She was a politician who probably took this adage to heart: ‘There is a difference between taking one’s work and taking one’s self seriously – the first is imperative; the second is disastrous.’
For Sushma Swaraj, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and former foreign minister of India who passed away in New Delhi on Tuesday, there was scarcely a moment in her long political career when she allowed form to triumph over substance, or for that matter let her ego ride roughshod over the demand of the times.
At an age and time when one-upmanship and opportunism have often been found to rule the roost in Indian politics, Swaraj was that rare breed for whom civility and consensus mattered more than playing to the galleries.
Swaraj was that rare breed who would threaten to tonsure her head if a Sonia Gandhi would become the prime minister of India and yet emerge as an exemplar for her party members in treating the same Sonia with utmost respect whenever their paths would cross inside the parliament house.
And indeed, Swaraj was that rare breed whose legacy as a foreign minister will probably live on for many many years to come, serving as an off-the-cuff manual for her successors gracing the august office.
Turning her official Twitter handle into an impromptu helpline of sorts, there were myriads of instances during her five years in office, from 2014-2019, when ordinary Indians stuck with issues bureaucratic or otherwise concerning the Ministry of External Affairs found their foreign minister herself as the immediate point of contact -- the most potent human interface for the red sandstone edifice in New Delhi’s fabled South Block.
From expediting a visa request for a medical exigency to repatriation of the mortal remains of a deceased from foreign shores; from winning hearts in diplomatic circles on her travels to Pakistan to being invited as the first female foreign minister as a guest-of-honour to an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation foreign minister’s conclave in Abu Dhabi … Swaraj’s was in more ways than one a legacy steeped in the nuances of copybook civility and protocol, but enriched by her personal touch and beyond-the-rulebook outreach that saw her build her own brand equity in a Cabinet where Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself was quite a political box office! In fact, there were numerous instances during her stint as foreign minister when Modi’s ‘muscular’ foreign policy doctrine and his panache for global image-building exercises came to contest, inadvertently, the very office of the Indian foreign minister.
But true to her nature, instead of feeling slighted or belittled by her ‘boss’, Swaraj took it in her stride, playing the role of a dedicated ‘grafter’ who would often work silently behind the scenes and prepare the base, only to allow the Prime Minister’s Office to earn all the plaudits for playing the role of a ‘finisher’ – to borrow a term from cricketing parlance – to perfection!
And she did all that without ever giving one the impression that she was doing someone a favour or doing it for cheap publicity. Playing her part came naturally – whether as the chief minister of a nascent Delhi state, with a faction-ridden BJP state unit to tow; or whether as the defeated candidate from Bellary in Karnataka in the 1999 general elections against the then Congress president Sonia. Swaraj never let real-politicking get the better of her instincts and finer sensitivities as a human being. Her many trips to Bellary and public interactions with the voters there, long after the dust had settled down on the election results, bear testimony to her commitment as a politician and a public servant par excellence.
With Modi as prime minister and Amit Shah as BJP chief and now the Union home minister, the elements of ideological orthodoxy and political rigidity are unmistakably baked into the DNA of the current dispensation at the Centre. In that sense, the era of flexibility and consensus, that used to be the hallmark of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led order, has been relegated to archival value only in the last five years of BJP rule – more so with the saffron brigade winning more than 300 seats in the general elections earlier this year. What characters such as a Sushma Swaraj or an Arun Jaitley – former Union finance minister – could add to a strident saffron surge is a note of sombre sobriety that is so very essential to making sure that the mood music doesn’t degenerate into a clarion call to an ‘us-versus-them’.
With Jaitley incapacitated by failing health for some time now, with other moderates such as L.K. Advani, Yashwant Sinha and Murli Manohar Joshi well past their sell-by dates and now with the untimely loss of Swaraj, BJP for sure will be missing leaders who could add more inclusivity and malleability in terms of policy-making and thought-leadership. Only time will tell whether the first party to win an absolute majority at the Centre in three decades will be able to outlive this void or get sucked into it.