Sushma Swaraj chooses to assess her political future on her own terms
Grace under pressure. This one value sets apart veteran BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, who has bowed out of the electoral race of 2019 knowing full well that it is better to let go of things not meant to be. Her health may have given her the pretext but she has realised she would rather step back as a protege of the old guard helmed by Vajpayee-Advani than risk being benched into a retirement home called margdarshak mandal by BJP 2.0. In that sense, she has shown some spark of her old fiery and determined self, going out on her own terms rather than compromising her core beliefs in a system that has its own revamped priorities, starred hierarchies and a strait-jacketed agenda. It is well-known that she was ill at ease in the Modi-Shah party with all her mentors forced into hibernation. She was among the second-rung leaders that BJP rightly has a culture of grooming but didn’t have the Sangh’s monolithic endorsement which it reserved for Narendra Modi. Yet she survived and re-calibrated her loyalties to her one-time peer and newly anointed leader. But it was a stifling tenure. Though she was the only woman Foreign Minister after Indira Gandhi, she was seldom allowed operating space, the bulk of foreign policy being conducted by the PMO. Still Swaraj pushed the envelope, adding a personal touch to resolving people’s procedural problems and holding her own in forum discussions like ASEAN. In fact, Prime Minister Modi even acknowledged her publicly in his assessment of ministerial records. She equally made her presence felt on social media, the new tool of interface, and became a pro in social media diplomacy, helping in cases that users put up for her intervention and attention, something that led The Washington Post to term her the “supermom” of diplomacy. But when she transferred an official for refusing passports to an inter-faith couple, she came into direct confrontation with hardliner trolls, some of whom followed the present leadership and were seen as having their tacit endorsement. With hardly any peer support or defence, that episode highlighted the ideological gap between two generations of the BJP and how she was too different to negotiate a DNA switch. An old BJP leadership, operating in a different contextual dynamic, could afford to be more omnitheistic and share the spotlight democratically. The new leadership, coming as it does on the back of a consolidated verdict, a re-activated cadre base and a distinctly RSS-dominated agenda, will predictably go by what it succeeded with in the first place, a presidential style of operations and one that is aspirational and robust. With Swaraj’s departure, the new leaders are expected to reassert this credo more volubly.
Nevertheless, Swaraj will be remembered within the party and even across party lines as a seasoned parliamentarian with many firsts to her credit. And perhaps it was her versatility and magnetic appeal that necessitated her inclusion in the Modi Cabinet, as one who needed to be neutralised rather than be allowed to be free-spirited given her facility with media projection. Besides, among a male-dominated leadership of the BJP, she broke through as the party’s first female Chief Minister, Union Cabinet Minister, general secretary and even spokesperson. And that needed acknowledgment. She was perhaps one of BJP’s most proactive I&B ministers, ushering in industry status for film producers and propagating community radio. A passionate and arresting orator, she has had Parliament in thrall with her speeches, particularly as the Leader of the Opposition from 2009 to 2014. She famously vowed to shave off her head if Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi was made Prime Minister and took on her creditably from the Bellary Lok Sabha seat. The Lower House will sure miss that fire and brimstone. But Swaraj is a master of reinvention and it would be foolhardy to write her off.
Writer & Courtesy: The Pioneer