She was a complex personality. Sushma Swaraj was incredibly disciplined when it came to party matters. Yet, her mercurial personality would not allow her to forgive party colleagues if she felt they had slighted her. The charm, warmth and the affection she radiated drew many to her and some actually thought they could use that to their advantage: and how terribly wrong they were ! She was stubborn, tended to be judgmental and self righteous and reverted to safe stereotypes. But she was incredibly talented, a brilliant and gifted speaker, and was a self-made woman politician in an era when it wasn’t easy. And now she’s gone and the world will be a duller place.
Before Sushma Swaraj became a poster woman for Hindu womanhood and the most powerful woman in the Bharatiya Janata Party, she was just a student leader. Swaraj was born in Haryana in 1952 to a family that had no capital invested in politics. She plunged into political life during the Emergency when as a student leader (she was studying law at the time) she organised protests against Indira Gandhi. She credited her initial success to the timing of her entry to politics: “I entered politics as part of an agitational movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan. It was a young movement and I got opportunities. Today it is much more difficult for a woman with no political family backing to make up the ladder so fast,” she once told Business Standard.
After the Emergency she won elections twice to the Haryana Assembly. She was Minister for Labour in the state government (1977-79) under Chaudhry Devi Lal. When the Jana Sangh parted ways with the Janata Party government, she became a vocal spokesperson for the party, relaunched as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). After that she was elected to the Lok Sabha twice (1996 and 1998), and to the Rajya Sabha thrice (1992, 2000 and 2006).
She was Minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and also held the portfolios of communication, health and parliamentary affairs. Her tenures were not without controversy: she advocated celibacy rather than awareness of contraception as a preventive for AIDS, for instance. But it was during this period that the Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, otherwise an implacable political enemy, described her as India’s best parliamentary affairs minister, much to the chagrin of his own party.
She was then asked to become chief minister of Delhi: she didn’t particularly want to but was too disciplined to disobey the party. The BJP lost the elections, not Sushma Swaraj; later she went to Bellary to fight against Sonia Gandhi in 1999 and declared she would shave off her head if she did not win. She didn’t do that, but made many friends in an area that later became a BJP stronghold. (Gandhi polled 51.7 per cent of the vote, Swaraj 44.7 per cent) The mining scam-tainted Reddy brothers from Bellary thought they could cash in their chips (she nurtured and developed a relationship with them), so they raised the banner of revolt and came to Delhi intent on replacing then Karnataka chief minister B S Yediyurappa. They finally dropped their demand of changing the chief minister, provided two of the three brothers were made minister. “Not possible,” Swaraj told them determinedly and stuck to her stand. They were finally forced to back down.
She became the people's foreign minister, reinterpreting the job in a way no one had done before. Ahead of the 2019 elections, it became clear that she was going to be forced out to pasture. Rather than submit to that indignity she eased herself out of the power equation — though a faint hope lingered that she could be called back to work. It was not to be. She vacated her official home within days of demitting office and moved out of official accommodation. She denied rumours that she was going to be appointed governor. She was graceful, funny and loving when she put her mind to it. She will be sorely missed.