Sushma Swaraj: Compassionate to the core

Print edition : August 30, 2019

Sushma Swaraj. Photo: Manvender Vashist/AP

Geeta, a deaf-mute Indian woman who was rescued from Pakistan at Sushma Swaraj’s intervention, breaks down during a condolence meeting in Indore on August 7. Photo: PTI

Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a priest from Kerala who was kidnapped in Yemen and later released, greets External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi. A file picture. Photo: R.V. MOORTHY

Sushma Swaraj (1952-2019), the bright star of the Sangh Parivar, was known for her awesome political and individual connect and humanitarian streak.

THE demise of former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (February 14, 1952–August 6, 2019) virtually marks the evanescence of a particular brand of political and organisational practice that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar had cultivated and advanced from 1977, in the post-Emergency period. The Sangh Parivar had taken what was termed then in its inner circles as a “calculated risk”, which involved liquidating its political arm—the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS)—and merging it with the Janata Party, a conglomerate of political and social forces that rallied against the draconian Emergency imposed by the Indira Gandhi-led Congress regime. The conglomerate comprised ideologically disparate entities: left-of-centre socialists; the middle-caste identity politics-oriented Bharatiya Lok Dal, with a strong base among the agricultural communities; and the Congress(O), a strident advocate of right-wing economic policy. 

It was the Sangh Parivar’s understanding that its representatives in this conglomerate should contain bright, young leaders who should be able to navigate smoothly through the ideological crosscurrents in the Janata Party, building relations with all segments of the ideological spectrum even as they worked steadfastly to ensure the primacy of the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva-oriented political and organisational agenda. Many veteran activists of the Hindutva combine remember how a triumvirate of young, bright leaders emerged during that period and went on to become important players in later years after the Sangh Parivar split the Janata Party and formed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980. The much-talked about triumvirate comprised of Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. All three were educated, had affable manners in social interaction, were manifestly modern in their thinking but were deeply rooted in and committed to Hindutva. Above all, the star triumvirate possessed superb political and organisational manoeuvring skills. 

Pramod Mahajan died in 2006—shot at and fatally injured by his brother Pravin Mahajan—and Sushma Swaraj passed away on August 6 in New Delhi. Arun Jaitley, the third component of the triumvirate, has practically retired from active politics citing ill health, making himself unavailable for any official position after the 2019 Lok Sabha election, which marked the return of the Narendra Modi-led BJP-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. 

Discussions within the echelons and outfits of the Sangh Parivar often revolve around the star triumvirate who emerged in the late 1970s and went on to have an important say in party affairs—at times literally controlling and guiding it—for as long as two and a half decades. “In individual terms, the first 25 years of the BJP, since its formation in 1980, can only be termed as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani years, and in this period, the most dynamic and illustrious second line comprised Sushma Swaraj, Mahajan and Jaitley. And on account of their remarkable intellectual, political and organisational capabilities, they shot up through the ranks to the topmost positions in the party and in the governments formed under the party’s leadership. Many of those who emerged later and became all powerful were, for long, mere hangers-on in the durbars of the triumvirate. Equally significantly, many of those who have sought to follow and emulate the intellectual and social networking skills of the triumvirate are mere pretenders,” a veteran RSS activist based in Meerut told Frontline after Sushma Swaraj’s death. 

This Sangh Parivar veteran, as well as many others of his ilk, are of the firm view that Sushma Swaraj was one of the front runners for the prime ministerial post in the period immediately following the shock defeat of the Vajpayee-led BJP in 2004. “Indeed Advaniji was there as the primary candidate, but there was a large section within the Sangh Parivar that was of the view that Sushmaji had greater reach and acceptance amid the non-BJP political class and the people. In fact, many of us had rated her, at that juncture, as second only to Vajpayee. The Wall Street Journal had called Sushmaji India’s best-loved politician, when she was External Affairs Minister in Modi’s first government, but we knew it right from the 1970s that Sushmaji’s connect with the people can only be termed awesome and phenomenal.” This aspect of Sushma Swaraj’s political and individual personality has been most talked about after her demise and that too in relation to her 2014-19 tenure as the External Affairs Minister. 

The happenings recounted in this connection included the manner in which Sushma Swaraj helped several Pakistanis when they had to come to India for urgent issues, including medical emergencies. The case of the toddler Rohan, who was born with a congenital heart defect, is particularly highlighted. Rohan had a Pakistani mother and an Indian father. Pakistani doctors were not able to address the toddler’s medical issues, and Rohan’s mother sought a permanent visa to get her son treated in India. The family got documents prepared to come to India but visas were not issued. Then the mother, Mehwish Mukhtar, appealed on Twitter to Sushma Swaraj and she responded, thus helping the child embark on long-term medical care in India.

Former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has warm recollections of Sushma Swaraj. Talking to the media, he recounted how she played a key role in the evacuation of 46 Kerala nurses from Iraq in July 2014. “As a Minister, she went out of her way to give the then Kerala government all support consistently for over two weeks even as hostilities were building up at a major scale in the West Asia region.” Chandy said Sushma Swaraj was active on the issue and that she was informed past midnight that the Air India flight, which went to pick the stranded nurses, was not able to land there. “She told me she would call back in 15 minutes, and in just that much time she had managed to get landing permission for the aircraft and to airlift the nurses to safety,” Chandy added. 

This correspondent too had a couple of similar experiences in relation to Sushma Swaraj’s interventions as the External Affairs Minister. A clutch of people who were either stranded in hostile international circumstances or were unjustly detained in foreign lands were brought back safely through these interventions. A couple of Sangh Parivar insiders that Frontline interacted with after her demise said that this humanitarian streak was a part of her nature right from her college days in Ambala in Haryana, where she was born. 

They had been associated with Sushma Swaraj from those days and had seen her grow politically under the tutelage of her RSS activist father Hardev Sharma and equally Hindutva-oriented mother Laxmi Devi. They remember her outstanding oratorical skills in college and later as a lawyer in the Supreme Court, since 1973, and also as a politician. She got close to Swaraj Kaushal, whom she married later, through the anti-Emergency movement. Swaraj Kaushal was a close associate of the socialist leader George Fernandes, who was tortured by the Indira Gandhi regime. She became a Cabinet Minister in 1977 when the Janata Party, under the leadership of Devi Lal, was elected to power in Haryana in the first election held after the Emergency. By the mid 1980s, however, she had moved to national politics and was firmly entrenched by the mid 1990s. She had a brief stint as Chief Minister of Delhi in 1998 when the State unit of the BJP was facing a tough challenge from the Congress and its redoubtable woman leader Sheila Dikshit. This gamble, however, did not work in favour of the BJP. The party lost that election to the Congress. 

The BJP and the Sangh Parivar leadership once again forced her into a gamble in September 1999, when she was asked to contest against the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi from the Bellary Lok Sabha constituency in Karnataka. The seat had always elected the Congress candidate since the first general election of 1951-52. Sushma Swaraj took up that challenge and even apparently learnt passable Kannada, addressing public meetings in the language. She did not win this contest; she gave Sonia Gandhi a tough fight and lost narrowly. Despite the defeat, she was taken into the Vajpayee-led government of 1999-2004. She served in different capacities, including as Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Health and Family Welfare, and Parliamentary Affairs. After the second successive defeat of the BJP-NDA in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, she was made the Leader of the Opposition, replacing Advani. 

While all this track record is valued greatly within the Sangh Parivar, what a large number of activists highlight as the epitome of Sushma Swaraj’s patriotic fervour is the manner in which she responded to the 2004 shock defeat of the Vajpayee-led BJP-NDA. At that time, political circles in the national capital were agog with talk about Sonia Gandhi becoming Prime Minister after leading the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to victory in that election. Responding to this possibility, Sushma Swaraj proclaimed that if it ever happened she would tonsure her head, drape herself in white sari, sleep on the floor and eat only roasted grams. “She made this proclamation to make clear her protest at a foreign-born becoming the Prime Minister. She knew it was a big struggle for the nation’s honour and pride. This gesture of Sushmaji is what is valued within the Sangh Parivar more than anything else,” said the Meerut-based leader. 

Years later, when her humanitarian actions and initiatives as External Affairs Minister became internationally appreciated, Sushma Swaraj famously tweeted: “Dushmani jam kar karo par itni gunjayish rahe, phir kabhi hum dost ban jayein to sharminda na hon….” (Practise enmity fiercely, but let there be this much leeway that, one day if we become friends again, one should not feel ashamed.) It is a moot question whether Sushma Swaraj’s “extremist” reaction of 2004 will fall within the limits that she herself prescribed in the tweet. 

There is a stream of opinion even within some sections of the erstwhile Sangh Parivar, including some of the followers of Pravin Togadia, former international president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, that Sushma Swaraj’s humanitarian streak had become rather vociferous and community-neutral after she decisively lost in the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate race to Narendra Modi and his team in the run-up to the 2014 election. So much so, she was trolled by Hindutva cyber warriors for helping Pakistanis and Indian Muslims. It is also pointed out that her “awesome and phenomenal connect with the people” sometimes manifested as associations with questionable entities such as the Reddy brothers of Bellary, known for their track record of illegal mining in Karnataka, and Lalit Modi of the Indian Premier League scam fame. These accusations against Sushma Swaraj have not become concrete cases deserving punitive action. 

Beyond all these, however, Sushma Swaraj’s overall track record as a politician who emerged during the grave challenges of the Emergency will be largely remembered by the adjectives strung together by Jaya Jaitley, her long-standing fellow social and political activist: dedicated politician, effective parliamentarian, excellent orator, competent administrator, compassionate Foreign Minister, a caring sister, a friend, a good wife and mother.

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