Sushma Swaraj: A fiery orator who knew the art of building bridges
In the ground-floor office she occupied in the Parliament building as leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha from 2009-14, Sushma Swaraj had installed a glittering portrait of Lord Krishna.
“Krishna played many roles in his life and he played all of them to perfection,” Swaraj had said then. “I draw inspiration from him.”
The feisty Haryana-born leader, too, played many roles in a career spanning over four decades, and she played them well: spokesperson and general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), chief minister of Delhi, parliamentarian, Union minister, leader of Opposition and, finally, external affairs minister.
Swaraj was the first woman politician from the BJP to reach heights within the party. Her televised Karwa Chauth celebrations in the late 90s, midnight raids at Delhi police stations as chief minister, sharp oratory and knack of taking risks made her popular among women.
In a male-dominated Parliament, she had a big standing. As parliamentary affairs minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government (1999-2004), she introduced a new style statement – sleeveless jacket over saree. Other women politicians followed suit in no time.
“People hand over chits in Parliament corridors and I have to carry a pen always to sign one document or the other. I kept all of them in the pocket of my jacket,” she once said.
A strict vegetarian, Swaraj lived a simple life. Her house didn’t have a snazzy enough living room to host visiting US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2011. She was the leader of Opposition then, and an additional structure was built at her Safdarjung Lane bungalow where she could meet Clinton.
At leisure, she would read poetry and listen to the “Shiv Tandav Strotam” that Ravana sang in praise of Shiva. A book shelf, tucked away in one corner of her official bungalow, was meant for people from her constituency, Vidisha. A note posted on the bookshelf read: “People from Vidisha can take one book from this shelf”.
Before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, she updated her Twitter profile saying “contested 10 direct elections”. The last was her eleventh.
When Lal Krishna Advani called senior BJP leaders ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections -- he was then the party’s prime minister candidate -- and suggested that they contest the polls, Swaraj agreed. She was picked to contest from Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh.
Madhya Pradesh was only one of the many stops in Swaraj’s political career that saw her contesting assembly, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha elections from Haryana, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Delhi.
In 1999, she demonstrated that she was not afraid of taking risks when she threw an electoral challenge to Sonia Gandhi from Karnataka’s Bellary -- a Kannada-speaking constituency with which she had no association -- and announced that she would shave her hair and sleep on the floor like a widow if the then Congress president, a lady of foreign origin, became the prime minister.
She lost in Bellary, but opened the southern gateway for the BJP.
It’s a different matter that the two women developed a warm relationship later, and were often seen in Parliament shaking hands and enquiring about each other’s health.
Swaraj also had the ability to make friends but could not overlook breach of trust. She was hurt when journalists wrongly quoted her as saying that then vice president Hamid Ansari did not have the “stature” to become the consensus candidate for president. Several National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leaders, such as Sharad Yadav who was then with the Janata Dal (United), felt it was inappropriate for her to make such a remark.
Her interaction with the media became limited after that and she never returned to giving “background briefings” to reporters, not even as foreign minister. Possibly, she carried the grudge till her last day.