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Sushma Swaraj: A rare amalgam of steely resolve and velvety charm

Poornima Joshi New Delhi | Updated on August 07, 2019 Published on August 07, 2019

Sushma Swaraj (1952-2019)

Sushma Swaraj will be remembered as much for being a remarkable politician as an inspirational small-town achiever who realised her big dreams

The country today mourns the demise of a truly gifted woman who rose to the high office of Indian Foreign Minister in an extraordinary political career cut short by ill health. Sushma Swaraj (67), who succumbed to a cardiac arrest on Tuesday night, will be long remembered for her organic potential as a politician, orator and above all, as a woman who came to symbolise the velvet strength of the subaltern from a conservative, small-town Ambala family, in the power corridors of Delhi’s Raisina Hills.

If people relate to politicians as reflections of their own larger self, Swaraj certainly signified the soft power of the traditionalist who broke the mould. She combined her very deliberate and cultivated celebration of Indian womanhood in the sari-bangles-sindoor-Karwa Chowth festivities with a steely push for an amendment in the BJP’s constitution to ensure 33 per cent reservation for women in all organisational posts. She was similarly zealous in her support to the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament while she battled with powerful men for primacy in her own party.

It is not just her very material and public triumphs — the youngest, 25-year-old minister in the Haryana Cabinet in 1977 after a battle with the Emergency as part of the legal team which fought the iconic Baroda Dynamite case involving George Fernandes, first woman spokesperson of the BJP, Chief Minister of Delhi, Minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi’s Cabinet, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha — but a sharp mind and equally quick wit that impressed and inspired.

Even as a journalist, who was frequently at the receiving end of her tongue-lashing, what lingers still is her warmth afterwards. “How did you rake up my health in the newspaper? And it is completely wrong to say I come from a Socialist background. I have roots in the RSS,” she fumed over a late-night phone call.

A few days later at her Safrdarjung Lane home, she appeared, diminutive and distressed after her younger brother had suddenly passed away. Long hair dripping wet, face ashen with grief, she was frail, and her small hands clasped mine urgently. “Chhota sa tha jab meri shadi hui. Mere saath hi aa gaya tha. Bhai ki jagah koi nahin le sakta (he was so young when I got married. He came with me. No one can fill the void left by a brother),” she whispered like we were family, all past grudges forgiven and forgotten.

It was this very feminine strength to not hide frailty that bonded Swaraj with even her worst enemies. In 2004, when the then Congress President Sonia Gandhi looked set to be Prime Minister, Swaraj outraged many by her rather dramatic claim that she would “tonsure her head, eat chana and sleep on the floor” if Gandhi was to become the PM.

“When we went to the then President Abdul Kalam, I couldn’t hold back. I was in tears,” Swaraj recounted later. “Among so many of us Indians, can’t the Congress party find one person to become PM?” she exclaimed to him.

Sonia pens a letter

But this did not stop her from warming up to the Congress President while they worked as colleagues in opposite sides of Parliament. Sonia Gandhi’s letter to her family is testimony to friendships that only politicians of Swaraj’s mettle were able to secure across the aisle in Parliament. “In our many years together as colleagues in the Lok Sabha, we developed a warm personal relationship and I feel her loss greatly,” Sonia said in a letter to Swaraj’s grief-stricken husband Swaraj Kaushal.

Sushma Swaraj symbolised the growth of Hindutva politics from the margins to the mainstream of Indian politics. More than that, she would remain an inspiration for every small town girl who dreams big.

Published on August 07, 2019
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