Almost a year ago, Sushma Swaraj met Narendra Modi with an unusual request — to allow her not to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha election. She had undergone kidney transplant surgery in December 2017 after being admitted to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences for around a month.
Over the past four years through her performance as Minister of External Affairs, she had the gained confidence and goodwill of the prime minister. On some occasions, Modi had publicly lauded her work, particularly in helping and evacuating Indians faced with distressing situations abroad. Her decision not to contest the next election must therefore have surprised him.
After conveying her feelings to the prime minister, she met BJP president Amit Shah and told him of her decision.
Her argument was twofold:
First, her current health situation did not allow her to take care of the constituency as a serving MP ideally should. A Lok Sabha MP has a whole lot of commitments for people of her/his constituency, which are not just related to taking care of developmental work in the area. Fulfilling these commitments requires a great personal connect with people of the region. Due to her health issues, she was not able to do it the way she used to in preceding years when she represented the South Delhi parliamentary constituency for two terms and Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh for the previous and her present term.
Second, if she contests in 2019, she would be committing to that constituency for another five years. Her contention was that she would be failing in her duty as a directly-elected public representative if her health did not permit to be in regular contact with people, which includes paying visits to her constituency.
Sources told Firstpost she was told by the leadership that she should not worry about that and that the party would take care of her election and her concerns for the constituency. She, however, succeeded in convincing them about her decision.
Swaraj had also kept Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in the loop. Vidisha used to be Chouhan’s parliamentary constituency till he was chosen by the leadership to be chief minister of the state. She won from Vidisha in 2009 and in 2014.
It should be noted that in 2009 when the then prime ministerial candidate LK Advani had advised all senior leaders to contest the Lok Sabha elections, her first choice was Bhopal. Senior leaders in the party also felt that Bhopal would be a good constituency for her. She was then the party's deputy leader in Rajya Sabha. But the then-sitting MP of Bhopal Kailash Joshi placed some tough conditions (demands) before her and she moved to Vidisha, as offered by Chouhan.
Fast-forward to 2018 and speculation went wild for a while in political circles after she announced at a press conference in Indore that she wouldn’t contest the next parliamentary election, scheduled in the next five months.
It's important to note here that she had announced her decision not to fight Lok Sabha elections, she has not announced that she is quitting politics. That makes a great deal of difference and that gives rise to speculation of the other kind.
A Union minister told Firstpost, "She has only said she will not contest the Lok Sabha election, she has not said she won't enter Rajya Sabha. You all know that she has served in the Rajya Sabha for three terms. Who knows, next year she might be in the Upper House to serve another term." That means if the BJP returns to power in 2019, she might again be a top ranking minister. There could be some other responsibilities, but those are all within realm of ifs and buts.
Swaraj chose her timing adroitly for this important announcement. She was in Madhya Pradesh to campaign for the BJP. Due to her health conditions, she had not visited the state and her constituency for a long time. Her non-availability could have caused some resentment as well. In one deft stroke, she cleared her position, something that will allow aspirants for the seat to start nourishing the constituency.
Interestingly, this is not the first time that Swaraj has announced that she won't contest Lok Sabha elections. Way back in 1998, she was reelected from the South Delhi parliamentary constituency and then there was a "smear campaign" against her for a slogan that some enthusiastic supporters had chanted in the run-up to the elections, "Abki baari Atal Bihari, agli baari behan hamari (This time it's Atal Bihari Vajpayee's turn, next time it's our sister's)". She was particularly hurt by the way a colleague who also used to be general secretary of the party when she also held that post commented about that slogan in a closed-door meeting. She was so upset that she announced that she wouldn't contest the Lok Sabha election again and proposed the name of VK Malhotra for that constituency.
In that election for the 13th Lok Sabha, the Congress fielded Manmohan Singh from the South Delhi constituency and Malhotra was nominated by the BJP. Malhotra won and Singh lost. That was the only election that Manmohan fought and lost.
When nominations were being filed, the Congress sprang a surprise by making Sonia Gandhi file her nomination from Bellary in Karnataka as her second seat (besides Raebareli). Swaraj was instructed by Vajpayee and Advani to forget about her previous pledge (not to contest any more elections) and fly to Bellary to file her nomination against Sonia. Although Swaraj lost, she fought valiantly and polled around 3.5 lakh votes in a constituency that had been a Congress stronghold.
Will 2019 see a repeat of 1999 for her or will it be different? Nobody has an answer right now.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Nov 20, 2018 17:49:30 IST