Ever since the country heard the sad news of Sushma Swaraj’s sudden passing, the highest words of praise have been heard repeatedly — dedicated politician, effective parliamentarian, excellent orator, competent administrator, compassionate foreign minister, a caring sister, a friend, a good wife and mother. There is almost nothing more to add. As we take in the enormity of the national loss and move on with a heavy heart, it strikes me that there is an important lesson for both men and women, who aspire to achieve something good out of politics, to learn from all these generous adjectives.
Sushma Swaraj pushed for the Women’s Reservation Bill vigorously. But to me, she was a prime example of a capable and intelligent Indian woman working her way up to Parliament without the need for a law. The path in politics is strewn with thorns for all those not entitled women who want to serve the people of this country. Sushma had her share of problems in the beginning of her political journey as egos of leaders in the Janata Party got in the way of her aspirations. Yet she never demanded a smooth path, she found it herself. Most countries have a greater number of women in their legislatures than we do. This happens because their systems are structured so that patriarchal attitudes cannot stop them. Patriarchs do not suddenly become soft because there is reservation — they soften only when women toughen up.
Feminists, who are the most vocal amongst those who call themselves progressive, liberal and secular, have often made snide comments about Sushma’s outward conservatism — her big red bindi and sindoor, her public celebrations of Hindu festivals like Teej and Karva Chauth. Many of these feminists like to show they don’t need men and do not believe in religion-oriented practices. While that is their personal choice, Sushma showed us that to be an effective politician and a representative of our country’s traditions and culture, one does not have to show another face — neglect one’s family, hide one’s own beliefs. Family relationships and practices do not have to be compromised to do a job that requires a progressive outlook and a positive behaviour towards other human beings, irrespective of their politics and religious beliefs.
Sushma’s political trajectory teaches us that a woman primarily needs confidence in herself, and hard work to hone her abilities, to serve the public good. While it helps to be a good orator, a party worker must keep the party’s welfare above herself. A competent person can have many gifts, but it takes special dedication and commitment to learn Kannada in a month to communicate more effectively when fighting an ideologically and politically crucial election against Sonia Gandhi in Bellary. The contrast between an Italian-born reading written speeches which betrayed a lack of familiarity with the language and an Indian demonstrating the ability in learning a new Indian language in a month was striking. It requires dedication and a firm belief in the cause.
All these aspects are qualities that are not exclusive to women. They must be part of any politician, and particularly among aspirational women. The premise that women should be confined to kitchens and their role is limited to bringing up children is disproved by Sushma Swaraj, who effectively demonstrated that women should not sacrifice one for the other, and men should not expect them to do so. Along with deep condolences to Sushma Swaraj’s immediate family, one must salute Swaraj Kaushal, who did not compromise his work or his effectiveness in society to be a supportive and proud husband. The world must learn to accept what Sushma Swaraj has demonstrated — capable and sincere women in politics will only help with the task of addressing public needs, enable better governance, inject dignity and grace in the political discourse where male aggression is almost the norm, and through compassion, show people in difficulty that they are not alone.
The writer is former president of the Samata Party