External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj is no stranger to the big stage. She has won seven parliamentary elections and three state polls.
But when she takes the United Nations general assembly podium on Monday evening, Swaraj will be under the global arc lights like never before.
This is her second consecutive speech at the 193-nation body. But last week’s militant attack in Uri that killed 18 soldiers, heightened tensions between India and Pakistan and New Delhi’s resolve of isolating Pakistan diplomatically are sure to fire a spotlight rarely focused on a foreign minister.
Known for her oratory, Swaraj is expected to give a “befitting” response to Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who blamed India for the unrest in Kashmir during his speech last week. She is the third speaker of the day and expected to take the podium around 7.15pm.
The Uri attack has whipped up nationalist passions across the country with a growing clamour for military action against Pakistan and pressure on the BJP to come through on its election campaign promises of tough action against militants.
Swaraj – who has often played second fiddle to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s big-bang diplomacy -- will have to juggle the weight of all this expectation. It is an act that may even bring up comparisons with the legendary defence minister VK Krishna Menon –who led the Indian UN delegation in 1961.
India-Pakistan rivalry or Kashmir has often played out at the UN. But the prime ministers of the two nations primarily led the charge. AB Vajpayee did it in 2002, when he tore into Pakistan. “If Pakistan claims to be a crucial partner in the international coalition against terrorism, how can it continue to use terrorism as an instrument of state policy against India”, Vajpayee had asked. The ties between the neighbours had nose-dived after the parlimanet attack in 2001.
In his speech, Vajpayee mentioned Pakistan’s name five times. He also did something which is rare for an Indian prime minister to do at the UN stage: excoriating Pakistan’s intelligence agency for fomenting terror in India. When foreign minister SM Krishna took the podium in 2009 at the UN, the Mumbai terror attack of November 2008 was a few months old and tempers were no longer flared.
These are different times. In her last UNGA address, Swaraj made references to Pakistan three times and terrorism nine times. But the sky-high expectations are expected to put her oratory skills to a new test.
BJP patriarch L K Advani once famously said the oratory skills of two leaders in the party gives him a complex: One was Vajpayee and the other was Swaraj.
When she won the “outstanding parliamentarian” award in 2004, the first woman MP to get that award, her oratory received another stamp of approval.
But her hawkish one-liner on Pakistan—demanding ten Pakistani heads for every death of an Indian soldier— may come back to haunt her. She also struck hardline positions when the government cancelled national security adviser-level talks with Pakistan last year.
Monday is no ordinary day for Swaraj. Her every word will weighed, every pause accounted for, after all, this is her biggest challenge as the foreign minister in the global stage so far.