Communication is not an add-on to modern government. It is in many ways intrinsic to government and sometimes, in certain conditions, it is what governance is all about. Gifted political communicators who transition into government never lose sight of that reality.
It serves them for two reasons. First, since communication is their strong suit (as politicians), they take it into their ministerial positions as well, leveraging their skills. Second, they recognise that the old binary of communication and access to decision-making and effective messaging being important in political campaigns but less so in the humdrum period of government no longer holds. There is no divide any longer; it is all a continuum. This is true for, and a challenge for, any democracy: be it the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States or of course India.
When she entered South Block as external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj brought these skills and a practised politician’s robust common sense to her office. She could have busied herself in files and meetings and diplomatic jargon and protocol — and distanced herself from her voters, her people and ordinary citizens. Indeed she has done all of those. If you draw up a list of BJP Cabinet ministers who diligently read their files and briefing notes and send back thought-out comments, Ms Swaraj will easily rank among the top two or three. She has given much of the limelight to her Prime Minister, but has worked assiduously behind the scenes.
When it has come to drawing a clearcut line, inevitably the government has had to turn to her. Diplomats at the Foreign Office speak of her hard chat with Mahinda Rajapaksa, then President of Sri Lanka; of that no-nonsense press conference in 2015 when the NSA-level talks between New Delhi and Islamabad got called off; and then the visit to Pakistan this past winter for the Heart of Asia conference that brought bilateral relations back on track — for a few short weeks at least!
That effort, that willingness to shoulder responsibility, that readiness to lend political weight to a diplomatic message, that gut instinct that can only come from a grassroots politician who knows the limits of public patience as well as the bounds of national interest, and is ready to attempt to find a sweet spot where they meet — Sushma Swaraj understands this as few others do.
The external affairs ministry is always a difficult place to be in if the Prime Minister has a strong diplomatic agenda and foreign policy orientation. This was as true of Benjamin Disraeli as Tony Blair, and in India of virtually every Prime Minister from 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru was his own foreign minister, as were for short stints all other Congress Prime Ministers. Indira Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh ran the MEA through the Prime Minister’s Office. When Dinesh Singh was ill, P.V. Narasimha Rao managed foreign policy in direct communication with the foreign secretary.
Sushma Swaraj could have worried about these precedents when she became external affairs minister, but rather than fret about the prime ministerial authorship of foreign policy — a reality in today’s world or perhaps in any world — she decided to sidestep the issue and reinvent her role. Using Twitter and the social media with aplomb, she made herself accessible to ordinary people and their concerns. This helped make foreign policy and the workings of the MEA intelligible and relevant to ordinary citizens, and gave them a stake in the ministry, rather than allowed it to persist as some sort of hallowed hall into which ordinary Indians had limited entry.
Ordinary citizens come into contact with the MEA only when there are matters related to passports and visas, being stranded overseas, or a family member being at some risk in a faraway land. In such circumstances, they seek reassurance from their government and their political leadership. The consul-general in a particular overseas city may choose to be helpful but that help is episodic and individual-dependent. Regrettably, this had not been institutionalised in the MEA all these years.
It is to the credit of the Narendra Modi-Sushma Swaraj team that addressing the legitimate problems of Indian citizens at home and the Indian diaspora overseas has now been written into the mandate of all Indian diplomatic missions and of the MEA headquarters. The fact that the minister is ready to respond to that proverbial “3 am tweet” gives this mechanism a certain credibility.
Sushma Swaraj has effected this shift brilliantly and has set the bar extremely high for future foreign ministers. In acting as the people’s minister, she has essentially been the first to see the MEA as a public service office, one that must touch the lives of ordinary men and women if it is to get its necessary political weight. In the times to come, they could call this transformation the Sushma Doctrine.