Sushma Swaraj: Ideological fealty, to the last breath

Sushma Swaraj addressing the gathering during the poll campaign at Hombegowda Nagar in Bangalore on 28 April 2008. (DH File Photo)

Among the first to rush to AIIMS on hearing of Sushma Swaraj’s death and to pay tribute to her, recollecting his bhai-behen relationship with her of over 40 years despite being on opposite sides of the political and ideological divide was Congress’ leader from Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Azad. It was a humane gesture that showed that people and relationships are above politics. Indeed, they were on opposite sides of the ideological divide: Only hours before, Azad had passionately spoken against the abrogation of special status for Jammu and Kashmir and its bifurcation; Sushma Swaraj, in her dying hours, put out a poignant tweet: “Thank you prime minister, thank you very much. I was waiting to see this day in my lifetime.” But more on that later. First, I have a personal memory to share. No, I never met Sushma Swaraj in person. It is of a very brief meeting with Azad, but it was on account of Sushma Swaraj.

In 1999, when Sonia Gandhi chose to contest from Bellary as her second constituency, Sushma Swaraj announced that she would take on the Congress chief. Her mission: to not allow Sonia Gandhi to win. Her conviction: A woman of foreign origin could not be allowed to become prime minister of India. She even declared that she would shave her head if Sonia Gandhi became prime minister. And Sushma Swaraj immediately began making waves in Bellary. In about two weeks, she learnt to speak a smattering of Kannada, enough to wow those who attended her rallies. That became the talk of the town, so to say, in Karnataka.

The difference between the two women and their parties was stark: Sonia Gandhi and the Congress – at that time bigger, more widespread and deeply entrenched, and far less of a Hindu-Hindi party of the two national parties – did not think it was necessary to at least attempt to connect with the audiences; at the time, Sonia Gandhi was still struggling to speak fluently even in Hindi. Sushma Swaraj of the Hindu-Hindi party did, and made the effort, parking herself in Bellary for weeks, taking part in local events and festivals. Most notably and endearingly to the locals, she participated in the Varamahalakshmi pooja organised by Janardhana Reddy (not yet as big a mining shark then, but well on his way to becoming that, and cultivating a relationship that was mutually beneficial).

As the battle hotted up, I figured that it would be a one-of-a-kind electoral battle that would not occur again in Karnataka for a long time and wanted to report on it. But I was a sub-editor, not a reporter, at the time, so my editor refused permission. I took leave and went to Bellary anyway. I landed in the town in the middle of the night and was walking along a street trying to find accommodation. A white ambassador – yes, those cars were still around – whizzed past me, and for some reason, stopped a slight distance away. Two men got out and asked me what I was doing roaming around in the middle of the night. I told them I was a journalist and was searching for a hotel to stay in.

By now, I knew from their dress and demeanour that they were local politicians. Turned out one of them was the local Congress MLA and the other his aide. They said there were only a few good hotels in Bellary and no rooms would be available and offered to put me up at the Congress headquarters for the night. Clueless as to what to do, I took up the offer and went with them. In the car, I asked them innocently why all the hotels were full. “Our Congress workers have taken up all the rooms,” they said. “And where are the BJP workers?” I asked. “Oh, you mean the RSS workers. You will find them sleeping in all the temples and community halls,” the MLA said, then volunteering to add, “Some of them may be sleeping even on the branches of all these trees on the streets. That’s the difference between our workers and theirs. Ours want luxury rooms, booze and money, and cars to move around for the campaign. The BJP-RSS fellows sleep on the bare floors, and early in the morning, they are up and campaigning door to door!”

Soon, we reached the only posh street in Bellary at the time, and I was told the only street which had water and power 24/7. After all, it was where Congress MP K C Kondaiah lived and worked. He owned two large buildings, one was his residence, the adjacent one his office which had now become the Congress campaign headquarters after he stepped aside to let Sonia Gandhi campaign on his seat. The MLA, his aide and I settled down in the large verandah on the first floor of the building and got chatting. It was about 1 am. I was told that we would not be able to go into the inner rooms of the building and sleep until 3.30 am in the morning as a ‘strategy’ meeting was going on inside. Who were all in the strategy meeting? Was Sonia Gandhi there? No, Sonia ji was to come, along with Priyanka Gandhi, by noon the next day. Ghulam Nabi Azad, Vakkom Purushothaman and Ambika Soni were charting out the ‘strategy’.

The MLA was nervous about the Congress’ prospects. He had seen and heard the great response that Sushma and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were getting in what had since Independence been a Congress bastion, with the erstwhile Sandur royal M Y Ghorpade, now a Congress veteran, holding sway over the whole district. He feared that he would be held responsible if Sonia Gandhi lost the election for a defeat. “What have you heard as a journalist? Are we winning?” he asked me. I did not have first-hand knowledge of the situation but from all that I had heard from reporters that I trusted and from some back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many votes in each assembly constituency Sushma Swaraj would be able to draw to her account, I said with all the certainty and all-knowingness of a 25-year-old journalist, “Congress (Sonia Gandhi) will win, but with a reduced margin. It may go down to as low as a few thousands, but you will make it.” The man appeared relieved.

At about 3.30 am, Azad, Soni and Purushothaman came out of their meeting. I was introduced to them. Azad smiled and patted me on the back, saying “The media has a very important role in elections….” Vakkom chipped in in half-jest, “Please write that we were working until 3.30 am. Let madame know!” The ‘strategy’ trio left.

The next morning, I saw lots of suitcases and bags being carried in. As I stood there looking curious, the MLA said, “Please don’t tell any of the central leaders. I have made all arrangements in my constituency. I have to ensure a big win, otherwise I will be blamed.”

I thanked my host for putting me up for the night and left, roaming around the rest of the day from one campaign venue to another. Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi turned up a few hours later than anticipated and were taken around on a rally in an open car. They waved to the people as the convoy moved slowly and made some pit-stop addresses around the town. Vajpayee was to come that evening and address a rally at a nearby maidan. The crowd was big and as soon as they saw Vajpayee’s helicopter coming in, they greeted him with loud shouts of “Bandha namma raja” (here comes our king!) They heard Vajpayee speak in Hindi in all earnestness and clapped vigorously at the end of it. They cheered lustily when Sushma Swaraj started out in Kannada. It was this speech that even Ambika Soni remembered in her tribute to Sushma Swaraj on Tuesday night.

In the end, Sonia Gandhi won, Sushma Swaraj lost – by 50,000 votes. But the former did not become prime minister, so Sushma Swaraj did not have to shave her head. But the ideological commitment – that she could not bear to see a person of foreign origin become prime minister – was unshakeable.

It was the same ideological commitment 20 years later, even a few hours before her death that she exhibited in her last tweet. In that period, she had been a Union minister in the Vajpayee cabinet, had been spoken of as a prime ministerial candidate for 2014, had been ‘upstaged’ by Narendra Modi, had been foreign minister but one who was overshadowed even in that department by Modi, and had chosen not to contest election again and be a minister. If a Congress politician had been ‘denied’ or ‘humiliated’ thus, he or she would have fumed and walked out of the party and joined the rival, suddenly discovering that he/she did not like the “style of functioning” of their leader. Sushma Swaraj chose to stay true to the party and ideology.

In the end, Sushma Swaraj won, and Sonia Gandhi (and Ghulam Nabi Azad) lost. That loss was amply captured in the expression on Sonia Gandhi’s face when her party’s leader in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, spoke on Article 370 and the bifurcation of J&K on Tuesday and questioned how it could be an “internal matter of India!” The expression of shock on Sonia Gandhi’s face said it all. Sushma Swaraj lost her life, but not her way. Congress, even Sonia Gandhi must have realised on Tuesday, has lost its way.

Article 370 had to go someday, but not in this way. The Modi government is wrong in locking up Kashmir to impose India’s will on it with the use of military force, instead of undertaking a democratic process (which could have been effectively backed by a show of muscle and determination). And it has effectively sent out the signal that it is now an authoritarian government that can do the same to any state and therefore the idea of federalism is dead. And it was based on the false but politically deliberate premise that Jawaharlal Nehru alone was responsible for the festering problem of Kashmir’s integration. All of these are legitimate and correct criticisms. Made forcefully, they would uphold Indian democracy. But the Congress is unable to articulate its position because it has forgotten its ideology and lost the ideological commitment that is necessary to be able to articulate its position with conviction.

Which is why, when the Congress Working Committee meets on August 10, it needs not merely to find a leader, but it must start the search for its lost ideology and ideological conviction. Nehru, Gandhi and Patel defined it for a rising India of the 20th Century. Can today’s Congress do it for a rising India of the 21st Century?

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