Sushma Swaraj: A people’s politician
Just a few hours before she collapsed and died, former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had tweeted her thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for revoking Article 370 on Jammu and Kashmir. “Thank you Prime Minister. Thank you very much. I was waiting to see this day in my lifetime.”
That was her last communication on the social media platform on which she had over 13 million followers. She was active on 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.