Sushma Swaraj set high standards for MEA by taking diplomacy to people, was always just a tweet away

Swaraj — who was also the most followed foreign minister in the world — took several path-breaking measures during her term, such as the expansion of the passport infrastructure and the enhanced engagement with the Look East policy.

Kritvi Paliwal August 07, 2019 12:55:12 IST
Sushma Swaraj set high standards for MEA by taking diplomacy to people, was always just a tweet away
  • Swaraj — who was also the most followed foreign minister in the world — took several path-breaking measures during her term

  • A lawyer by profession, Swaraj was a Supreme Court advocate, before she jumped into active politics in the 1970s

  • She struck a chord with young and old alike with her round-the-clock social media presence and eagerness to help any Indian in distress worldwide

When Sushma Swaraj became only the second woman external affairs minister of India (former prime minister Indira Gandhi briefly kept the foreign ministry portfolio) and the first from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), little did the world know that the way India did diplomacy was going to change forever.

Swaraj — who was also the most followed foreign minister in the world — took several path-breaking measures during her term, such as the expansion of the passport infrastructure and the enhanced engagement with the Look East policy.

With over 11 million Twitter followers in 2018, Swaraj became the most-followed woman leader in the world. A year later (until the time of her death), Swaraj, who followed no one on the microblogging site, had over 13.1 million followers.

But her popularity wasn't built merely on account of the goodwill she collected from people across borders and boundaries, it was also on the back of being a solid orator, firm socialist and a revered and enthusiastic parliamentarian, which got her the recognition during her long political career.

A lawyer by profession, Swaraj was a Supreme Court advocate, before she jumped into active politics in the 1970s. After the Emergency, she joined BJP and later became a national leader, even helming the command of Delhi as a chief minister for a brief stint of three months. Though she has held many different portfolios during her political journey including the I&B and health ministry, her lineage of work as the foreign minister stands out for how empathetically she approached the problems of Indians stuck on foreign shores.

Operation Rahat

Operation Rahat was launched by the Indian armed forces to evacuate more than 4,000 Indian citizens and other foreign nationals from Yemen during the 2015 military intervention by Saudi Arabia and its allies. The 11-day evacuation by sea started on 1 April, 2015 from Aden port. Even though relentless Saudi bombing of Yemenese locations had made evacuation of Indian civilians very difficult, the operation was successfully carried out. The Saudi king had then said that even though he was unable to bring about a total halt to the bombings, India's request was too important to be ignored.

Reaching out to people directly through Twitter

Swaraj struck a chord with young and old alike with her round-the-clock social media presence and eagerness to help any Indian in distress worldwide.

In 2015, an analyst tweeted to Swaraj to help get her mother out of Turkey, who was stranded in Istanbul after misplacing her passport. Swaraj was quick to respond.

A 48-year-old Indian expat in Dubai, Jagannathan Selvaraj, walked more than 1,000 km over two years to attend labour court proceedings in order to return home after he was denied the permission to go back to India to attend his deceased mother's funeral. Swaraj decided to intervene and sought a report from the Indian consulate in Dubai in 2016.

In 2017, Swaraj assured all possible help to an Indian student admitted in a hospital in United States' Georgia. She took to Twitter to extend help to the student after she was approached by the latter's sister.

In 2018, she assured help to a 14-year-old girl facing visa issues for her travel to London after being selected to represent India at a global conference.

In the same year, Swaraj assured assistance to a woman who said her brother had gone to Kuwait for some office work and she later lost contact with him. The woman sought Swaraj's help to locate her brother and shift him back to India. "I have asked Indian Ambassador in Kuwait to provide all assistance," Swaraj assured the woman.

Later in 2018, Swaraj also assured help to a group of Indian students of the University of Illinois in the US who lost their passports in a fire accident. She also extended help to a woman whose passport was stolen while on a trip to Mexico and wanted to get back home as soon as possible as her children were alone.

TV actor Karanvir Bohra, who was stuck at Moscow International Airport in January had Swaraj to thank for helping him get a temporary passport and a visa for Russia after he was detained at the airport due to passport issues and asked the Indian Embassy in Russia to intervene.

On Tuesday, Bohra tweeted to express his condolences on the demise of the former minister reiterating that had it not been for her, he would have been impounded in foreign land.

In May, five Indian sailors were abducted by pirates in Nigeria and Swaraj asked the Indian high commissioner there to take up the matter at the highest levels of the Nigerian government to ensure their release. She also asked the Indian ambassador in Nigeria to look into the matter and send her a report.

In April, Darshan Senthil, a biomedical engineering student wanted to return to India from the US. He applied for an Irish visa, which faced some complications and asked Swaraj for help. She immediately asked the Indian Embassy in the US to help the troubled student.

On April, a civil war broke out in Libya between the Libya National Army and the pro-GNA militias, leaving many Indians stranded in the country amid a volatile situation. Swaraj was again quick to reach out to the people.

After the blasts in Sri Lanka on 21 April, Swaraj took to Twitter to share helpline numbers and assure of every assistance to the distressed and panic-stricken Indians in the Island nation.

The case of Hamid Ansari

Hamid Ansari a software engineer, who went missing after he was taken into custody by Pakistani intelligence agencies in Kohat in 2012, was repatriated to India following New Delhi’s relentless quest for his release from a Pakistan jail. After her son’s return, Ansari's mother couldn’t hold her tears thanked Swaraj saying, "meri madam mahaan!"

Ansari on Tuesday said that Swaraj, who was like a mother to him, "will always live in his heart".

She helped foreign nationals as well

However, it was not only Indians Swaraj came forward to help; in October 2017, when a Pakistani woman named Hira Ahmed appealed to her to approve the pending medical visa request of her one-year-old daughter for her open heart surgery, Swaraj immediately obliged. It was for her these gestures, that she was tagged the 'supermom' of India by The Washington Post.

Those whom Swaraj had helped, remembered her fondly as she passed away on Monday night in Delhi following a cardiac arrest.

After becoming the foreign minister, Swaraj attended the 2014 ASEAN Regional Forum followed by the related EAS Foreign Ministers meeting in August 2018 in Myanmar. She held bilateral meetings with her counterparts from seven countries including China, Australia, Canada, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, and Indonesia.

World remembers Swaraj

Many prominent foreign ambassadors and delegates and heads of states from various countries also paid tributes to Swaraj, remembering her valuable contribution to international diplomacy and strengthening of India's foreign relations.

Even Pakistan's foreign minister Fawad Hussain rembered Swaraj "a giant in her own right" while mentioning that he will miss the 'Twitter fights' with her.

Hussain and Swaraj had a Twitter spat in March 2019 over Hindu girls who were allegedly abducted in Pakistan. Tagging a media report on the alleged abduction, Swaraj had tweeted: "I have asked Indian High Commissioner in Pakistan to send a report on this. Two Hindu girls abducted on Holi eve in Pakistan's Sindh". To which Hussain had responded: "Mam its Pakistin internal issue and rest assure its not Modi’s India where minorities are subjugated its Imran Khan’s Naya Pak where white color of our flag is equally dearer to us. I hope you ll act with same diligence when it comes to rights of Indian Minorities."

However, Swaraj was not one to back down. She then replied saying: "Mr. Minister, I only asked for a report from Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad about the kidnapping and forced conversion of two minor Hindu girls to Islam. This was enough to make you jittery. This only shows your guilty conscience."

When online trolls came after the affable leader

However, due to her proactiveness on Twitter, even Swaraj wasn't spared by the wrath of trolls. In 2018, Swaraj and her family were attacked by internet trolls for helping a Muslim couple get their passports. At that time her husband Swaraj Kaushal had jumped to her defence and told them to back off, saying their words had "brought unbearable pain on him" and the family. Swaraj was hospitalised at the time of the incident.

Key policy decisions under Swaraj

Fast-track Diplomacy

On completion of the first 100 days of the first Narendra Modi government, the External Affairs Ministry published a booklet called Fast Track Diplomacy showcasing its achievements. Swaraj had then said that the catchphrase for her tenure was "fast-track diplomacy" and it had three faces – proactive, strong and sensitive. Thereafter, during her tenure, she held round-table meetings with all Indian heads of missions to the SAARC region, ASEAN region, and West Asia separately as a follow-up measure.

Act East Policy

The NDA government in 2014 came to power with a clear view to focus on improving relationships with ASEAN and other East Asian countries as per India's 'Look East policy' which was formulated during PV Narasimha Rao's government in 1992 for better economic engagement with its eastern neighbours. However, Swaraj stressed on the need for an 'Act East Policy' that she said would replace the Look East Policy emphasising a more proactive role for India in the region.

Recently, she had posted a picture with Kulbhushan Jadhav's family which paid a visit to her after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) granted consular access to the former naval officer being tried in Pakistan for alleged spying charges. She reportedly, just an hour before her death, had asked senior advocate Harish Salve to come to her office to collect his Rs 1 fee for representing India's case for Jadhav at the international court.

On 19 February, Swaraj accepted the prestigious Grand Cross of Order of Civil Merit, which was conferred by the Spanish government in recognition of India's support in evacuating its citizens from Nepal during the earthquake in 2015.

For the foreign minister who was witty enough to say that if any Indian ever gets stuck on Mars, the Indian Embassy there will help them out, the responsibility was huge, but never a burden. She took decisions from the heart while helping distressed citizens and ensuring that India stood tall on international platforms.

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