From I&B to telecom, Sushma Swaraj was always on top; but in foreign affairs, her folksy mannerism won hearts
It is never easy competing with a prime minister, particularly one as hyperactive as Narendra Modi when it comes to foreign policy, but it is to Sushma Swaraj’s credit that she persevered – she wasn’t even Modi’s first choice, given her allegiance to LK Advani – and came up with an entirely new style of functioning. Taking to twitter like a duck to water, it was a style that brought the hitherto distant external affairs ministry accessible to every Indian, anywhere in the world, at any time of the day – recall her 3am tweet on one occasion – with just a 140, and later 280, character message; perhaps too accessible given that, on one occasion, an obviously stressed individual tagged her on a tweet asking for help to get his refrigerator repaired. While Swaraj’s role in getting justice for Kulbhushan Yadav and hiring Harish Salve, for one rupee, got a lot of attention, what won the hearts of ordinary Indians was the backroom work she did to get hearing- and speech-impaired Geeta back from Pakistan and organizing mass evacuations from areas like Iraq and Yemen while, all the while being there to comfort and provide solace to the families of victims or those in trouble. Her last act, before her unfortunate passing away, was to tweet a congratulatory message to Modi after Article 370 was revoked.
Known for her excellent oratory, in both English and Hindi, Swaraj was known to be one of India’s most efficient ministers, quick to grasp the issues at stake and willing to do what needed to be done to get the job done. In external affairs, that meant preparing the groundwork for Modi’s high-profile visits and giving a powerful speech at the UN General Assembly; in telecom, in the Vajpayee Cabinet, this meant doing the homework for a rescue package for the telecom sector that not just rescued beleaguered telcos but also paved the way for the subsequent boom in India’s telephony. A firm disciplinarian, even while trying to help telcos, she publicly ticked off a leading telecom CEO who was spreading rumours about her wanting a payoff. If she wasn’t able to complete the job, it was because her party needed her to step in as Delhi’s chief minister as the incumbent was very unpopular due to spiraling onion prices; his unpopularity was too much for Swaraj to reverse, but she was always ready to fight a battle for her party’s sake. So, she took on Sonia Gandhi in Bellary, and even learned Kannada to be able to campaign effectively; she lost, but by just 60,000 votes and, later on, Bellary went on to become a BJP stronghold. A staunch conservative, something her Karva Chauth fasts and deep sindoor bore very public testimony to, she was equally quick to criticize vigilante groups – the Sri Ram Sene was attacking women going to pubs – by talking of how her daughter went to pubs as well.
In a world where politics is increasingly becoming bitter and adversarial, where party loyalties matter more than friendships, Swaraj represented the Vajpayee-era style of politicians who had endearing friendships across party groups. It helped that, though her father was associated with the RSS, she began her career as a minister in Devi Lal’s cabinet; that is why, even when she got a lot of flak for helping fugitive Lalit Modi get travel documents, the Opposition never asked for her resignation. A dying breed of politicians, literally.