Fighter, empathiser

Sushma Swaraj had admirers across the political spectrum

Sushma Swaraj (Feb 14, 1952 - Aug 6, 2019) | Sanjay Ahlawat Sushma Swaraj (Feb 14, 1952 - Aug 6, 2019) | Sanjay Ahlawat

Fear was not even the last thing [on our minds]. We knew we had to fight the Emergency and defend George Fernandes. And so, we became his lawyers.”

THAT WAS HOW Sushma Swaraj, Haryana’s labour and social welfare minister in 1977 (after the Emergency), described the way she and her husband, Swaraj Kaushal, became a part of the legal team that defended Janata Party leader George Fernanades in the Baroda dynamite conspiracy. All of 25, Sushma risked taking on prime minister Indira Gandhi. It was a time when many of Sushma’s age were struggling to find jobs.

As warm, friendly and humane Sushma was, it was her fearlessness that stood out among her sterling qualities. It came to the fore again when she took on another Mrs Gandhi in 1999 in Bellary. With Swaraj as her last name, and ‘swadeshi beti versus videshi bahu’ as her theme, Sushma, who had the gift of quickly picking up new languages, sported a jasmine gajra around the neat bun at the nape of her neck, and spoke in Kannada, at rallies and to individuals. She told them why she, and not Sonia Gandhi, should be elected to the Lok Sabha from the mineral-rich constituency. Sushma did not fear that she would lose; she gave it her everything. Though she lost to Sonia, the election linked her and the BJP to Karnataka for the first time.

A powerful orator, Sushma not only opened her campaign speech in Bellary in the local language, but also spoke in it till the end. She did need a bit of help, but her 40-minute speech in Kannada was not memorised, she told this reporter, adding humbly that it was a divine blessing for which she was grateful. She also had another divine gift: no matter how many people she met at gatherings, if she met them later, she would greet them, addressing them by their names. Such traits made people open their hearts to her.

Early in her career, many political parties had sensed that Sushma’s would be an enduring political career and wanted her on their side. When the Janata Party split, she was spoilt for choice. Among those who wooed her was the Congress—a party she opposed tooth and nail. It was the affable Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s inspirational qualities that made her choose the BJP.

The choice opened up the whole country for this under-30 player from Haryana. She not only became an MP, but also won the Outstanding Parliamentarian Award in 2004. She would later explain that it was not just about her ability to speak, but also about what she spoke, the homework that had gone into it and her behaviour in Parliament. Her speeches in both houses won her admirers and friends across the political spectrum. There was never an offensive remark or comment.

The Congress, particularly Sonia Gandhi, had taken in their stride Sushma’s famous emotional outburst in 2004, and treated it as political diatribe. She announced that she would tonsure her head, wear a white sari, sleep on the floor and eat only roasted channa if the Italy-born Sonia became the prime minister. Despite this, the two leaders have often shared warm exchanges inside and outside Parliament.

In the Vajpayee era, Sushma was a cabinet minister and held different portfolios. After that, when the BJP was a formidable opposition to the Congress, Sushma found an encouraging, appreciative mentor in veteran L.K. Advani. A few months after he failed to lead the BJP to victory in 2009, Advani proudly presented Sushma as his successor to the post of leader of the opposition. When she was given the ministry of external affairs portfolio by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, she was admired for the way she handled her relationship with the prime minister and the man who missed being one—her friend and guide, Advani.

During Sushma’s last official stint, Modi seemed to be driving foreign policy. But she would touch Indian hearts the world over by reaching out to those stranded outside the country. She made the Indian embassy their home. Even Pakistanis who needed urgent attention of Indian doctors got medical visas, irrespective of the border situation. She did it all, even as she herself battled ill-health, with kidney transplants weakening her.

The nation bids adieu to a person who, as a cabinet minister in Haryana, shared with other parents a bench outside the Carmel Convent’s principal’s office, as she waited for daughter Bansuri’s admission. Over 40 years of an empathetic, transparent and clean public life will be her legacy.