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Sushma Swaraj: People's Minister

Sushma Swaraj, who most recently served as India's foreign minister, passed away on August 6. Swaraj, who had a kidney transplant in 2016, had opted out of fighting the elections this year. A seven-time MP a former Chief Minister of Delhi, the youngest cabinet minister in Haryana in 1977 and the 'most popular minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet, she was a powerful orator whose genuine compassion made her the most followed woman leader in the world.

What is India mourning?

Former external affairs minister of India Sushma Swaraj passed away on August 6 after suffering a cardiac arrest.
Swaraj, 67, had been rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi earlier. The senior BJP leader, who underwent a kidney transplant in 2016, had opted out of contesting in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections citing ill health.

The popular politician, who made the foreign ministry accessible through social media, had health complications arising from diabetes, but was not suffering from any immediate health emergency. Despite a few recent spells of hospitalisation, she was understood to be getting better.

“She was brought to the hospital after she had collapsed at home. She reached AIIMS emergency at about 09:35 pm,” said a hospital spokesperson. A team of doctors attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to revive her, but she couldn’t make it. “All resuscitative measures were taken but she could not be revived,”the spokesperson added.

As a union minister she kept up a punishing schedule travelling overseas to meet her counterparts after her recovery from her surgery. She was a favourite on Twitter during her term in office responding to calls and messages of distress from Indians all over the world.
Till the very end, she continued to follow current events closely and congratulated the government for its success in nullifying the provisions of Article 370. Soon after the Lok Sabha approved the measure on August 6, she tweeted, “Thank you Prime Minister. Thank you very much. I was waiting to see this day in my lifetime.” This was the last tweet of the politician who, as a minister, had shown that social media can be a force for good.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed sadness at the death of the foreign minister in his first term said her death is a "personal loss". "A glorious chapter in Indian politics comes to an end. India grieves the demise of a remarkable leader who devoted her life to public service & bettering lives of poor. Sushma Swaraj Ji was one of her kind, who was a source of inspiration for crores of people," Modi said.

Why was she called India’s most popular minister?

Swaraj had tweeted her condolences on Congress leader Sheila Dikshit's death on July 20, writing that though they were opponents in politics, but were friends in personal life. When one troll told her, that like Dikshit, she too would be remembered after her death, she took it sportingly, tweeting back: "I thank you in anticipation for this kind thought."

It’s not easy to stand out as an external affairs minister under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who undertakes major trips and diplomatic dealings himself and has a rockstaresque fan-following in the Indian diaspora. And yet, during her tenure as External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj made her mark in her own way – connecting with the diaspora far and wide, and reaching out to help them.

She would respond to every appeal for assistance, and make sure the Indian missions responded to the requests. In this way she gave the human touch to the Ministry of External Affairs, and won millions of admirers across the world, including many in Pakistan. Many Pakistani patients would appeal to her for medical visas via twitter, and Sushma would try to accommodate their requests. She would also connect with some of the Pakistanis who she helped get emergency medical visas. In 2017, she won admiration when she granted a year-long medical visa to a Pakistani girl Shireen Shiraz for an open heart surgery.

She was India’s first full-time foreign minister (Indira Gandhi briefly held the post during her premiership). Sunjit Singh, a taxi driver, was in the queue to pay homage to the tallest female leader from his home state of Haryana. "Only because of her did women in a traditional and conservative state like Haryana dare to come out in public life," he said. Swaraj, who was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s most prominent woman face, did not contest the recently held Lok Sabha elections in which the party won a massive majority. Last November, she had announced she would not contest the general elections.

From being tagged the 'supermom of India' by Washington Post to becoming one of the most-followed politicians on Twitter, the late foreign minister had truly struck a chord with young and old alike with her round-the-clock social media presence, eagerness to help to any Indian in distress worldwide, and ready wit on social media. Officials would vouch that Swaraj also handled policy matters of her ministry with the same finesse and developed strong chemistry with her counterparts from across the world.
The former minister was quick to respond to all the fellow people who reach out to her for help on the micro-blogging website. In March, as she neared the end of her term, she was praised for a Twitter response to an Indian residing in Malaysia. Twitter user Gavy, who is originally from Punjab, asked for the Foreign Minister's help to bring his ill friend back to India. The Tweet written by Gavy had many grammatical errors. Gavy was trolled for tweeting in broken English, though he could have done better in Hindi or Punjabi. However, Sushma Swaraj promptly came to his rescue and responded by saying, "There is no problem. After becoming Foreign Minister, I have learnt to follow English of all accents and grammar."

Her official business had a personal, human, touch. Her communication was two-way. She listened, read and acted when she was needed to respond. When people tweeted to her they knew she would be reading what they wrote. “Even if you are stuck on Mars, Indian Embassy will help you”, she once assured all Indians.
Swaraj’s following was far higher than her ministry’s because of her ‘response’ tweets and participatory model. “Tweets asking for assistance with MEA services such as repatriation of family remains, lost passport support and expatriate community aid are asked of the Minister herself, requiring new internal communication strategies and prompt policy action,” an academic study noted in 2017.

With 13.1 million followers, she was the most followed woman leader in the world on Twitter. She followed no other account and yet she was with everyone. A unique figure in Indian politics, she earned broad admiration for her responsiveness and compassion during her years in office. Her last tweet has garnered about 250,000 likes. That’s the maximum she ever got. That’s the goodbye message to her from her followers who will not get a reply from her anymore. Of course, there is a lot of trolling too, going with the rude traditions of the internet. Not that she would have cared.

When did her political journey begin?

Sushma Swaraj had a glittering political career, beginning as an MLA in Haryana in 1977.
Born on February 14, 1952 at Ambala Cantonment, Haryana, Sushma earned a B.A. degree in political science. She studied LL.B. in Panjab University, Chandigarh. She married Swaraj Kaushal on July 13, 1975, during the time of the Emergency.

An advocate by profession, she began her political career as a student leader in the 1970s, organizing protests against Indira Gandhi's government. She was associated with many social and cultural bodies in various capacities. She was President of the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, Haryana for four years.

She started as a socialist but gravitated towards the BJP where she rose swiftly to become an effective campaigner and public speaker, much in demand at election time. She held portfolios at the Centre, being information and broadcasting and parliamentary affairs minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

She was seen as a key member of BJP’s gen-next after A B Vajpayee and L K Advani along with leaders like Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, Ananth Kumar, Venkaiah Naidu and Narendra Modi in the 1990s. She found a mentor in Advani who was quick to recognise her potential as a politician who could articulate BJP’s nationalist and Hindutva agenda at a time when it was far from mainstream. She could easily identify with “cultural issues”, being an advocate of Hindu festivals like Teej and Karva Chauth.

In the years that BJP was in the opposition, Swaraj was also its spokesperson, engaging with journalists with an ease that marked her as a skilled communicator. Her 1996 speech in Lok Sabha on the trust vote ranks as one of the best speeches in Parliament. “Yes, we are communal because we love the national flag…because we want a debate on Article 370…because we want a uniform civil code….” she said in response to the allegations that her party, the BJP, is communal.

A politically astute person, she had a facility with languages, picking up Kannada for her famous showdown with Congress leader Sonia Gandhi in Bellary, Karnataka, in the 1999 Lok Sabha election. Sonia had filed her nomination from Amethi and Bellary and Swaraj was pitched into the fight in Congress’s southern bastion. She lost, but continued to visit Bellary (now Ballari) for the next many years. Many people from Ballari, including her ‘adopted son’ Sriramulu, will be attending her funeral on August 7.

When the Congress won the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the grand old party backed Sonia Gandhi for the prime ministerial post, to which Sushma Swaraj strongly revolted. She had said that it would hurt her "sensibilities" if a foreigner would lead the country. She threatened to don a white saree, shave off her head, sleep on the floor and eat only chickpeas if Sonia Gandhi were to be sworn in as the Prime Minister of India. "It hurt my sensibilities as even after culmination of British rule and the sacrifices made by fellow Indians, no native was there at that time to lead the country and a foreigner was being chosen," Sushma Swaraj said targeting Italy-born Sonia Gandhi, who subsequently said she wasn’t interested in the post. Sonia Gandhi then offered the post to economist-turned-politician Manmohan Singh, who led the UPA coalition for five years and won re-election in 2009.

Swaraj was a very effective orator and she delivered for the BJP as leader of opposition in Lok Sabha during UPA-2. She raised the scams that hit the Manmohan Singh government — from Commonwealth Games to coal and 2G — with verve and passion, leading protests that led to the government finally conceding a parliamentary committee on the telecom scam.

As Leader of Opposition in the 15th Lok Sabha, Sushma was a formidable and compelling speaker. She would attack the ruling Congress-led UPA without pulling any punches, and once Parliament was witness to a fierce poetic exchange between her and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In 2013, when Singh used an Urdu couplet to hit out at the BJP, Sushma Swaraj responded in kind. Manmohan Singh, accusing the BJP of making unwarranted attacks on his government, had recited a couplet of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. "Humko hai unse wafa ki umeed, jo nahi jaante wafa kya hai (we hope for loyalty from those who do not know the meaning of the word)," the then Prime Minister said, quoting famous Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib.
Retorting, Sushma narrated a verse of Urdu poet Bashir Badr: "Kuch to majbooriya rahi hongi, yun koi bewafa nahi hota (there must have been some compulsions, one is not disloyal for no reason at all)."

Sushma Swaraj's political journey

  1. 1977–82 Elected as Member, Haryana Legislative Assembly.
  2. 1977–79 Cabinet Minister, Labour and Employment, Government of Haryana.
  3. 1987–90 Elected as Member, Haryana Legislative Assembly.
  4. 1987–90 Cabinet Minister, Education, Food and Civil Supplies, Government of Haryana.
  5. 1990–96 Elected to Rajya Sabha (1st term)
  6. 1996–97 [15 May 1996 – 4 December 1997] Member, Eleventh Lok Sabha (2nd term).
  7. 1996 [16 May – 1 June] – Union Cabinet Minister, Information and Broadcasting.
  8. 1998–99 [10 March 1998 – 26 April 1999] Member, Twelfth Lok Sabha (3rd term).
  9. 1998 [19 March – 12 October] Union Cabinet Minister, Information and Broadcasting and Telecommunications (Additional charge).
  10. 1998 [13 October – 3 December] Chief Minister of Delhi.
  11. 1998 [November] – Elected from Hauz Khas Assembly constituency of Delhi Assembly. Resigned from Delhi Assembly and retained Lok Sabha seat.
  12. 2000–06 Member, Rajya Sabha (4th term).
  13. 2000–03 [30 September 2000 – 29 January 2003] Minister of Information and Broadcasting.
  14. 2003–04 [29 January 2003 – 22 May 2004] Minister of Health and Family Welfare and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs.
  15. 2006–09 [April 2006 -] Member, Rajya Sabha (5th term).
  16. 2009–14 [16 May 2009 – 18 May 2014] Member, 15th Lok Sabha (6th term).
  17. 2009-09 [3 June 2009 – 21 December 2009] Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
  18. 2009–14 [21 December 2009 – 18 May 2014] Leader of the Opposition and replaced Lal Krishna Advani.
  19. 2014–2019 Member, 16th Lok Sabha (7th term)
  20. 2014–2019 [26 May 2014 – 29 May 2019] Minister of External Affairs in the Union of India.

Where did she come first?

She was a woman of many firsts

She was the youngest cabinet minister in the Haryana government, first woman chief minister of Delhi and the first woman spokesperson for a national political party in the country. She was, as mentioned before, the first full-time woman foreign minister of India.

It’s not easy to survive the rough storms of Indian politics for long. It’s not easy to command respect in your party when your mentor has been shunned by the new leadership. That Narendra Modi chose Swaraj as his foreign minister even after softly parting ways with her (and his) mentor, L K Advani, spoke a lot about how her political stature.

A powerful orator, a compassionate person, Sushma Swaraj was also one of the most loyal soldiers of the BJP who was always ready to face a challenge. In fact, her attachment with the party ideology and principles was apparent right before she passed away as she tweeted to congratulate Modi on his government’s move to revoke the special status for Jammu and Kashmir. The BJP, which is now India’s most formidable political force, was not built in a day. Swaraj was one of the leaders who built the base of the party, sometimes against hope.

She was not part of the Modi government this time due to her poor health, and S Jaishankar replaced her as the External Affairs Minister. She left behind a legacy of an easily-accessible minister who helped the diaspora in distress with her revolutionary social media outreach. Several path-breaking measures such as the passport infrastructure expansion and enhanced engagement with the East were the highlights of her tenure as the external affairs minister. While India’s relationship with Pakistan was cold when she was at the helm, she handled diplomacy effectively during the Balakot surgical strikes, aerial strikes and the Doklam stand-off with China.

Her pun-filled messages and her witty replies kept the Twitterati hooked. She was there for the Priest who was kidnapped by the Taliban and was also there with ‘the lover of the year’ Hamid Ansari who came to India after being released from a Pakistan jail. Ansari’s mother told that India was great, Sushma was great and that Ansari was back in India because of her.

Indeed, she was the first minister to truly use social media as a tool to remain in touch with the ground realities of more than a billion people. And that’s no mean feat in this age of trolling, which can take a toll on your health.

Who said what on her demise?

Senior BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani, the one who is often called her mentor, called her death an “irreparable loss.” “The nation has lost a remarkable leader. I will miss Sushmaji’s presence immensely. May her soul rest in peace,” his message read. Advani recalled how Swaraj as a “promising young activist” was inducted in his team when he was the president. “Sushmaji was someone who I have known and worked with since the beginning of her illustrious innings in the Bharatiya Janata Party. And over the years, she became one of the most popular and prominent leaders of our party- in fact, a role model for women leaders,” he said. Calling her a “brilliant orator,” Advani wrote that he was amazed at her ability to recall incidents and present them with utmost clarity. “She touched everyone with her warmth and compassionate nature. I do not recall a single year when she missed bringing my favourite chocolate cake to me on my birthday,” he wrote.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi wrote: “I’m shocked to hear about the demise of Sushma Swaraj Ji, an extraordinary political leader, a gifted orator & an exceptional Parliamentarian, with friendships across party lines. My condolences to her family in this hour of grief. May her soul rest in peace. Om Shanti.”

Trinamool Congress (TMC) Chief and West Bengal’s Chief 
Minister Mamata Banerjee“Deeply saddened, shocked at the sudden passing away of Sushma Swaraj Ji. I knew her since the 1990s.Even though our ideologies differed, we shared many cordial times in Parliament. An outstanding politician, leader, good human being. Will miss her. Condolences to her family/admirers.”

Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley said he was pained and broken at her demise and described her as one of the most outstanding politicians in the present era. “Swaraj distinguished in all positions she he held in the party, the government and the opposition”, he said, adding that “she leaves behind a void which is difficult to fill.”

Senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram“Deeply saddened that Sushma Swaraj ji has passed away. She served her party and the country with loyalty, devotion and distinction. My sincere and heartfelt condolences to her family and loved ones.”

Foreign Minister of Maldives Abdulla Shahid“Deeply grieved to hear the demise of my good friend Smt #SushmaSawraj; Stateswoman extraordinaire, diplomat par excellence; A warm human being. Key architect of renewed Maldives-India friendship. Sincere condolences to bereaved family and people of India. May she rest in peace!”

Pakistani singer – and now an Indian citizen - Adnan Sami tweeted, "My family & I are in complete shock to learn the tragic news of dear Sushma ji's sudden demise. She was a motherly figure for all of us; an extremely respected stateswoman; exceptional orator & a very loving, caring & warm soul. Will miss her dearly. #sushmaswaraj #RIPSushmaJi”. It is no secret that Sushma Swaraj played a crucial role in getting Sami the Indian citizenship.

Author Amish Tripathi wrote, “Even her last tweet was for the country. What a leader... An inspiration...The last line on her tweet is haunting...We will all walk on the path that you have inspired us to, ma'am.”

Many on social media tweeted that, though just 4 feet, 11 inches tall, she was among the tallest leaders of India. Many others commented that she had zero haters.

How much can politicians learn from her?

Her ardent followers will tell you, Sushma Swaraj was ‘genuinely’ compassionate. That’s an attribute that’s tough to find in politicians today, India or beyond. Machiavellian ethics has been working wonders for world leaders, and there is no reason to abandon what’s working. Compassion seems not just unnecessary but contrary to the requirements of ‘strong leadership’.

Compassion means sympathetic understanding and concern for those in tough life situations. And that sympathetic understanding and concern is an imperative for those who are not struggling — those of us who are middle-class or wealthier, who are comfortable in our cosy settings and not stuck in the middle of nowhere.
It’s a great virtue of the idea of compassion that almost everyone believes in it and yet not many really follow it. It is a value that has been cherished by religious communities, by those on the right, by those on the left, by those who are in power and those who are seeking it. So, why is it that being compassionate is seen as being weak in politics?

"It would be nice to be seen as generous," Machiavelli writes at the beginning of chapter 16 in The PrinceHe goes on to demonstrate that compassion is, at best, a questionable virtue. Although essential "for the man seeking power", it is dangerous for the ruler "already in power". The paradox, he writes, is that to be truly generous, a ruler had, therefore, to be mean. History bore this out. "In our own times the only leaders we've seen doing great things were all reckoned mean."
"I'm sure every leader would wish to be seen as compassionate rather than cruel," he adds. But compassion, like generosity, creates more problems than it solves. So, he has a simple solution: pretend to be compassionateThe crowd is won over "by appearances", and as "the world is all crowd", appearances matter."It's seeming to be virtuous that helps, as, for example, seeming to be compassionate, loyal, humane, honest, and religious." "Excessive compassion leads to public disorder, muggings and murder," writes Machiavelli. On the balance, therefore, one has to be cruel to be kind – or, as Machiavelli puts it in one his most quoted aphorisms, "it's much safer to be feared than loved".

But some leaders, thankfully for the world, think otherwise
All the salient issues we now face, from the religious divisions, to climate change and the treatment of refugees – these are all issues which would be better handled, managed, and supported through compassion. If we are to build bridges to replace the walls that have been erected, then compassion is the material with which to build them and upon which to construct a new way of doing politics.

It’s also the old way of doing politics. Take Mahatma Gandhi, who had a wicked sense of humour. Winston Churchill, no admirer of the great man, once insultingly called him "a half-naked fakir". And in fact, when he was invited to the Buckingham Palace by King George V, Gandhi wore his usual loincloth, was bare-chested, with a shawl thrown over his shoulders, and wearing sandals without socks. Later when asked if he was properly dressed, Gandhi replied: "The king had enough on for both of us." It was the perfect response. This is what we need more in the world today.

Sushma Swaraj was an iron-willed leader of the BJP who never once swayed from the party ideology. But she will be equally remembered for her compassion and her sense of humour. But without compassion she could have become Prime Minister of India, believers of Machiavelli will argue. That depends on what she wanted in the end.

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