtesy her trademark sari, jacket, big bindi and long sindoor trail — but also with her decision as information and broadcasting minister in the fortnight-long Atal Behari Vajpayee ministry in 1996 — she prohibited an advertisement of a television major because it was considered offending Bharatiya sensibilities. She followed this with a spirited speech in the Lok Sabha while opposing the vote of confidence moved by H.D. Deve Gowda in which she did not shy of using in-depth knowledge of Hindu mythology and vocabulary — her tutelage under a father who was a junior RSS functionary possibly helped. Although she had shifted to New Delhi, from where she successfully contested the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, sceptics remained for she was seen as an “outsider”, someone who won the seat courtesy the Sangh Parivar’s traditional support.
Sushma Swaraj was never really allowed to settle in a single role within the party and asked to accomplish impossible tasks. Summarily moved out of the Union Cabinet in October, she was given just two months to win back Delhi for the BJP — a bid that failed in no small measure due to the Vajpayee government’s failure to control onion prices. A year later, she was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and forced on to an aircraft en route to Ballari to lock horns with Sonia Gandhi. Back in Parliament through the Rajya Sabha route, she eventually returned to the I&B ministry. But with the 2004 elections looming ahead, Pramod Mahajan replaced her on the assumption that she would fail to “manage” the media.
Time was when she too possibly aspired, along with others, to become the face of the BJP but was overtaken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Despite the setback, she remained a loyalist, defying people who looked for treachery in her statements. In the past five years, she had fashioned herself as the alter ego to the most powerful voice in the party, often the balancer and in this phase of the party’s political expansionism, her restraint shall be missed.