Sushma Swaraj’s was a remarkable journey of emerging as one of the key women voices in the right-of-centre stream of Indian politics
It was 2000, the turn of the present century. A leading Left-leaning academic in Delhi University was delivering the usual rambling lecture, meandering from Marxist theorist Louis Althusser’s work to radical feminist concerns. And then, the lecture strayed into lamenting the demeanour of Sushma Swaraj (1952-2019), the then Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting. In what was a show of naïve disconnect with everyday India, the professor exhorted Sushma Swaraj to do away with flaunting her bindi and the obvious sindoor for making her mark in male-dominated politics.
That’s how clueless a section of opinion-makers was about what Sushma Swaraj represented and what she meant for the everyday value system of millions of Indians, particularly women who looked up to her graceful presence in public life.
It wasn’t only Swaraj’s traditional appearance and her enthusiasm for Karva Chauth and Teej festivities that irked a section of Delhi chatterati; her cultural references to Indian epics also riled the Macaulyan citadels of patronising opinion. Their obvious response was ridicule.
One may jog one’s memory to a less-talked-about response to what was arguably her breakthrough moment in Parliament—her speech opposing the no-confidence motion against the short-lived Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1996. With a record viewership on Doordarshan, her intervention hogged the limelight in millions of homes for articulating core nationalistic convictions of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and for her imaginative use of India’s most-cherished epics to explain a political situation.
“When a Manthara and a Shakuni can deprive the likes of Lord Rama and Yudishthir their right to rule, then if you take a look at this House, you will find many Manthras and many Shakunis opposing us. How can we stay in power? Perhaps, it’s the fate of Ramrajya and Surajya that they are achieved after enduring setbacks,” Swaraj had remarked.
In what was an attempt of the Opposition to belittle the wide traction that the cultural idiom of Swaraj’s speech had got, P Chidambaram, then a member of the Tamil Maanila Congress, in his speech condescendingly downplayed Swaraj’s speech as “entertaining”.
For a large number of Indians, it was far more meaningful than what the Harvard-educated parliamentarian thought. The speech paved Swaraj’s ascendancy as one of the most articulate political figures in Parliament and a commanding political presence in the Hindi heartland.
For a woman born in 1952 in Ambala, Swaraj’s was a remarkable journey of emerging as one of the key women voices in the Right-of-centre stream of Indian politics. That she could do so without inheriting anything as legacy politics is significant. It was a path which saw her quitting a career in law and choosing to cut her teeth in active politics by opposing the Congress-imposed Emergency rule and later in her role as a young MLA and minister in Haryana.
While the Ayodhya movement and subsequent power consolidation might have catapulted more vocal women leaders in the BJP like Uma Bharti to the vortex of power politics, Swaraj held her own on her home turf in areas adjoining the national capital. In the process, she emerged as the poster-woman of BJP’s foray into the urban middle class. A successful electoral win in South Delhi and a short tenure as Delhi chief minister pitchforked more as an answer to Verma-Khurana power tussle in Delhi BJP and truncated by onion price outrage was part of that political profile. The fact that she ran a close race while losing to then Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Bellary in 1999, a time when the BJP hadn’t made any inroads in South India, was a sign of her growing national presence.
In what could be seen as a tale that never got its befitting conclusion, or for that matter a sense of closure, Swaraj’s place as the key member of the second line of leadership in the inevitable generational shift in the party remained a largely unfulfilled potential. In the power play of the Vajpayee-Advani bipolar allegiance in the late 1990s and early part of this century, her position was fodder for media speculation. Being in-charge of three key ministries at different points of time during the Vajpayee regime (health, information and broadcasting, and parliamentary affairs), she was seen as a claimant on the new power hierarchy of generational churning.
It was a perception that she did little to dispel. In the aftermath of the 2004 loss of power at the Centre, the BJP’s years of wilderness saw talks of a Jaitley-Swaraj bipolar power matrix as the factional claimants of the second-generation mantle in the party. This perception was further bolstered by veteran Lal Krishna Advani’s steady decline post the 2009 poll debacle suffered by the BJP and the RSS, clipping his wings far earlier for his controversial comment on Jinnah.
Eventually, Swaraj had to make peace with being an entrant who, unlike Jaitley, couldn’t be matched for his groundswell of support among party workers. While Jaitley sensed and actively encouraged support for Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Sushma Swaraj made the late adjustment to the inevitability of Modi’s rise as well as that of Amit Shah in the BJP’s future scheme of organisation and governance. The wide appeal of Modi and inherent party discipline made the choice easy for her, far easier than people expected. There are times when people realise the historical instrument of playing second fiddle. She did.
A long stint in power corridors of Delhi couldn’t possibly be unattended by allegations of favouritism. She was accused of having close ties with Bellary’s Reddy brothers—a taint she tried hard to wash by distancing herself once their names figured in reports of illegal mining. In a similar vein, she tried hard to defend herself against allegations of issuing a no-objection certificate (NOC) facilitation from the External Affairs ministry for fugitive Lalit Modi’s foreign travel when the British government approached. She clarified her position in Parliament, in face of the Opposition’s demand for resignation but buoyed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s full support for her argument.
Her stint as foreign minister in Modi government’s first term (May 2014 to May 2019) is remembered for its popularity, even though she was restricted by a very active Prime Minister’s office (PMO) in foreign affairs and large policy directions being shepherded by the PMO. She invested a lot of leadership capital in Twiplomacy—a trend, however, not devoid of its own set of dangers. In some cases, such risks of knee-jerk responses vis-à-vis rule of law were obvious, although she had her way because of her seniority and political weight.
Generally speaking, Twiplomacy is a neologism, which refers to the use of social media by the government, officials, and representatives for public interactions, information-sharing, and certain forms of soft power projection too. As recent years have shown, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), along with other ministries, has also used it for grievance-redressal with varying degrees of success. The MEA has two different sets of functions: its core diplomatic activities—pursuit of India’s national interest in bilateral or multilateral relations and negotiations—and pursuing the same in administrative activities like issuing passports, consular access and support, etc.
In both these spheres of activities, Twiplomacy—which was Swaraj’s signature style—can pose challenges, if not subjected to due rigour.
Considering the twin effects of citizen and digital diplomacy on the working of career diplomats, former British ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher came up with a book carrying a rather revealing title: Naked Diplomat (William Collins, 2017). Fletcher saw it as an important, democratic and irreversible process—something that even former foreign secretary of India Nirupama Rao echoed in her speech at UNESCO, Paris, last year, while dwelling on the theme of diplomacy in the age of social media. That, however, doesn’t rule out the pitfalls of instant diplomacy as it grapples with feed and reactions in a 24-hour information cycle.
Despite such oversight, she acquitted herself well in her tenure as foreign minister. It’s befitting that S Jaishankar, a career diplomat from Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and the foreign secretary during her leadership of the foreign ministry, has now replaced her in the office.
As if it were a sign of times, there seems a certain degree of poignancy, and even miniaturisation, to last her imprints on public memory. It’s now getting compressed in tweets. Her last tweet congratulating the Prime Minister for letting her see one of her wishes fulfilled during a lifetime, namely the abrogation of Article 370, is now documented history. Perhaps it’s poetic justice that the speech that made her a household talking point had a firm commitment to abrogating 370 too, though her government’s hands were tied with a fractured verdict. Now with the clear mandate and her party firmly placed in a position of strength, she was alive to see the fulfilment of a nationalistic cause. Her parting words were of deep satisfaction, happy words to leave the world with.
And, yes, like her appearances for festivities dear to her, she never let the university professor’s advice interfere with her sense of identity. Her sindoor and bindi were as firmly placed and obvious as ever.