Her passing may not trigger any nationwide outpouring of emotion, but those whose lives she touched in the course of her long political career will feel a void: the Sushma Swaraj they worked with or for, and the many Indian nationals who sought her help on Twitter from every corner of the world never to be disappointed, for them there will be a sense of deep loss. She could empathise, feel their pain and she was genuine.
But Sushmaji was no pushover, the rough and tumble of Haryana politics where she was blooded, is brutal with pushovers. She was a warm politician with strong Socialist roots, who as she gravitated to the BJP took on every challenge, every detractor, searing the ruling party as an Opposition leader in Parliament. Equally, she would play the role of defending the government in her diverse roles as the Union minister for information and broadcasting, health and later external affairs.
Many will recall the force she brought to her campaign in 1999 in Bellary, Karnataka, against Sonia Gandhi. With all the odds stacked against her, Swaraj fought a strong campaign by even learning Kannada and bringing a touch of melodrama when she vowed to tonsure her head and sleep on the floor if Sonia Gandhi became prime minister.
But politics is cruel: the Sushmaji seen as a leading light of GenNext BJP was a marginalised figure in the last five years when she was external affairs minister. She was in the wrong camp (LK Advani’s) and although she made her peace with Narendra Modi, it was clear her career was drawing to a close. The portfolio was important but the pitfalls many given that foreign policy direction came largely from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the National Security Adviser (NSA).
Those who worked closely with her at that time, said she walked a deft political tight-rope, immersing herself in every aspect of her charge but shunning publicity and never giving interviews. She knew officers by name, had an elephantine memory and understood the nuances of policy making. “She was meticulous and hated surprises, choosing instead to be well prepared for her meetings and discussions with foreign leaders,” recalled a diplomat.
The public will remember her for the human touch she brought to the hard-nosed and rather impersonal ministry of external affairs. As Raveesh Kumar, MEA spokesman tweeted, “she has left a lasting legacy by putting people at the core of Indian diplomacy”. Said another senior Indian diplomat, “she was genuinely concerned about people and brought a sense of empathy within the ministry too.”
So when young Indian aid worker Judith D’Souza was abducted in Kabul in 2016, Swaraj led from the front to ensure her rescue by the Afghan authorities and her safe return home. When 39 Indians went missing in war-torn Iraq, she made it a point to meet their anxious families, giving the message of reassurance and hope even when she may have known better. She was criticised in the media for that but held her ground, insisting on confirmation from her people on the ground.
Swaraj is also credited for her efforts in ensuring the return of Mumbai youth Hamid Ansari from a Pakistani prison in December last year. Ansari, an engineer, had been put behind bars on charges of spying after he was found to have entered Pakistan illegally.
Swaraj’s outreach to the common man was, to a large extent, through Twitter. When Twitter had beckoned some years ago, Swaraj took to it like a fish to water. With more than 13 million followers, she had amongst the highest Twitter following in the country. And it was used to good effect as the common man reached out to her via Twitter–lost passports, stranded abroad, ill-treatment by employers in the Gulf,etc–and she responded by tagging Indian envoys asking them to act and report to her.
She behaved with grace and there was fortitude dealing with her kidney transplant three years ago. She took a few months break but it was business as usual after that. She set a hectic pace for herself and her officials, working late into the night, chairing discussions ahead of key multilateral events including the UN General Assembly.
Swaraj chose not to contest the 2019 general elections owing to ill-health. But her ready wit and humour was never lacking. When somebody sarcastically tweeted that he would miss her when he read her tweet on the death of Sheila Dikshit, her response was ‘I thank you in anticipation of this kind thought.’ When a person sought to mock her via Twitter saying he was stuck on Mars. She shot back: ‘Even if you are stuck on Mars, Indian Embassy there will help you.’
But she drew the line at other times. When a man sought her help via Twitter to have his malfunctioning refrigerator fixed, she replied, ‘Brother I cannot help you in matters of a refrigerator. I am very busy with human beings in distress.’
A feisty Politician to the end.