External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s surprise declaration that she would not be contesting the Parliamentary elections in 2019 has triggered speculation regarding her future. Although she has ruled out quitting active politics and therefore does not appear averse to entering the Rajya Sabha, yet for the BJP’s best known woman leader to bid goodbye to electoral politics, in the middle of a poll campaign, raises many questions. Swaraj, who is a sitting Lok Sabha member from Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, either believes that she does not have sufficient energy to contest a poll, given her recent kidney transplant or is unsure about her party’s chances in the Assembly polls, for which campaigning is on in full swing. A seasoned politician like her would never make a move that is not carefully calibrated, unless she is aware of what lies ahead for her.
Swaraj has been amongst the most accomplished leaders from the BJP and has always heeded to the wishes of her party. Therefore, her unilateral announcement regarding her decision not to contest the Lok Sabha polls, was both uncharacteristic and somewhat out of place. Groomed in politics for greater things, by Lal Krishna Advani, she is viewed as not only his acolyte, but also a person he continues to trust despite being in political wilderness.
In fact, after Advani was unable to lead the BJP to victory in the 2009 Parliamentary elections, he had handpicked her to replace him as the Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha. Similarly, he had chosen Arun Jaitley to lead the opposition charge in the Upper House, while he retained his position as the Chairman of the Parliamentary party. Since Indian parliamentary democracy is inspired by the Westminster model, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, as in the House of Commons, is essentially a shadow Prime Minister and it was in this light that many of her admirers thought of her, convinced that she, one day might become the country’s head of government.
It is obvious that Swaraj’s projection received a serious setback when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s top brass made the decision in 2013 itself to supersede all existing central BJP leaders and instead declared Narendra Modi as the party’s Prime Ministerial nominee. Modi not only justified the trust reposed in him by the RSS, but led the BJP for the first time to its most spectacular victory, winning 282 seats, a hundred more than what the party could secure under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 and 1999 elections.
With Modi at the helm of affairs, the equations within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar underwent many changes. The power centre shifted from Advani to Modi, and to current BJP president, Amit Shah, his trusted lieutenant. In other words, the writing was on the wall that thereafter the new regime would be taking crucial decisions.
Swaraj managed to retain her aura due to her personal popularity and strong appeal, and was appointed the External Affairs Minister in the Modi Cabinet. It is another matter that commencing from the UPA era, when Dr Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister, all major foreign policy initiatives and decisions continue to be formulated and taken by the Prime Minister’s Office. Modi, like his other colleagues, has always been fully aware of Swaraj’s extraordinary oratory skills and has often fielded her to defend India’s position at premier international platforms such as the United Nations. And in this sphere, she has made the country immensely proud.
Swaraj’s Lok Sabha retirement plans appear to have concretised after the BJP began its preparations for the 2019 Parliamentary elections. She had been unable to travel to her predominantly rural constituency due to poor health as she was not able to cope with the scorching heat and the consequent dust storm. Interestingly so, one month back, posters had been put up in her constituency, declaring her missing.
It is evident that the perceptive leader understood the ground realities, and as a consequence considered it unwise to once more throw her hat in the ring. Another factor that could have concerned her might have been the Modi-Shah formula of changing at least 40% of legislators in every election, so as to thwart anti incumbency. Thus she must have thought that there was little point in taking chances in this uncertain game and securing a Rajya Sabha berth at a later date would at least keep her politically alive.
Needless to say that over her 40 odd years in politics, Swaraj has carved a niche for herself. Coaxed by the RSS, the BJP decided to field her against Sonia Gandhi from Bellary in the 1999 elections. Though she lost, after stating that she would tonsure her head if in the event Sonia won, she subsequently struck a close personal bond with the Congress president.
Swaraj also became the victim of internal BJP politics, when the late Pramod Mahajan wanted to relieve her from the Union Telecom Minister’s position, and convinced Advani to appoint her as Delhi’s Chief Minister, to prevent the feud between Madan Lal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma from escalating.
It is true that she could not become the Prime Minister, but the fact of the matter is that many other stalwarts, who were Leaders of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, could not be elevated to this august office either. Over the years, Swaraj’s well-articulated interventions have made an indelible mark. Between us.