Sushma: Small in build, but a political giant among men

Sushma Swaraj managed to tower head and shoulders over most of her male peers in the BJP

Sushma Swaraj may have been petite but she never allowed her diminutive size to cramp her political style. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that her rise and success in establishing a niche in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that has an entrenched gender hierarchy, placed her head and shoulders over her male peers. The men did not have to put in half the struggle she waged to find a place under the sun.

Sushma’s political career was layered and cannot be locked in a gender vault. Probably she did not see the challenges before her as arising from gender distinctions because the first big fight she had was against another woman, Indira Gandhi.

In October 1978, when Indira sought re-election to the Lok Sabha from Chikmagalur in a by-poll, after losing her Rae Bareli borough in 1977, Sushma plunged into the battle and doggedly chased Indira through the campaign. Soon as Indira finished addressing a meeting, Sushma would land, take to the stump and denounce her formidable opponent. Indira noticed the Sushma trail and asked who she was. She was told that the feisty young woman was from Haryana and the Janata Party. 

By serendipity, the ladies happened to be in the same compartment of a train they boarded one evening. Sushma got a place in a cabin with male political workers that left her disconcerted. Somehow, Indira nosed out her plight and sent her aide, Nirmala Deshpande, to Sushma. Nirmala prevailed on the Congress workers to vacate the cabin and asked the railway security to be mindful of Sushma.  For Sushma, it was an early lesson that the political and the personal can be differentiated.

In 1999, when she picked up the gauntlet against Sonia Gandhi in Bellary Lok Sabha seat and lost the election that she fought spiritedly, the loss and the ensuing bitterness lingered on for a while. So much so, that when the BJP lost the 2004 Lok Sabha election to the Congress-led coalition, Sushma turned ballistic,  threatened to tonsure her head and wear sackcloth if Sonia became the Prime Minister. Sonia did not. Gradually, the ladies warmed up to one another and struck up a working relationship that evolved into a friendship after Sushma became the Lok Sabha Opposition leader in 2009. 

However, the Sonia camaraderie did not hinder Sushma from going full throttle against the Congress in Parliament and outside when she attacked the UPA government for its scams and failure to check inflation. 

Sushma had a mixed innings in the BJP, that she joined in 1984. Her mentor, LK Advani, sensed the need to fill the vacuum for an effective woman leader and saw Sushma had the potential. She had already served two stints as a minister in Haryana’s Janata Party and BJP-Janata Party governments, having had the distinction to become one at 25 after she won her first election from the Ambala Cantonment Assembly seat. Sushma had spunk, political understanding, was eloquent (she won several prizes for elocution in girlhood), could grandstand in debates and had the energy to travel and electioneer. 

Sushma cast herself in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee mould although she had a better rapport with Advani. Charisma and oratory were her cachets and not organisational team-work. Like Vajpayee, she tailored her speeches after intuitively mapping an audience’s mood and requirement and played to the gallery. 

Sushma was not from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s women’s wing although her father Hardev was a ‘swayamsevak’. However, from the start she figured out that if she had to survive and grow in the BJP, she would have to embrace the Sangh’s ideology. She diligently attended the Sangh’s meetings and earned the trust of its high-level functionaries.

Sushma’s political career was all about doing the balancing act. While swearing allegiance to the RSS, she rarely, if ever, coloured her discourses and pronouncements with communal overtones except to say in Parliament once that if the Opposition denounced the BJP as communal, she was proud of being labelled as “communal”. Sushma was not present in Ayodhya when the Babri mosque was demolished in 1992. 

While she sought to navigate the BJP’s terrain largely on her own terms, she watched out for landmines planted by her rivals who were never happy with the patronage she got from Advani.  Sushma was eased out of the Vajpayee government when she was the Information Technology and Communications minister through deft maneuvers of the late Pramod Mahajan, a Vajpayee favourite. She was sent to Delhi as the chief minister to lead the party in an election which the BJP was doomed to lose.

After a spell in near oblivion, Sushma leveraged her proximity to Advani to get back in the government as a senior minister. The emergence and leadership of Narendra Modi set the clock back for her. Their mutual trust deficit was never bridged although Sushma was appointed as a foreign minister in Modi’s first regime. Clearly, by 2019, her best days were behind her.

(Radhika Ramaseshan is a Delhi based political analyst and columnist)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH. 

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