Sushma Swaraj: The Rare Leader Who Prioritised People Over Politics

Politics

Sushma Swaraj: The Rare Leader Who Prioritised People Over Politics

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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ong before Mahua Moitra of the TMC became an internet sensation with her fiery speeches, before Priyanka Gandhi’s photo-ops with farmers across UP, and before Mamata Banerjee brought her famed “poriborton” to Bengal, one woman was quietly making her mark with her passionate and well-argued take on everything from Kashmir to the historic no-confidence motion that brought down the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2003. In videos that have surfaced since her demise last night, Sushma Swaraj is all fire and brimstone, combining grit with eloquence. 

For the generation of self-styled political commentators, who have been familiar with the former MEA’s Twitter diplomacy, these videos are a telling commentary on her stature as one of the tallest parliamentarians we have had.

Even when Swaraj was fighting tooth and nail for her political ideology, she never let go of her humanity and empathy — the reason why her appeal cut across political and cultural lines. Whether or not you subscribed to her party’s hardline agenda, you would have chuckled at the way she handled some of the trickiest diplomatic challenges, embraced a totally new medium to not only stay relevant to a new generation of Indians around the world, but also give the nameless, faceless MEA a lovable, and on occasions, a delightfully cheeky avatar. 

In a government that is often criticised for its inaccessibility and opaqueness, Swaraj won hearts around the world for her ability to reach out and make a difference. And her outreach efforts began well before the advent of social media.

Swaraj’s demise opened up a floodgate of emotions for the physically challenged Geeta who had been picked up from Lahore station and kept in a charity home for 18 years.

BRYAN R.SMITH/AFP/Getty Images

Between 2000 and 2003, when Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, Swaraj was the Minister for Information and Broadcasting. In 2003 she was instrumental in organising a rather unique meet-and-greet with the PM on the occasion of Women’s Day on March 8. Delhi’s female journalists received a special invitation from the PMO, to a high tea in the lawns of his official residence. There was no political agenda, but simply an effort to engage with the community in a relaxed, friendly environment. The lawns that day were teeming with hundreds of young and veteran women journalists, who sipped some fine tea and nibbled on an assortment of snacks. Some of them would have ripped into both Swaraj and her boss even a few hours ago in their respective media offices. But they were all greeted with the same cordial welcome. There was also a photo session with the PM and Swaraj, where everyone from Barkha Dutt to a rookie such as I, got equal opportunity. It was a generous, and extremely civil affair, driven by Swaraj, who had been perhaps schooled in the Vajpayee school of politics. It was this civility that she brought to her most recent avatar as the external affairs minister in the Modi cabinet, showing us how her heart was always in the right place. 

While PM Modi was carrying on with his swashbuckling style of engaging with global leaders on diplomatic platforms, Swaraj was running a tight ship back at home, the perfect foil to his blustering ways. And she did it with such grace and humour that it brought into sharp focus the virulent outbursts of her other colleagues on social media. Say a Smriti Irani or Tripura governor Tathagata Ray who are known for their penchant for virtual ambush.

Who can forget the swiftness with which Swaraj handled the tricky issue of rescuing Indians stranded abroad because of political problems, loss of passport or even domestic abuse? It was thanks to her dogged pursuit of the high-profile case of Kulbhushan Jadhav that India was able to score a victory in the International Court of Justice. Similarly for Indian national Hamid Ansari, who had been in a Pakistani jail for more than three years. 

Swaraj’s demise opened up a floodgate of emotions for the physically challenged Geeta who had been picked up from Lahore station and kept in a charity home for 18 years. Swaraj’s personal interest in Geeta’s case soon became public and following a tweet from a lawyer in Pakistan, the massive effort to bring home “India’s daughter” was launched and successfully executed. Swaraj will also be remembered for the infinitesimally complex Operation Raahat in 2015, where 1,947 foreign nationals and 4,741 Indians were rescued by air and sea routes through war-torn Yemen. 

With her passing, the BJP has lost its humane face, its most loved and revered parliamentarian, and its most charming, affable Twitter warrior.

Not just Indians, Swaraj was as helpful towards foreign nationals who were in need of help in India. From a missing Dutch woman in Hrishikesh to a Japanese tourist who was raped in Kerala, Swaraj was accessible and effective every time a tweet went out to her. What touched everyone was the way she put to good use her diplomatic powers and her deep empathy. After she evacuated 91 Spanish citizens stranded in Nepal during the 2015 earthquake, the Spanish government conferred her with their top civic award of merit.

Her earnest and quick response earned her the title of “India’s Supermom” in an article by The Washington Post. In the same article, Vikas Swarup, the foreign ministry spokesman, said that her “personal interventions on social media are really an extension of her personality — empathetic and caring to those in distress, wherever they may be.” In other words, Swaraj, unlike every other politician you may have known, did not fake it. 

Yes, there were missteps. You may not have agreed with the way she came down on Amazon Canada when it was selling doormats with what seemed like the Indian flag printed on them, threatening to deport every single employee trying to enter India. Or for that matter the way she attacked Sadanand Dhume, for criticising her work in an op-ed for The Times of India. But she also stood her ground when an interfaith couple asked for her help, despite her party’s stated stance against such unions, and weathered the vitriol of Twitter trolls in the aftermath. 

Swaraj had quite a few milestones in her long and distinguished career. Granting the film business the status of an industry is one of them. But what will remain as her truest legacy is her ability to connect with people, even when she remained tough as nails, committed to her idea of the BJP, and India. One of her last tweets was in fact congratulating her PM for scrapping Article 370, a dream that she had seeded in one of her fiery speeches in the ’90s. With petite frame wrapped up in a saree, jacket, bindi, and a matronly demeanour, she was every bit the grandmother who would make pickles and dole out homegrown wisdom to her grandchildren. But this former Supreme Court lawyer was a living example of how you can always trust a woman to take on the rough and tumble of a public life and an eventful political career, without making a fuss.

With her passing, the BJP has lost its humane face, its most loved and revered parliamentarian, and its most charming, affable Twitter warrior. She was the soft power in a ministry known for its clenched, iron fist.

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