Sushma Swaraj showed how humanism and politics are never at cross purposes and how women can overcome glass cliffs
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new…..lest one good custom should corrupt the world,” wrote Alfred Tennyson. But in the passing away of BJP veteran Sushma Swaraj, who embodied this philosophy, one wishes that “one good custom” could have, should have continued. For that showed how it could endure and reinvent itself. If only to rescue the faith in our democratic system. If only to believe that compassion and grace are a tougher play than any muscularity of purpose. And that alone makes for legacy. It would, therefore, be unjust to confine Sushma Swaraj to her role in the BJP. No. In the end, she became a global woman politician, who never said “no” to anything that was thrown her way, rose to the top despite challenges, and owned every task as if she were cut out for it and unachievable for anybody else. Most importantly, she kept her humanism separate from politics, which she saw as a way of getting the job done, never letting it define her. In fact, she defined it. So it is understandable why thousands of tributes are pouring in from across the world, even from nations with whom we have had a troubled relationship, appreciating her ways of engagement and relieving crisis with her direct intervention and action. A people’s person, she helped Indians across the world as much as she did other nationals who needed help at our embassies, particularly those who required medical treatment here. In many ways, Swaraj will forever remain a pioneer in the annals of women’s leadership in India. In a bindi and sari, she wore tradition easily. She chose the difficult option in politics, making her path through the male-dominated leadership of the BJP, an arduous climb compared to her counterparts in the Congress, most of whom had the mantle of entitlement. Swaraj broke through as the party’s first woman Chief Minister, Union Cabinet Minister, general secretary and even spokesperson. 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 after Vajpayee, she has had Parliament in thrall with her speeches, particularly as the Leader of the Opposition from 2009 to 2014. The House will surely miss that fire and brimstone. She famously vowed to shave off her head if Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi was made the Prime Minister and fought her creditably from the Bellary Lok Sabha seat. But that didn’t stop Sonia from exchanging pleasantries with her at Central Hall.
Her toughest stint was within the BJP despite her dedication and commitment to every role the party assigned her, particularly glass cliff challenges vacated by her male colleagues. Though she was among the second-rung leaders that BJP has a culture of grooming, she didn’t have the Sangh Parivar’s endorsement, which chose a monolith called Modi. Yet she survived and re-calibrated her loyalties to her one-time peer and newly-anointed leader, compelling him to admire her performance as his Minister. 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. She became a pro in social media diplomacy, helping in cases that users put up for her intervention and attention, something that led Washington Post to call her the “supermom” of diplomacy. With tremendous grace under pressure, she bowed out of the electoral race of 2019, knowing full well that it was better to let go of things not meant to be. She was wiser to step back as a protege of the Vajpayee-Advani school than being benched. 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. The new leadership, coming as it does on the back of a consolidated verdict, will predictably go by with what it succeeded with in the first place, a presidential style of operations. Yet it could not neutralise her free spirit, one that will continue to inspire us.
Writer & Courtesy: The Pioneer