I never met Sushma Swaraj in my life. Yet I felt extremely sad when I learnt late last night that she had passed away.
A few years ago, a top publisher approached me and wondered I could do a biography of Sushma. She was still the foreign minister of India. “The book would have a joint byline because we want to position it as her autobiography. It would do well,” he added.
Straight away, I said no because I am not used to ghost write books albeit with my byline. But later I lamented because I realised this would have given me a chance to have close interactions with the lady and she was bound to reveal many inner details about political goings on. But that was never destined to happen.
The Karnataka elections
An early entrant to politics, I ‘almost’ met her many years later. In 1999 she had decided to take on Sonia Gandhi in the Congress bastion of Bellary. At that time nobody had virtually any clue about BJP in this backward region of north Karnataka. By chance I landed up in Bellary to visit the Jindal’s Vijayanagara steel plant.
After finishing my work I went to the BJP office looking for her whereabouts. I met a BJP functionary who was her election manager in the empty office which neither had any workers or any visitors (which obviously implied that the party was virtually absent in this part of the world).
I casually asked the functionary about the assembly segments of the Bellary Lok Sabha seat. He apologised and said that he was from another part of Karnataka and had no clue.
It seemed strange to me that Sushma had travelled all the way to north Karnataka, a region where her party had no hold. So I went to meet her at the hotel she was put up in this two-horse town.
At the time of elections, politicians are accessible to all and sundry. Thus it seemed funny that she refused to meet a senior journalist from a leading national newspaper. But her media manager confessed that she was resting (it was around 6 pm) and on my insistence, revealed that her ‘sugar’ levels had shot up to alarming levels and doctors had advised her rest.
I left as I had a train to catch to Bengaluru where I was posted then. Sushma was only 48 then and I was reminded of this last night after hearing that she passed away due to diabetic complications.
Today as BJP has again formed its government in Karnataka, a part of the credit for the dominance of the saffron party in this part of the world must surely go to her (although there are major reasons also).
In 2002, I had occasion to rebut her on public space. The Gujarat riots were on and the reporting of the developments in the national press was daily leading to complaints by the BJP government.
At this time, I saw an interview of Sushma in Outlook magazine where she lambasted the national press and said that their coverage in New Delhi editions was strident but in their Ahmedabad editions were softer. She named The Times of India on which I was the editor then in Gujarat. I was mighty incensed and wrote a letter to the editor of Outlook that the coverage of the riots in the Ahmedabad edition was no different from the New Delhi edition. So Sushma was misrepresenting facts. The letter was published prominently, but Sushma took it sportingly.
BJP declined after losing the 2004 elections and again in 2009. After their preeminent leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee slipped into Alzheimer’s and his compatriot LK Advani was retired by the RSS, a leadership battle broke out in the party.
Sushma Swaraj was one of the contenders. But the ‘soft’ Sushma lost out to the ‘hard’ Narendra Modi, something that was also due to the fact that the former had not risen through the ranks of RSS. Sushma had a socialist background and had been closely associated along with her husband with folks like George Fernandes.
Feisty and competent
Comfortable with the more democratic style of Vajpayee in whose government she held many ministries and was also the chief minister of Delhi for a short while (even though she hailed from Ambala in Haryana), Sushma was too feisty and competent to be ignored by Modi.
She was made the external affairs minister, a job she did competently but in a style quite different to that of the prime minister. But her work impressed many. Saptak Ghosh, a journalist, put up a tweet of Sushma on Facebook (after her death): “Even if you are stuck on the Mars, Indian Embassy there will help you.”
This helpful but determined nature defined Sushma’s life and even endeared her to Sonia Gandhi about whom she had commented in 2004 that “I will tonsure my head if Sonia becomes Prime Minister.”
All I can say is that: May she be at peace. I am sure she has transited to a better place.
Kingshuk Nag is a senior journalist.
Read his columns here.
First Published: IST