Sushma Swaraj: The people’s politician with a helping hand
Former external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, who gained widespread praise for using social media to help Indians around the world in distress , was once seen as a rising star of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who went on to fulfil that promise by achieving the highest legislative and executive successes.
Swaraj, 67, was the daughter of a prominent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader and had several achievements in her four-decade-long political career, including becoming Haryana’s youngest cabinet minister at 25 in 1977 and Delhi’s first woman chief minister in 1998.
Her exclusion from the Union Cabinet following the BJP’s sweeping victory this year surprised many in diplomatic and political circles. Though she didn’t contest the elections due to her poor health, she hadn’t said she intended to retire from politics.
She rose in politics at a young age, but her detractors in the BJP called her an “outsider” to the Sangh, the party’s ideological fountainhead. They labelled her a socialist nominee to the Janata Party government in Haryana under Devi Lal. Swaraj, however, would say it was her husband Swaraj Kaushal who should be called a socialist and that her father had been a ‘swayamsevak’.
After losing in the parliamentary polls of 1980, 1984 and 1989 in Haryana, she did a stint in the Rajya Sabha before breaking her Lok Sabha jinx with a victory from South Delhi in 1996. She was made a cabinet minister in the 13-day government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and became a cabinet minister again after a win in 1998. Swaraj was made Delhi’s CM after Sahib Singh Verma stepped down in 1998, but the rising price of onions during her short tenure of about three months drew much criticism.
In 1999, she contested against then Congress president Sonia Gandhi from Bellary in Karnataka. Though she had just 12 days to campaign, she lost to Gandhi by a margin of just 7%.
During the second Vajpayee government, she briefly held the information and broadcasting portfolio during 2000-03. She also served as the minister for health, family welfare and parliamentary affairs from 2003 to 2004, when the NDA lost the election.
She also made her mark as a powerful and articulate Hindi orator in Parliament who was just as well known for her quick wit.
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As Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha from 2009 to 2014, she was seen as one of the possible claimants in the BJP for the prime ministerial position. It was at this time that then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi went from strength to strength.
She was considered to be close to BJP stalwart and former home minister LK Advani. Swaraj went on to become external affairs minister, taking the oath of office after only Modi and then BJP president Rajnath Singh. As the external affairs minister, Swaraj functioned in an understated manner, with Modi steering the foreign policy with an aggression seldom seen before. She actively used social media to engage with Indians around the world and to outline the government’s position on key foreign policy issues. Swaraj also was known for responding to numerous requests for assistance from Indians in distress around the world.
However, Swaraj faced accusations in 2015 of having lobbied on behalf of former Indian Premier League chief Lalit Modi after she recommended to the UK government that Modi, then a fugitive, could be provided travel documents to visit his wife, who was being treated for cancer in Portugal. She defended her decision by saying it was made on humanitarian grounds and was defended by both the BJP and the RSS.
Born on February 14, 1952 at Ambala in Haryana, she earned a bachelor’s degree with majors in Sanskrit and political science from SD College before going on to study law at Panjab University in Chandigarh. During her political career, she was elected a Member of Parliament nine times and a member of the legislative assembly three times.
She was married to Swaraj Kaushal, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court who served as governor of Mizoram during 1990-93 and was an MP during 1998-2004.
Her stint as the external affairs minister was affected by poor health and she underwent a kidney transplant in 2016.