In the Westminster system, which India opted to inherit from the British, the leader of the opposition in the House of Commons, or the Lok Sabha, is considered the prime minister in waiting.
While the convention has been followed more in its breach in India, many thought Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha during the UPA 2 years from 2009 to 2014, would be India’s future prime minister.
But that was until Narendra Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat then, rallied the party and its workers to his side and was announced the National Democratic Alliance’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha.
Obviously, not all was well between party veteran L K Advani, his protégé Swaraj and Modi. But a truce was struck and Modi gave Swaraj the high profile external affairs ministry after getting elected as the prime minister.
In her new role, Swaraj complemented Modi to the hilt. Swaraj has always been one of the most liked politicians across the political spectrum and is popular with the media. But as India’s foreign minister, Swaraj kept herself in the background and worked towards making Modi’s vision of India’s foreign policy a success.
In her four years as India’s foreign minister, Swaraj hasn’t given a single interview. Her public interactions have been restricted to addressing her ministry’s annual press conferences. Swaraj, a veteran of many a political battle, has also repeatedly given the prime minister all the credit for her ministry's foreign policy successes.
This not only helped her win the PM's trust, but in hindsight has also meant that Swaraj is not blamed for the mess that the PM has made of the country's foreign policy. Swaraj comes from a family steeped in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) values, but herself was influenced by the socialists and her husband Swaraj Kaushal was an activist of the erstwhile Socialist Party's youth wing, the Samajwadi Yuvajan Sabha. But in the last four years, Swaraj has tried to find approval from the Rashtriya Swaymsevak Sangh (RSS).
However, as 2019 Lok Sabha elections draw near, and it is a possibility that the BJP would be unable to reach the majority mark, and may even fall significantly short of it, Swaraj could emerge as the consensus prime ministerial candidate. A BJP with 200-odd seats would need allies and at least some of them might suggest they would not like to support a polarising figure like Modi, but settle for a more moderate face.
The list of such moderate faces acceptable to regional parties is led by Swaraj, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari. This is the context in which the troll army, purportedly comprising BJP supporters, has gone after Swaraj. Interestingly of all the senior BJP leaders, only Singh has come out in the support of Swaraj.
Anyone who have tracked the BJP and RSS know there is a method in the madness displayed by the troll army, and the symbolism in the attack on Swaraj is that the BJP’s core Hindutva supporters disapprove of her. Her reaching out to the Sangh hasn't helped, at least not with its foot soldiers.
The attack was unleashed on her after her ministry transferred Passport Seva Kendra official Vikas Mishra for allegedly harassing an inter-faith couple. There is much social subtext in the entire episode. Most of the tweets attacking her accuse Swaraj of trying to curry favour with the so called “pseudo-secularists”. There is also little doubt that the viciousness of the attack on her has blessings of the top leadership of the Sangh Parivar, with second rung RSS leadership also criticizing her on social media.
With the exception of Singh, the rest of the BJP leadership has remained silent about the attack on Swaraj as it does not want to earn the opprobrium of the leadership at this critical a juncture. The issue is likely to echo in the Monsoon session of Parliament with Swaraj finding support from the opposition. Already, several opposition leaders, including Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Congress party have come out in her support.
Swaraj, it would seem on the face of it, has overplayed her hand. But she is a tough politician, and has earned her stripes dealing with veterans such as Devi Lal, Chandra Shekhar, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Advani and others.
The last act in this engrossing battle is yet to be played out.