The last word about Swaraj isn’t out yet
Despite announcing that she won’t be contesting the 2019 elections, do not rule out her role in a post-poll scenario where India’s ruling BJP falls short of a simple majority and needs outside support
It says a lot about India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that Sushma Swaraj, the senior-most woman leader in the BJP, not just emerged but rose to prominence in the party. It also says a lot about the current majoritarian BJP that Swaraj, originally a socialist, never became the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
Swaraj recently announced that she will not be contesting the Lok Sabha elections next year, but the news hardly created a ripple. That was clearly managed by her rivals in the party who fancy themselves super editors and excel in headline management.
Swaraj, currently the foreign minister, diminutive in size — she is around five feet — has a huge electoral stature, winning more than half a dozen Lok Sabha elections. Swaraj is an unparalleled orator, in the league of the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and learns languages quickly. She holds large crowds in thrall.
Swaraj’s ambitions have matched her oratory. And she was always extremely conscious of image management. Asked about the fact that Swaraj was the best prime minister the BJP never had, party leaders scoff, saying she has never tried to be collegial with colleagues.
But that is the perception of an extremely paternalistic party, which did not utter a word when Swaraj was trolled shamefully by right-wing trolls. Her offence was trying to give speedy redress to a complaint made by an inter-faith couple.
So is Swaraj the hoary old cliche — the right woman in the wrong party? She was the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, a position normally held by the shadow prime minister. And, despite some controversies, such as a brief dalliance with the infamous Bellary brothers and a one around Lalit Modi, again adroitly managed by her rivals, Swaraj has a clean image.
She was the BJP’s original ideal Indian “bahu” (daughter-in-law) until Pramod Mahajan, a huge Swaraj rival, brought in Smriti Irani the “TV bahu” based on her starring role in a soap opera. When I asked Mahajan why Irani, he replied: To outdo the original Indian bahu. Mahajan was also responsible for Swaraj’s ouster from the Vajpayee Cabinet and a disastrous stint as Delhi chief minister.
Swaraj, who is married to lawyer Swaraj Kaushal and has a daughter Bansuri, also a lawyer, who originally wanted to be an actor, was mentored by L.K. Advani and never hid her unease when Narendra Modi was projected as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2015.
Despite this she made it to the Cabinet, but with most of her portfolio taken over by Modi’s overarching Prime Minister’s Office. Swaraj kept mum, put her head down and worked. Swaraj made innovative use of social media, helping Indians in distress the world over. She personally monitored Indians in trouble and was almost like a Mother Teresa of Twitter, making the lethargic Foreign Ministry put the interests of those who were overseas and in distress, first.
Pre-empting an eventuality
Swaraj, who has warm relationships across party lines, despite her infamous vow to shave her head if Sonia Gandhi became prime minister, saw Congress leaders react with regret to her announcement of not contesting in the next elections, while the BJP kept mum.
Swaraj had a kidney transplant in 2016 and probably saw the writing on the wall — if Modi and Amit Shah make it again in 2019, she will be headed straight to the Margdarshak Mandal — the BJP’s powerless ‘old-age home’. Swaraj clearly pre-empted this eventuality and ensured that her bitter rival Arun Jaitley, who has never won an election in his life, will also head for the mandal.
Journalists close to Jaitley wrote that if Swaraj gets a Rajya Sabha seat she would have to work under Jaitley. They also raised questions on the timing of her announcement just as the campaign for the Madhya Pradesh Assembly was on. Those who know Swaraj say she would never do that. They also maintain that Swaraj had kept Modi posted on her announcement.
So what next for Swaraj? Curtains on a very successful political career if Modi and Shah prove their dominance again. And, if the BJP is short of a simple majority and needs outside support, Swaraj will be back in the reckoning for the one job she has always coveted — prime minister. As for most politicians, drinking from the elixir of power, Swaraj’s health problems are unlikely to hold her back.