Sushma Swaraj: An Able Politician Whose Abilities Were Stifled

Sushma Swaraj found herself complicit in her own marginalisation as external affairs minister under Modi government.

6 min read

Sushma Swaraj, whose death occurred two years ago today, is universally mourned across the political spectrum. She embodied a number of paradoxes: a woman who rose to prominence in a male-dominated party; a politician from a traditional RSS family who married a socialist, developed a reputation as a widely acceptable political figure and yet became an effective advocate of many of the RSS’ pet themes; a brilliant orator whose voice was silenced in the highest position she attained; a skilful parliamentarian who had to suffer the ignominy of the parliamentary Opposition demanding her resignation; and perhaps saddest of all, an able politician whose abilities were stifled and who found herself complicit in her own marginalisation as external affairs minister.


Sushma Swaraj: An Extraordinary Politician

Born Sushma Sharma on 14 February 1952, Sushmaji, as I always called her, amassed an astonishing number of distinctions in her political career. She was elected seven times as a Member of Parliament and three times as an MLA. She became the youngest cabinet minister in the country when she was appointed to the Haryana Cabinet in 1977 at the age of 25. She was the first female Chief Minister of Delhi in 1998 and held ministerial offices in every BJP government, from the thirteen-day Vajpayee government in 1996 to the first Modi government.

And yet, as one looks back on her illustrious accomplishments, it is with a sense of regret at what went wrong or fell short.

While Sushma Swaraj was herself a respected and widely-liked politician, her role in the formulation of foreign policy during her tenure as external affairs minister in the first Modi government appeared to be so tightly circumscribed that diplomats in Delhi referred to her, with a somewhat disparaging smile, as the “minister for consular affairs”.

The Prime Minister ran foreign policy himself in a highly personalised manner with the assistance of his Foreign Secretary, whom he later appointed to Sushmaji's job.

Modi Government's 'Twitter' Minister

Her time as Minister was, therefore, spent largely on Twitter, replying to voters’ complaints about her ministry’s services, helping Indians who had lost their passports abroad and Pakistanis needing heart surgery in India—not to mention the largely pointless effort to splurge taxpayers’ money to secure Hindi as an official language at the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the ministry had to swallow the embarrassment of seeing ‘Yoga and Indian Culture Acharyas’ (well-versed in Sanskrit, yoga and the Hindu scriptures) appointed with diplomatic status at Indian Embassies to promote Hindu culture abroad, even as its core diplomatic staff languished at levels comparable to New Zealand and Singapore, countries of considerably smaller population and modest global aspiration. Sushmaji could not escape her responsibility for this.

Scandal Surrounding Sushma Swaraj

And then there was the black mark of scandal. As external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj was revealed to have gone behind the back of her own foreign secretary and the Indian high commissioner in the UK to privately advise the British high commissioner in Delhi that her ministry would not object if a travel document were provided to an Indian fugitive economic offender in London—a resigning offence in any democracy, especially since the fugitive was her lawyer husband’s client. But Modi refused the Opposition clamour for her resignation, and prevailed.

It was dismaying that Sushmaji thought nothing of intervening with a foreign government in favour of an absconding Indian citizen, wanted by the law enforcement agencies of our own country.

In any other democracy, even if such a matter had come to her desk, she would have been expected to recuse herself from all involvement because her husband and daughter happened to be the legal representatives of the person concerned.

A conflict of interest exists when any official’s fiduciary responsibility to the obligations of his or her official position clashes with a personal interest, e.g. a sense of duty towards a friend of the family. The Sushma Swaraj case fits so obviously within that definition that it could almost be a classic example for a case study on conflict of interest.


An Astute & Affable Colleague in Parliament

And yet, as an Opposition MP and Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee covering her Ministry, I found her remarkably pleasant to deal with as Minister on a number of occasions. She was unfailingly accessible and courteous, open-minded and receptive to my views. She, together with Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, asked me to lead the Indian parliamentary delegations to the BRICS Summit in Moscow and to the Asian parliamentarians’ Conference in Islamabad – hugely sensitive and prestigious assignments that it is hard to imagine entrusting an Opposition MP within our polarised politics today.

On at least two occasions when my Committee’s work threatened to explode into political controversy, a friendly meeting with her was enough to defuse problems, and an amicable solution was found.

She was also willing to abandon long-held positions in the national interest, as when, visiting Dhaka as her first foreign stop after becoming foreign minister, she pledged to go through with the Land Boundary Agreement with that country, which she and her party had resolutely opposed for years. She went so far as to refer it to my Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs for review, and did not interfere at all as I steered cross-party discussions on the subject and returned with a strong unanimous endorsement which she was able to rely on as she brought the Constitutional Amendment to Parliament to make the Agreement a reality.


Contradictions in Personality

And yet this was also the woman who, as I&B Minister, banned Fashion TV for showing models wearing revealing clothes, and made a spectacle of herself by threatening to shave her head and sit in dharna if Sonia Gandhi ever became Prime Minister. Her pushing to make Hindi an official language at the United Nations, at considerable expense to the national exchequer, sat oddly with a talent for languages that enabled her to pick up Kannada and make speeches in that language while contesting a by-election in Karnataka. She was also an over-enthusiastic advocate of making the Bhagavad Gita as India’s ‘rashtriya granth’, or ‘national holy book’.

Such divisive ideas came from a curious traditionalism in her mental make-up, as the daughter of a proponent of “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” who served the ABVP in her student days. Her statements describing rape victims as defiled, violated and shamed before the public at large, and no longer fit to lead a normal life—she lamented that a rape victim was a ‘zinda laash’ (a living corpse)—came from the same socially conventional mindset.

It also endeared her to the patriarchal RSS hierarchy. Yet the right wing never fully adopted her as one of theirs.


Toxic Trolling Faced by Sushma Swaraj

The vilification to which Sushmaji was subjected by members and supporters of her own party (for the punitive transfer of a passport official who had made bigoted remarks to an inter-faith couple when they applied for a passport) proved this. Her party members, who through their vicious words showed they shared the anti-Muslim bigotry the official reportedly expressed, blamed her for his administrative punishment (a decision taken when she was out of the country). They expressed their rage in a flood of excoriating tweets, including referring to her disparagingly as ‘begum’ (a Muslim honorific) and urging her husband to beat her for getting out of line. The toxicity of their attacks on her showed that for al her fealty, she was never quite accepted as one of the “boys” of the Hindutva ecosystem.

The 'Disruptive' Sushma Swaraj 

Ironically given current events, Sushmaji was also, as Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, a fervent advocate of parliamentary disruption. Asked about the losses to the national exchequer from the disruption of Parliament, which was wasting crores of taxpayers’ rupee, she averred, “when Parliament ends this way, there is criticism—we are told that there is a loss since the Parliament wasn’t allowed to function…By losing Rs 10-20 crore from loss of Parliament proceedings, if we can build pressure on the government, then that is acceptable.”


A moderate politician who expressed extremist views in a reasonable tone of voice and with a pleasant smile, Sushma Swaraj embodied a range of contradictions. In her cotton saris and trademark large bindi, later embellished with the sleeveless half-jacket that turned a sari into business attire, she came across as an unthreatening, almost maternal figure. But she had a sharp mind of her own and the vocabulary to express it with compelling fluency. Though I disagreed with her frequently, I think of her with affection, and with a regretful sense of what might have been had not fate snatched her away from us so early.

We will not see her like again.

(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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