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Sushma Swaraj: The uncompromising leader

Whether one agreed with Swaraj or not, she stuck to her guns and refused to be bullied by critics.

ET CONTRIBUTORS|
Aug 10, 2019, 11.00 PM IST
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Sushma Swaraj, always feisty and friendly, will forever be remembered as the people’s minister.
By Shakti Sinha

The end was sudden. Even though Sushma Swaraj had opted out of contesting the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year on account of ill health, her general demeanour and her actions was not of someone who was unwell.

Her last tweet expressing her joy that she had lived to see the end of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir seemed almost prophetic. People, who had met her earlier in the day, said she looked hale and hearty and relaxed. But looks can be deceptive.

In retrospect, one can say that about her political life too but in a positive way. She was happy and smiling, got along with people easily but she could be uncompromising and tough as nails when pushed into a corner.

Though appointed a minister in the Chaudhary Devi Lal government in Haryana in 1977 when she was just 25, Swaraj did not let her lack of experience or political stature come in the way of standing up to the chief minister.

Though Devi Lal once announced he was sacking Swaraj as minister claiming she was “incompetent”, she stood her ground till Janata Party chief Chandra Shekhar read the riot act to the chief minister. Devi Lal had to yield and ultimately he and Swaraj got along so well that she again became a minister in his government from 1987-90.



Though during her university days she was associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, after her marriage to lawyer Swaraj Kaushal, she became close to the socialists and joined the Janata Party, which emerged in 1977 when major opposition parties submerged their identities to fight Indira Gandhi.

Swaraj later joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which emerged from the breakdown of the Janata Party in 1980, and stuck to it till the very end.

Her identification with BJP’s conservative cultural base was seen to be total, for which she had to face criticism during her tenure as the Information & Broadcasting Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government of 1998.

Whether one agreed with Swaraj or not, she stuck to her guns and refused to be bullied by critics.

Politically, her most awkward movement happened in 1998, when just ahead of the assembly elections in Delhi, she was pitchforked as chief minister with no background in local politics. The BJP was a divided house and her tenure as the first woman chief minister of Delhi lasted barely 52 days, with the Congress sweeping the polls.

Though the BJP has done well in most Lok Sabha and municipal elections in Delhi since then, it has not yet succeeded in winning a majority in the assembly. This setback to Swaraj’s career took nearly two years to heal, and she again returned to the Vajpayee government as union minister in 2000.

Swaraj was an effective parliamentarian and Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha from 2009 to 2014, but she would forever be remembered as a people’s minister, a moniker she earned as the external affairs minister in the first Narendra Modi government from 2014 to 2019.

She was active on Twitter and demonstrated an ability to not only connect with people but also to help them out when in trouble.

The people to whose rescue she came to were not just Indians across the world but also foreigners who wanted to come to India to seek medical treatment. Whether it was an Indian NGO worker in Kabul, a Christian priest in Yemen or a physically-challenged girl who had wandered into Pakistan, she was there for them.

Despite her failing health, for which she had to undergo a kidney transplant, her energy levels were high. She remembered people she had met years before, and had absolutely no airs about her. One could say she was empathy personified.

Much has been made of the fact that with a Prime Minister extremely active in building foreign relations, Swaraj was reduced to being a human face for the ministry.

Nothing could be further from the truth. One, all heads of governments drive their country’s foreign policy. This does not make foreign ministers irrelevant.

Far from it, summits and high-level meetings are successful only if adequate preparatory work has been done. After the event, the decisions taken have to be followed up. The foreign ministry under Swaraj’s stewardship rose to the occasion and delivered. Most of this work of preparation and follow-up are outside the public eye and unglamorous but are vital.

Also, the Prime Minister cannot be everywhere. Who can forget Swaraj calling out Pakistan for producing terrorists when India concentrated on IITs, IIMs and AIIMS? Or her and then defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman engaging with US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo and Defence Secretary James N Mattis at the 2+2 Dialogue.

At the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, Swaraj drew attention as somebody not overawed by her peers.

The feisty yet friendly leader would be missed.

(The writer is director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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