It has never happened before. But it did early Friday morning when BJP’s Leader of Opposition (LoP) Sushma Swaraj trudged nearly one-and-a-half kilometre to pay homage to Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s husband and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at Vir Bhumi.
As this was the first time any BJP member had attended such a function, her gesture was a throwback to the past when leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru would put behind their political differences to praise an Atal Behari Vajpayee, then a Jana Sangh youngster, and maintain excellent relations with rivals.
The same norms are now in evidence between the two women leaders. This would come as a shock to those who remember how Swaraj contested against Gandhi in Bellary in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls and had, after the 2004 polls, threatened to shave off her head if the Italy-born Gandhi became PM.
But Gandhi and Swaraj now share a bonding and warmth. “They share jokes and talk about their family matters like any two friends would. They even discuss Swaraj’s opposition to Gandhi becoming PM,” said BJP sources. It is not rare to see the two walk out of the Lok Sabha, chatting along the way. And Gandhi, when she passes by Swaraj, taps her shoulder in a gesture of greeting.
How did this change come about? It has been building up despite differences. In fact, when Swaraj was NDA’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister the two reportedly would discuss a number of issues coming up in Parliament. The women’s quota bill, which the duo are passionate about, further cemented this relationship as was witnessed during the passage of the bill in the Rajya Sabha this March.
“Such chemistry helps forge consensus on issues,” said a Congress functionary. “It also helps improve the political climate,” he added.
Gandhi has followed the trend of Nehru and others of setting aside her political differences to bring a personal touch in her equations with rivals. She did it when she promptly called up Vajpayee, then PM, to inquire about his safety when terrorists attacked Parliament House in 2001 or when she urged former PM Chandrashekhar to go for medical treatment or when she sent an emissary on hearing that Amar Singh, then in the SP, had lost his father. There is even a thaw in her relations with BJP's LK Advani.
Swaraj’s own gesture on Friday was as much an acknowledgement of her changing equations with Gandhi as it was of an LoP joining a government function to pay homage to the former PM.
She did not stand on ceremony that she had to walk and sit in an enclosure other than the one where the Vice-President, the PM and Gandhi sat. Gandhi immediately greeted her across the enclosure.