At 7.23 pm Tuesday, shortly after Lok Sabha cleared the government’s decision to take away J&K’s special status and bifurcate the state into two Union Territories, Sushma Swaraj posted a congratulatory message on Twitter: “Thank you Prime Minister. Thank you very much. I was waiting to see this day in my lifetime.”
Hours later, the former External Affairs Minister, one of India’s most admired leaders, passed away. She was declared dead by doctors at the AIIMS in New Delhi. She was 67. She is survived by husband Swaraj Kaushal and daughter Bansuri.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the nation in paying her tribute. “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 and bettering lives of the poor. Sushma Swaraj Ji was one of her kind, who was a source of inspiration for crores of people.”
BJP working president J P Nadda said Swaraj’s body will be kept at her home until 11 am Wednesday and will then be taken to the BJP headquarters on Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg. The last rites will be performed at the Lodhi crematorium.
Starting her political career under the Janata Party, Swaraj was elected to the Haryana assembly in 1977 and became a state minister at age 25. She was again elected to the assembly in 1987 when Devi Lal ousted the Congress from power that triggered an electoral cascade which eventually saw the Congress lose power at the Centre in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections.
She came into national limelight because of her ideologically fierce oratory in Lok Sabha, especially during the 1996 trust vote. Her political articulation, drawn from India’s mythological traditions, endeared her to the common man who could grasp her arguments.
Her political career was a trail blazer for many a woman politician — she graduated from student politics to state politics to national politics and became an icon. Her rise within the BJP, considered a party of conservatives, was testimony to her political acumen, courage and mass appeal.
At the end of a long innings, she opted out of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and was left out of the new Cabinet. She remained politically senior to every important position-holder in the current BJP government. She was part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 13-day government in 1996.
A disciplined party worker, Swaraj was politically combative, never hesitating to wage a good battle for the sake of the party. She displayed this when the party deputed her to Delhi as its first woman Chief Minister just ahead of the 1998 assembly elections. The sky-rocketing onion prices, however, put paid to BJP hopes in the state as the Congress won the elections and Sheila Dikshit replaced her, only to continue for the next 15 years.
But Swaraj did not lose heart and retained her political gumption. She jumped into the electoral fray against Congress president Sonia Gandhi, heading to Bellary in Karnataka during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Though she was pitchforked by the BJP at the very last moment to contest against the Congress president, she learnt a smattering of Kannada to connect with the electorate in Bellary, forcing a keen contest. She lost narrowly (by a margin of less than 60,000 votes) to Sonia from Bellary, a seat held by the party since 1952 and considered safe by the Congress for its party president.
Groomed by party patriarch L K Advani as the next generation leader of the party, Swaraj worked under Prime Minister Vajpayee as Minister for Information and Broadcasting, and Health. Her crackdown against content being broadcast by FTV for the Indian audience created a flutter during her stint at the I&B. Though the move was frowned upon by a section of the industry, it burnished her image among the party’s traditional support base across the country.
Before the BJP was cast aside in the 2004 elections — it was the start of the BJP’s decade-long political wilderness — Swaraj had raised the political stakes by declaring she would shave her head if “Italy-born” Sonia Gandhi was elected as Prime Minister. It defined her political contest with the Congress leadership.
With Advani forced out of the leadership position after the party’s crushing defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Sangh Parivar went for a recast of party’s leadership. The next generation leadership of the party was assigned crucial responsibilities — Nitin Gadkari as party president, Sushma Swaraj as Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha and Arun Jaitley as Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha.
In Lok Sabha, Swaraj led the BJP charge during an era which was described as one of policy paralysis with allegations of corruption hounding the Manmohan Singh government. In a verbal duel with the then Prime Minister over the 2G scandal, she told him: “Tu idhar udhar ki baat na kar/ yeh bata ki kafila kyun luta/hamein rehzano se gila nahin/teri rehbari ka sawaal hai.” On another occasion, when an Indian soldier was beheaded by Pakistanis, she outlined BJP’s muscular outlook when she sought the heads of at least 10 Pakistani soldiers in return.
As Leader of Opposition, she was widely considered the natural claimant for the party’s leadership in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections given her long stint in national politics. But it was the BJP Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who upstaged all internal calculations to become the prime ministerial candidate of the party.
After the historic results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reposed his faith in Swaraj by appointing her as the External Affairs Minister, the country’s first full-time woman Foreign Minister.
As a disciplined soldier of the party, she did not let her seniority over Modi in national politics come in the way. She remained a trusted member of the Cabinet Committee on Security. In fact, she began in right earnest when steered India’s diplomatic corps to get the UN declare June 21 as International Day of Yoga.
The party behind her, she staved off a controversy surrounding Lalit Modi in 2015. But her activities were constrained after her kidney ailment and treatment. Her health virtually grounded her from electioneering, and she devoted her time to External Affairs. It was her last public office, and also the one which won her many more admirers, even in Pakistan, given the spontaneity with which she would attend to Twitter requests for visas.