In November 2010 when some of us, reporters of varied seniority covering Parliament entered the then Leader of Opposition's chamber, Sushma Swaraj appeared to be cheerful, as she mostly was. She instructed her personal staff to arrange for something sweet. Perhaps the day coincided with arrival of Hariyali Teej. We were served Ghevar (a Teej speciality) and tea. She then broke the news that she had joined Twitter and urged all of us to follow.
She had childlike excitement then, explaining in detail how we could follow her and how she would relay all news relating to her, Parliament and her opinion on various subjects on the micro-blogging platform. But before she was done with the topic, she laughed and added that her newly-acquired social media presence didn't mean that we should stop visiting her every afternoon. "It’s always good to meet people," she noted.
It was through social media that she helped hundreds of Indians within and outside of India while serving in the Narendra Modi Cabinet for five years between 2014 and 2019. She was most accessible to any Indian in any part of the world. Ironically, her last communication to the wider world was through Twitter. Some would call it 'Vidhi ka Vidhan'. At around 7 pm on Tuesday evening, minutes after both Houses of Parliament ratified the abolition of Articles 370 and 35A, Swaraj tweeted, "Thank you Prime Minister, Thank you very much. I was waiting to see this day in my life time."
The emotive nature of her message almost suggested she had a premonition of what was to come and was living long enough to see the fulfilment of one larger wish, not for herself but for the nation and her ideological family. Three hours later, she was no more. She had suffered a massive heart attack and was taken to All India Medical Institute of Medical Sciences in a condition where the best of the country's doctors couldn’t revive her. She was only 67.
She had always been a fighter and never shied away from a challenge that was given to her. She wouldn’t accept a perceived privileged position if her heart wouldn’t allow it. Immediately after the BJP lost the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, LK Advani was mulling relinquishing the post of Leader of Opposition in the Lower House. There were muted talks within party circles that a person from the younger generation should take on the mantle or that Advani should pass the torch to someone from the next generation. When Advani asked her whether she would like to become Leader of Party (LoP) in Lok Sabha, she told the veteran who was like a father figure to her, "I will be honest. I want to become LoP but I don't want to become LoP after replacing you." A few months later, Advani resigned voluntarily and Swaraj was named new Leader of Opposition.
That position manifested a new facet of her personality. She was seated right opposite Sonia Gandhi. It's well-known that she had opposed Sonia’s possible appointment as Prime Minister of India. Fiery and feisty as Sushma was as Leader of Opposition, she gave many sleepless night to the UPA-2 strategists and floor managers, but then she had also established a working relationship with Sonia. It was between 2009 and 2014 that she began the practice of calling MPs in groups, state-wise, for dinner. On some occasions, their spouses were called and amid an informal freewheeling interaction, political notes would be exchanged and a new kind of camaraderie would be built. In the House, these interactions would result in spotting talent and leaders who hitherto had not got a chance to display their talent and oratory skills in Lok Sabha.
Advani would often say that while he and Swaraj shared the stage as speakers, he would have a complex, because her oratorical skills would remind him of how he felt in his early days alongside Atal Bihari Vajpayee. She was handpicked by Advani and made one of the five general secretaries in the BJP along with the likes of Pramod Mahajan and KN Govindacharya. She never looked back and became an integral part of decision-making in the BJP and the Vajpayee government. Vajpayee and Advani's faith in her was such that she was handed key portfolios — health and family welfare, telecommunication, parliamentary affairs, information and broadcasting. She delivered on all fronts.
The spread of AIIMS that we see today in almost all states underlines Swaraj's contribution as health minister. As parliamentary affairs minister she had made it a point to greet regional leaders in their native language, a gesture that won her friends from across political lines.
Her fighting spirit and loyalty to her leaders was best manifested on a couple of occasions. The first was in August 1999 when she was made to suddenly fly to Bellary to file a nomination against Sonia Gandhi. It was game of political brinkmanship for the BJP and Congress. She fought valiantly and lost narrowly. The other occasion was when in mid-October 1998 when she was asked to leave her ministerial position and take over as Delhi chief minister, replacing Sahib Singh Verma. The Delhi Assembly election was then barely 40 days away. There were internal reports that the BJP was going to lose that election badly on account of rising onion prices and the shortage of power in the Capital. She was made to lead a battle she knew was already lost, yet she fought valiantly.
In her latest ministerial position as Minister of External Affairs, she brought grace and promptness to resolve issues of public concern, making Indians all across the globe feel that the motherland cared for them. Modi would publicly praise her on occasion after occasion. But then all of a sudden, she announced her retirement from electoral politics and then in May 2019, left parliamentary politics, her ministerial position and ministerial bungalow to shift to a private residence.
The last time she was seen at a public function was on 30 May, 2019 at the swearing-in ceremony of the Modi government 2.0. She walked in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan gracefully and cheerfully, found her seat in the front rows of the audience. She was not to be a minister but she seemed to have no regret, making a point to meet and greet the dignitaries, and make them feel comfortable. It was a moment of regret for her sympathisers for they realised that she was not going to be part of the new government.
She set a new standard in public life. India and the BJP will miss her. Those who knew her will forever miss her affectionate smile and personal touch even in professional relationships.
RIP, Sushma Swaraj
Updated Date: Aug 07, 2019 10:20:17 IST