IT WAS THIS same month of Sawan, considered to be one of the holiest in the Hindu calendar, when BJP leader Sushma Swaraj treated all journalists to ghevar, an Indian cake dipped in sugar syrup, in her chamber in Parliament House, on a rainy day. She was then leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Swaraj knew each journalist in the room by name and made sure everyone, some of whom were unfamiliar with the dessert, tasted it.
It was a regular exercise for political journalists, during Parliament sessions, to flit between her office and that of her Rajya Sabha counterpart Arun Jaitley, half-way down the circular corridor, for informal interactions. Like Jaitley’s, her doors would be open for the media. She would share the BJP’s position on issues, answer questions, discuss bills, narrate anecdotes, laugh, and at times, get angry, but no one was barred from approaching her. One fine day, she decided to put an end to these interactions, anguished at being misquoted by the media on a comment on the presidential election. During one off-the-record chat with journalists in her chamber in 2012, while explaining the BJP’s stand on the choice of President, she was quoted as saying that the then Vice President Hamid Ansari did not have the stature to be President. The import of what Swaraj said was not only misinterpreted, but she was also quoted from an off-the-record interaction with newspersons, a breach of a ground rule of journalism. Thereafter, she had been guarded, maintaining a stoic silence as far as sharing information in informal interactions with the media was concerned.
As External Affairs Minister in the Narendra Modi Government from 2014 to 2019, she invited journalists every winter for an elaborate formal lunch in the lawns of Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan, the ministry headquarters. Swaraj interacted with everyone, shifting from one table to another, greeting all with a warm smile, as she played a gracious host in her trademark attire of saree and a matching waistcoat. But she remained tight-lipped about affairs of the state or politics. She was one of the most accessible external affairs ministers, and yet the most reticent.
In some ways, her low profile as External Affairs Minister helped her, keeping her away from controversy, as she quietly adhered to the protocol that her portfolio demanded and focused on the task before her. She took to Twitter, not just to speak her mind when she desired to but to also play the role of messiah for Indians in distress abroad. As word spread about tales of her saving hapless people, who reached out to her through the micro-blogging social network from some corner of the world, a man said ‘stuck on mars’, tagging her. She responded: ‘Even if you are stuck on the [sic]Mars, Indian Embassy there will help you.’ Seen as a reluctant supporter of Narendra Modi as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013, when her mentor LK Advani quit from key posts in protest, Swaraj reconciled to a role restricted to the boundaries of her ministry, keeping away from organisational matters. She slipped into her new assignment with ease, doing what she had to—meeting visiting heads of state/government—and made ‘fast-track diplomacy’ the catchphrase of her tenure. At her first media interaction, she said it had three aspects—proactive, strong and sensitive.
In the end too, she took to Twitter to respond to the Modi Government’s recent decision to do away with special status for Jammu and Kashmir, burying Article 370. ‘Thank you Prime Minister. Thank you very much. I was waiting to see this day in my lifetime,’ she tweeted in Hindi and English, hours before she suffered a cardiac arrest and passed away, at the age of 67, on Tuesday night. Earlier that night, the Lok Sabha had passed Government resolutions abolishing Article 370 and the Bill to bifurcate the state into two Union Territories—Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh. Over two decades ago, Swaraj, in passionate oratory that drew applause and brickbats in Parliament, days after the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government fell in 1996, had minced no words in underlining the BJP’s commitment to abolishing Article 370.
Her feisty defence of the BJP’s contentious manifesto promises was not blunted by her socialist roots as a politician. Janata Dal(U) leader KC Tyagi recalls how she stood by socialist leader George Fernandes when he was put behind bars during the Emergency and campaigned for him in Muzaffarpur in Bihar. “People say she used to hold public meetings till 4 am in Muzaffarpur,” he says. Swaraj, a law graduate who was part of Fernandes’ legal team, raised the slogan “Jail ka phatak tootega, George hamara chhootega (the jail gates will be broken and our George will be released)”.
Former Samata Party President Jaya Jaitley quotes Fernandes as telling her that Swaraj and her husband, Swaraj Kaushal, also a lawyer who was with the Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha, “locked their door in Chandigarh and landed in Delhi” to help him. Fernandes won the Muzaffarpur seat in absentia that year. That same year, at 25, Swaraj won her first election from the Ambala Assembly seat and became the youngest ever cabinet minister in the Devi Lal government in Haryana. She later wanted a ticket to fight from Delhi, but in the internal feud in the Janata Party, she was denied that, says Jaitley. Swaraj, who had a family background in the RSS, joined the BJP in 1984. “Any woman in politics, who can show she can win will not be pushed down. You need to be a winner and she was one,” she says.
Swaraj went on to become education minister in the state in the BJP-Lok Dal coalition government in 1987. A seven-time Lok Sabha MP, in her last election, which she fought from Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, she won with a margin of over 400,000 votes. Having undergone a kidney transplant in December 2016, she decided against fighting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on health grounds.
HER FORMER CABINET and party colleague Yashwant Sinha recalls that in October 1997, when he went to Patna after being appointed the BJP’s Bihar unit chief, he had called her up to request her to go for a television debate in New Delhi. They were both party spokespersons. “She was furious that I was in Bihar and said ‘we have lost our finance minister’. The elections had not even been announced then, but she said this to me,” recalls Sinha. Swaraj was confident that the BJP would come to power in the Lok Sabha elections of 1998. Sinha did become finance minister in the Vajpayee regime in March 1998.
At that time, as Union Information and Broadcasting Minister, she had before her two major proposals—giving industry status to films and allowing Direct to Home (DTH) television in India. “The process had started, amidst apprehensions being raised about DTH. She was determined to go ahead with them. Midway, she was moved to the Telecommunications Ministry,” says Union Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who was then minister of state for information and broadcasting. However, Swaraj helped Naqvi, who was given independent charge of the ministry, to complete the process. Every year, Naqvi went to her house to get a rakhi tied by her.
Eloquent, warm and fiery, Swaraj carved out her space in the male-dominated rough and tumble of politics in the 1970s. When she believed in something, she took it to fanatical levels. That was her style. It was also what often brought her into the spotlight. Ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, she launched a revolt against UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who is of Italian origin, becoming the country’s Prime Minister. She threatened to shave off her head and sleep on the floor, symbols of mourning, if a “foreigner” led the country. The UPA came to power after the elections, but Gandhi offered the post of Prime Minister to Manmohan Singh.
Gandhi and Swaraj are known to have a relationship that has blown hot and cold. In 1999, when Gandhi had decided to contest from Ballari, a Congress bastion in Karnataka, the BJP fielded Swaraj as her challenger. Neither of the politicians had links with Ballari. While Gandhi could barely speak Hindi fluently then, Swaraj took lessons in Kannada, which she used in her rallies. Diligent, as she was in every challenge that was thrown at her, she fought the battle tooth and nail. Ballari’s Reddy mining barons helped her during the campaign, though the relationship later returned to haunt her in the light of the mounting charges of illegal mining against them. When Swaraj lost the election by 7 per cent votes, she said: “I lost the battle, but won the war.” She did not forget Ballari, although she did not fight another election from there. She visited the city on several occasions, particularly during the Varamahalakshmi puja. Eventually, Ballari became a BJP stronghold.
“I am always optimistic,” she would say. Her last tweet vindicated her.