IN JUNE 2016, a Twitter user tweeted to then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj that he had been sold a defective refrigerator that went kaput. She replied, on Twitter: “Brother I cannot help you in matters of a Refrigerator. I am very busy with human beings in distress.”
That was Swaraj, who had by then earned a formidable reputation in helping overseas Indians in distress; the External Affairs Minister who brought a humane touch to the otherwise distant and officious Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
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Within months of taking charge, Swaraj made sure that the ministry was a responsive government institution. A system, thus, was put in place where she would respond to distress tweets from Indians stranded across the world.
“Indian Embassy is your home away from home. Whenever in trouble, please contact the Indian Embassy/Consulate. They will always help you,” she told this to many — in person, and on Twitter.
During her five years as External Affairs Minister, Swaraj made sure that she left a legacy of being a responsive minister —- she once responded to distress tweets at 3 am, which became a benchmark of sorts for Indian embassies worldwide.
Handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lead the MEA, Swaraj could have fretted and sulked since Modi made foreign policy his priority in his first term. But she was able to make her own space skilfully.
India has had a history of Prime Ministers with very strong foreign policy agenda. From Jawaharlal Nehru, who was his own foreign minister, Indira Gandhi, P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, to Narendra Modi, all these leaders ran the MEA through the PMO. But undeterred, Swaraj made a mark by using social media, and made South Block accessible.
From rescuing hearing and speech- impaired Geeta from Pakistan to organising mass evacuation from Iraq, Yemen, Nepal, among other conflict-hit areas, and from pushing the Kulbhushan Jadhav case to getting Indian national Hamid Ansari back, Swaraj endeared herself to ordinary Indians.
While her people-friendly image was for Indians, she played the perfect foil for the visible Prime Minister — understated, subtle, not in-your face.
She always prepared the groundwork for Modi’s high-level visits — from her visit to Pakistan in December 2015, which was followed by Modi’s; her visit to China in 2018, setting the stage for the informal Wuhan summit; and effectively standing in for the United Nations General Assembly sessions every September-October to put across India’s point of view.
Gifted with oratory skills, both in chaste Hindi and English, she made life easy for Indian diplomats prepping for visits. “Remembering our 2 AM session with #SushmaSwaraj in Abu Dhabi on March 1. She was to speak the next morning as Guest of Honour at OIC Foreign Ministers’ Conference. Arrived after midnight, plunged straight into work, got a bit of rest and delivered a truly memorable address,” Indian envoy to the UAE, Navdeep Suri, tweeted.
While she kept a distance from the media during her stint as the External Affairs Minister, Swaraj hosted an annual winter lunch, with Indian cuisine and cultural performance on the lawns of Jawaharlal Nehru Bhavan, and during which she easily mingled with journalists, appreciating work of even those not very charitable to her.
Although she used Twitter to help people, she also had some moments where she faced criticism for handling of issues.
Once, when a doormat depicting the Indian flag sold by a third-party reseller in Canada caught her attention, she demanded a public apology from Amazon and threatened to rescind Indian visas for Amazon employees.
Even though she was embroiled in the Lalit Modi controversy, there was a point when one discovered how her relationships cut across party lines. In June-July 2015, she also got a lot of flak for helping fugitive Lalit Modi get travel documents. But while she got criticism from all across, Opposition leaders had such respect for her that in Parliament they stopped short of asking for her resignation.
At the French National Day in July 2015, asked why the Opposition was not seeking her resignation, one Opposition leader said, “She is one of our old socialist friends.”
While she won over her rivals that day, over the last five years she possibly won the hearts of many she helped and came across as someone who was the “People’s Foreign Minister”.