A Dear Leader

Sushma Swaraj played many roles and made them all her own, with dignity and grace

Sushma Swaraj, who passed away on Tuesday, aged 67, was one of the most popular leaders of the BJP, who left a mark as both politician and administrator. She entered public life early — after working as a lawyer for socialist leader George Fernandes during the Emergency — and was pitchforked into a leadership role when she was just 25. When the Janata Party disintegrated in the late 1970s, the young minister in the Janata ministry in Haryana, preferred the BJP to the Janata variants of socialist and social justice politics. She rose to prominence quickly in the BJP thanks to her people-skills and powerful oratory, at a time when there were few women in the party leadership.

Mentored by BJP patriarchs, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and LK Advani, she imbibed their finest qualities, including and especially tolerance and civility towards critics and political opponents. She followed the party discipline, always defending the party line to the best of her abilities and taking on responsibilities that the party entrusted her with, even against enormous odds.

The BJP turned to her, for instance, to rescue a slipping government in Delhi in 1998 and to fight a losing battle against a resurgent Congress under Sheila Dikshit. She contested against Sonia Gandhi in 1999 from the Congress stronghold of Bellary. She lost both challenges, but she ensured that her party lost honourably. These contests and the frequent cross-country campaigns turned Swaraj into a national leader and a politician who rose above the office she occupied. She, arguably, had become the most prominent leader on the BJP’s then famed second rung, before Narendra Modi made his presence felt on the national stage. Her tenure as foreign minister in the first Modi government was distinguished by her attempts to transform a ministry generally seen as haughty and aloof, into a friend of ordinary Indian citizens, especially the blue-collar workers in the Gulf region. She recognised the influence of social media and used it remarkably well to distinguish herself as a minister, even as foreign policy increasingly became the preserve of the prime minister’s office.

The ability to reinvent the roles assigned to her served Swaraj well in her political career. In a party of patriarchal features and conservative frameworks, she positioned herself as the Bharatiya naari who could also play a role in public life with confidence and ease. Indeed, her image helped her connect with a cross-section of people, including conservatives. It is a tribute to her poise and dignity that, in these polarised times, she will be missed and remembered by people across party lines and political divides.

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