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Friday, Aug 23, 2019

The importance of being Sushma Swaraj — a personal tribute | Opinion

A woman of rare common sense, sharp understanding, and a speaker par excellence, her void will be hard to fill

analysis Updated: Aug 08, 2019 19:23 IST
Chandan Mitra
Chandan Mitra
Her intellectual depth, oratorical calibre, personal affection made her a remarkable leader
Her intellectual depth, oratorical calibre, personal affection made her a remarkable leader(Mohd Zakir/HT PHOTO)
         

During my first term as a nominated Rajya Sabha (RS) Member of Parliament, ostensibly unattached but widely known to be sympathetic to the Bharatiya Janata Party (then led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani), I casually walked into the ruling party’s weekly meeting of MPs, held each Tuesday in session time. When it ended, I found myself walking next to Sushma Swaraj, and gleefully told her “Sushma ji main aa gaya!” She inched close to me and, in a hushed voice, whispered into my ears that I had not been prudent in attending the meeting as I could lose my RS membership if anyone complained. This was some time in 2005-06. I had been nominated to the House in 2004, but did not formally join any party within the stipulated six-month period. Then, flashing her reassuring smile, she said to me: “Why are you in such a hurry? We value your opinions; please convey them to me or Advaniji as you can always access us. Next time, we will induct you for sure.”

She kept her promise, and in 2010, aggressively pushed my candidature for an RS seat from Madhya Pradesh, she herself being Lok Sabha MP from Vidisha, adjacent to Bhopal. Although I had many friends in the BJP, starting with Delhi University contemporaries such as Arun Jaitley, Sushma’s affection effortlessly made her one of my near and dear ones in the party. Over the years, I became one of her principal advisers, preparing background briefs for her, and her sounding board in many party matters. Her proximity to Advani ensured our equation endured the travails of time. I admired her command over Hindi, and she was impressed with the way I could articulate in English. That made me her shadow at seminars at home and abroad.

A woman of rare common sense and sharp understanding, she took me along to a roundtable on issues of motherhood and child welfare in Kochi. I vigorously protested my ignorance on the subject, but she disarmed me, saying she needed a note in English as nobody would understand Hindi in Kerala. When she asked me to come to her suite to note down the points she had in mind, I protested again, as I had gone out of the hotel in the evening with friends and, to put it mildly, lost count of our consumption of liquid refreshments. But her wish being my command, I dutifully took down notes in shaky handwriting, returned to my room, and hammered out a brief on my laptop. When I showed it to her at breakfast next morning, she was visibly startled, telling daughter Bansuri that she did not think I would manage a coherent piece given the state I was in. “Lekin dekho, Chandan ne kya kamaal kiya hai. It is better than what I had in mind.”

Once I travelled with her to Singapore, and she insisted I accompany her for a meeting with the island-nation’s prime minister. Surprisingly, she bounced all questions to her my way. On exiting the building, I asked her why she threw me at the deep end. Her matter-of-fact reply was: “Nehi toh seekhoge kaise, jab tumhari baari aayegi, taiyar rehna hoga na (Otherwise how will you be prepared for the time when you will have to play your innings)”. The same afternoon, she was due to address a packed auditorium in the university. She announced, I would be talking instead of her, and after five minutes, by way of introducing India’s foreign policy, she handed the microphone to me.

An acute diabetic, she was very particular about eating at stipulated times. Having got to know that I was similarly afflicted, she made sure enough roti-sabzi was packed for both in the tiffin-box whenever I accompanied her on election tours.

Unparalleled as a fiery orator both in public meetings as well as on the floor of Parliament, she almost always spoke extempore, holding forth for an hour or more. Rally organisers had a tough time if her seniors were also present at the same venue because the audience would gradually get up and leave, instead of staying on to hear the top-billed speaker.

A storehouse of appropriate Hindi and Urdu couplets, she rattled them off her memory, while drawing parallels from mythological texts over which she had complete command. So appropriate were her choices that I still remember how just one sher she recited to conclude her longish speech on the 2G debate in Parliament summed up the then Opposition’s entire argument expounded over two days. Looking directly at then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, she boldly asked:

“Yeh bataa kaarvan kisne loota

Mujhe rahajanon se gila nehi

Teri rahbari ka sawal hai

(Tell us who looted our caravan?

I have no complaints against highway robbers,

The question is of your leadership)”

Nothing more was needed to be said. Singh was speechless and gloomy. His expression said it all. We will have to wait a few generations to find an orator of her intellectual depth and oratorical calibre.

Chandan Mitra is editor, The Pioneer and former MP
The views expressed are personal

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First Published: Aug 08, 2019 19:23 IST

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