The party took full advantage, and rightly so, of her ability to speak loudly and clearly, with force and conviction.
Sushma Swaraj, who had passed away suddenly in New Delhi on Tuesday night, had more in her than what she was able to do in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and in the BJP governments of Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi. Her oratorial skills were put to the maximum use in Parliament when she was in the Opposition and during the election campaigns of the party. The party took full advantage, and rightly so, of her ability to speak loudly and clearly, with force and conviction. She was recognised as an able leader in the organisation. She should have but did not become the president of the party, which could have been unique. She did not belong to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) circle, and you did not become BJP president if you did not belong there. The invisible glass ceiling just could not be broken.
In the various ministries that she handled — information and broadcasting, health, and parliamentary affairs under Atal Behari Vajpayee and external affairs under Narendra Modi — she was sure-footed, but it appeared that she just did what was required. She did not do more. But she was capable of much more than she was asked to do, and perhaps allowed to do. When she had to make a point, she would make it with great clarity and sharpness. It was during her stint as information and broadcasting minister that India’s popular Mumbai cinema was first present at the highbrow Cannes film festival and a Raj Kapoor retrospective was shown, much to the chagrin of the arthouse cinema priests. During the Doklam standoff, she told the Rajya Sabha that India would have to counter China with its economic strength and not through military prowess. It was a great insight into India’s strategic thinking. But there were very few occasions when she could rise to the occasion as this one, and deliver a good punch.
Similarly, she was eloquent in the Rajya Sabha around the same time about India’s unwavering support to statehood for the Palestinian people. And in response to the Opposition’s criticism that India was isolated in the world, she countered with the influence that India exerted during the Yemen crisis, when Saudi Arabia facilitated the evacuation of Indians stranded there, and how other Western countries too sought Indian help. Foreign policy is not just about deft diplomatic handling of issues behind closed doors. It also requires a clear articulation of India’s position. But very rarely she had the opportunity to do so because of the dominance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Prime Minister’s Office. Of course, she was not an exception. Jaswant Singh faced the same problem with Atal Behari Vajpayee’s PMO headed by Brajesh Mishra.
With the kind of briefing that she would have got from Indian diplomats, she would have made an eloquent brand ambassador for India’s foreign policy outlook and thinking. It was a great opportunity that India missed. She kept a low profile as a senior minister in the Modi government. Something that did not go unnoticed.
Sushma Swaraj nursed no grudges and showed no resentment. She remained unaffected by the turf wars in the party and in the government. She was made to contest against then Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Ballari in 1999. She put everything she had into it, though it was clear that she was not going to win. The party, without intending to do so, perhaps made a scapegoat of her. It was the same case when she was asked to take charge as chief minister of Delhi, which became necessary because of the squabbles inside the Delhi unit of the BJP. But she kept away from controversies.
It can be said that she prepared the way for the emergence of finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and women and child welfare and textiles minister Smriti Irani. She showed that it is possible to rise to the top on the strength of one’s own talent in the BJP, where there is still scope for talented people to survive.
Ideologically, she was an intelligent, conservative politician with the flair for making a point. The BJP should be grateful that it had Sushma Swaraj among its leaders. There were moments, which were rare, when she could overdo the melodramatic gesture as when she threatened to shave off her head if Sonia Gandhi became Prime Minister in 2004. But that was not her usual self. She was self-possessed to an extreme degree, and rarely allowed herself either emotional or rhetorical indulgence.
There was also the rare moment, according to reports, when she criticised the Vajpayee government for the lack of a Kashmir policy at a party meeting in Nagpur in 2000. Or when she clearly disagreed and disapproved of her mentor Lal Krishna Advani’s endorsement of Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s “secular” credentials. It would have been great if she had crossed swords with the leaders in her party on issues and ideas more often than she did because she had the fire and the conviction to do so. The BJP would have benefited hugely from this untapped potential of hers. But we have glimpses of her brilliance, which showed the glint of this apparently little woman from Ambala. She was acutely aware of her simple background, that whatever she had achieved was through sheer grit. She had achieved much and let us know that she was capable of much more than she had achieved.