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Sushma Swaraj: A fiery leader and a people's politician

Sushma Swaraj(File photo:IANS)
Sushma Swaraj(File photo:IANS)
Fiery, feisty and indefatigable, former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who died on Tuesday, was a leader who fit many roles in her long political leader. She might be remembered best for giving an all-new dimension to the role of foreign minister by being proactive in reaching out to Indians in distress in foreign lands.
 
But looking back, it was equally important to have contested against Sonia Gandhi in Bellary on the Congress leader's electoral debut in what was billed as a videshi bahu' versus bharatiya nari' contest. Bellary was then a Congress safe seat and for the BJP it was important to fight against the then new Congress president because the latter's foreign origin was an important political issue at the time.
 
Her brief tenure as Delhi chief minister was important, too, for she broke a glass ceiling as the first woman chief minister of the state. That was about as important as being the youngest cabinet minister at 25 years in the Haryana cabinet in 1977.
 
Her proximity to Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart L. K. Advani was what led to her rise. She was one of the four Advani acolytes who came to be known as the D4, the four powerful leaders from Delhi who pretty much dominated the party at the time: Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Ananth Kumar and M. Venkaiah Naidu.
 
It was because of the power that they wielded that two of the D4 came to occupy top positions in the party structure when the BJP was in opposition during UPA rule -- Sushma Swaraj was leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha and Arun Jaitley was leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
 
Being outspoken and clear-headed got her into the headlines. What perhaps contributed to that was her confidence in herself -- and that she was never afraid to walk alone. Perhaps that was why she allowed media persons to walk up to her and ask questions.
 
For her supporters, there might have been mixed feelings about some of the controversies surrounding her -- like facilitating the foreign travel documents of former cricket administrator Lalit Modi in 2011 and dancing at Gandhi Samadhi in Rajghat while staging a protest. Her explanations, forceful though they were, had appeared less than fully convincing.
 
She got into a spot of bother when a photograph of her apparently blessing the controversial Bellary brothers appeared in the media. Behind the damage limitation exercise that followed were rumours of her face-off with a prominent party leader because she thought she was taking the fall for someone else's association with the Bellary duo -- that while the BJP leader had backed them, she was being made to look poorly in public because of the photograph. Party insiders say that even though she had moved on from the episode, she never forgave the BJP leader. 
 
Sushma Swaraj might not have been in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's inner circle but she held her own, often winning praise from the Prime Minister for her role as External Affairs Minister. Delhi's insidious grapevine had suggested that she was asked to contest for the Lok Sabha this year but she declined, citing health reasons. The truth about that might never be made public.
 
Women politicians, even the fiery among them, often come to be regarded as mother figures in their later years. Sushma Swaraj was no exception and her role as External Affairs Minister endorsed this image of her. But, behind that amiable exterior was a politician of immense calibre and top-grade firepower. Indeed, those who saw her for the first time were often surprised that she was not quite tall.
 
Hours before she passed away, Sushma Swaraj had tweeted her congratulations to the Prime Minister and Home Minister for the decision on Article 370. Here too, she had a role to play -- through her speech in the Lok Sabha in 1996 when she spoke on the BJP's plan to remove Article 370, which is in the party's core agenda, along with a uniform civil code and building a Ram temple at Ayodhya.
 
For a committed BJP leader, it is likely that she would have been at peace following the government's decision on the contentious constitutional provision.
 
"Thank you Prime Minister. Thank you very much. I was waiting to see this day in my lifetime," she said on Twitter on Tuesday evening.
 
That was her last communication on the social media platform on which she had over 13 million followers. She was active in tweeting about major happenings, though she decided against contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections or on joining the Narendra Modi 2.0 government due to health reasons.
 
Sushma, who died aged 67, tweeted her condolences on Congress leader Sheila Dikshit's death on July 20, writing that though they were opponents in politics, but were friends in personal life.
 
Sushma, who brought her innate grace and charm into her work, was not cowed by twitter trolls either.
 
In fact when one troll told her, that like Sheila Dikshit, she too would be remembered after her death, Sushma took it sportingly, tweeting back: "I thank you in anticipation for this kind thought."
 
Though she was overshadowed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who undertook the major trips and diplomatic dealings during her tenure as External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj did not retire into the shadows. She made her mark in her own way – connecting with the diaspora far and wide, and reaching out to help them.
 
She would respond to every appeal for assistance, and make sure the Indian missions responded to the requests. In this way she gave the human touch to the Ministry of External Affairs, and won millions of admirers across the world, including many in Pakistan.
 
Many Pakistani patients would appeal to her for medical visas via twitter, and Sushma would try to accommodate their requests. She would also connect with some of the Pakistanis who she helped get emergency medical visas. In 2017, she won admiration when she granted a year-long medical visa to a Pakistani girl Shireen Shiraz for an open heart surgery.
 
As Leader of Opposition in the 15th Lok Sabha, Sushma was a formidable and compelling speaker. She would attack the ruling Congress-led UPA without pulling any punches, and once Parliament was witness to a fierce poetic exchange between her and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
 
In 2013, when Manmohan Singh used an Urdu couplet to hit out at the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, Sushma Swaraj responded in kind.
 
Manmohan Singh, accusing the BJP of making unwarranted attacks on his government, had recited a couplet of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. "Humko hai unse wafa ki umeed, jo nahi jaante wafa kya hai (we hope for loyalty from those who do not know the meaning of the word)," the then Prime Minister said, quoting famous Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib.
 
Retorting, Sushma narrated a verse of Hindi poet Bashir Badr: "Kuch to majbooriya rahi hongi yun koi bewafa nahi hota (there must have been some compulsions, one is not disloyal for no reason at all)."
 
She then quoted another verse: "Tumhe wafa yaad nahee, Humein jafa yaad nahee, zindagi or maut ke toh do hee tarane hain, ek tumhein yaad nahee, ek humein yaad naheen (you don't remember loyalty, we don't remember disloyalty, life and death have two rhythms, you don't remember one, we don't remember the other)."
 
Sushma, who was always attired in wide-bordered saris and donned a trademark big red bindi and sindoor, had carved a niche in the BJP through effective presentation of her views both inside and outside Parliament.
 
Following the 2004 elections when the Congress was set to form the government and the name of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi was being touted as likely prime minister, Sushma threatened to shave her head, wear a white saree and eat groundnuts (symbolical of mourning) if Sonia became Prime Minister.
 
Married to Swaraj Kaushal, a former Mizoram Governor, Sushma had contested against Sonia in Bellary (Karnataka) during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. While Gandhi polled 51.7 per cent of the vote, Sushma was not too far behind with 44.7 per cent. Though she lost the polls, Sushma moved up the party ladder.
 
Born on February 14, 1952 at Ambala Cantonment, Sushma earned a B.A. degree in political science. She studied LL.B. in Panjab University, Chandigarh. She married Swaraj Kaushal on July 13, 1975, during the time of the Emergency.
 
An advocate by profession, she began her political career as a student leader in the 1970s, organizing protests against Indira Gandhi's government.
 
She was associated with many social and cultural bodies in various capacities. She was President of the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, Haryana for four years.
 
She twice became MLA from Haryana during 1977-1982 and 1987-1990, and once from Delhi in 1998.
 
As a Janata Party MLA in Devi Lal's government, she was the Cabinet Minister of Labour and Employment (1977-1979) – becoming the youngest ever Cabinet Minister in the country at 25 years of age. She joined the BJP in 1980. Under a combined Lok Dal-BJP government led by Devi Lal, she was the Cabinet Minister of Education, Food and Civil Supplies (1987-1990). She was judged Best Speaker of Haryana State Assembly for three consecutive years.
 
In 1980, 1984, and 1989, she unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha elections from Karnal in Haryana. All three times, she was defeated by the Congress Party's Chiranji Lal Sharma.
 
She was elected as a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1990. In 1996, she was elected to the 11th Lok Sabha from South Delhi. She was Union Cabinet Minister of Information and Broadcasting in 1996, during the 13-day Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. She was re-elected to the 12th Lok Sabha for a second term in 1998.
 
Under the second Vajpayee government, she retained the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and had additional charge of the Ministry of Telecommunications from March 19 to October 12, 1998.
 
Sushma left the Union Cabinet from October-December 1998 to serve as the first woman Chief Minister of Delhi. The BJP lost the assembly elections, and she returned to national politics.
 
Sushma returned to Parliament in April 2000 as a Rajya Sabha member from Uttarakhand. She was re-inducted into the cabinet as the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, which she held from September 2000 until January 2003.
 
She was also made the Minister of Health and Family Welfare, and held the post of Minister of Parliamentary Affairs. She was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha in April 2006 from Madhya Pradesh. She served as the deputy leader of BJP in Rajya Sabha.
 
In late 2005, speculation was high that Sushma was one of the top contenders to be BJP president after L.K. Advani resigned. However, Rajnath Singh was elected to that post.
 
In 2009, Sushma won the election to the 15th Lok Sabha from Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, by a record margin of 3.89 lakh votes.
 
She was made Deputy Leader of the Opposition in June 2009 in the Lok Sabha, and in December that year Sushma became the first woman Leader of the Opposition when she replaced Advani.
 
IANS
 

(Our News Desk can be contacted at desk@netindian.in)

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