Sushma Swaraj was a pioneer in changing the perception of public life for women: With her as a conduit, public life ceased to be the preserve of women from elite backgrounds and also became a viable career option for the average woman-next-door. With a bold vermilion mark on her forehead, the saree-draped Swaraj's emergence in politics in the 1980s clearly marked the beginning of an era of Indian women coming of age.
My first impression of her was that of an affable BJP spokesperson who knew all the journalists on the beat by the name. She was quite conversant with changes in the media's echelons. "Your new editor is taking over?" she would ask a reporter if there was a change in the offing. That she was abreast with the news was her style of familiarising herself with news persons.
Her oratorical skill attracted her to the BJP. Her flawless Hindi resonated with the audience. Although she began her political career under the tutelage of socialists like George Fernandes and Chandra Shekhar, she fell out of favour with the then Haryana chief minister Devi Lal. It required Chandra Shekhar, then the Janata party president, to threaten Devi Lal with the initiation of disciplinary action for Swaraj's berth in the cabinet to be restored.
Even though she was the youngest minister in the state, Swaraj did not belong to the league of women career-politicians of the previous order. Indira Gandhi, Tarkeshwari Sinha, Sheila Dikshit and Nandini Satpathy belonged to backgrounds that were quite illustrious and elite. In her youth, Swaraj came across as girl-next-door without the sort of advantages a privileged background could provide.
But the manner in which she easily essayed the role of a politician of much consequence was certainly a tribute to her grit and determination. She was picked up by LK Advani apparently because of her articulation and her unique bond with women audiences. In the early 1990s, she emerged as a sober voice in the BJP. Her appearances on television made her a household name as she identified with ordinary women.
In the NDA regime headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Swaraj was inducted into the Cabinet and later pushed against her wishes to head the Delhi government as chief minister. She made a determined attempt to win the election by making rounds of the city to assure people of their safety. However, she lost the election and found herself marginalised within her own party. Given her strong identity of "Indian-ness", she was always appreciated by a group of senior RSS leaders, including its then chief KS Sudarshan.
It was her proximity to the RSS leadership that prompted her to take a position against Advani when the latter eulogised Mohammad Ali Jinnah on his visit to Pakistan. She refused to hold a press conference when asked by Advani to defend what he had said in Karachi. For the first time, Advani found Swaraj, his understudy, defiant against his diktats. In 2009, she took up the mantle of Leader of Opposition from Advani at the prodding of the RSS. In her five-year stint as leader of the BJP's parliamentary party, Swaraj gave many outstanding speeches that caused great discomfiture to the Congress and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Ensconced in Delhi politics, she was perhaps late to foresee a Narendra Modi wave that was sweeping India in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, but soon reconciled with the situation. In the Modi government, she endeared herself to the prime minister and her colleagues with her affable nature and meticulous work. In her role as external affairs minister, she reached out to people in distress and came to be known as most loving foreign minister India had ever seen.
Although her had health deteriorated of late, she remained active politically even hours before she breathed her last. She tweeted a congratulatory message to Modi after the revocation of Article 370 only two hours before she was taken to the hospital. Her presence was a reminder of the epochal change she brought about in Indian politics. Her absence will be quite palpable for the new generation of women politicians — the door for whom was thrown open by Swaraj.
Updated Date: Aug 07, 2019 14:55:10 IST