As External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj Carved Her Place in a Circumscribed Role

With Narendra Modi striding on to the world stage as the face of India, Swaraj’s profile remained less visible as the helmsman of Indian foreign policy.

New Delhi: When Sushma Swaraj was announced as the external affairs minister for Narendra Modi’s cabinet in 2014, some eyebrows were raised.

In September 2013, when Modi was almost going to be formally anointed as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Swaraj had been seen as staunchly enshrined in the opposing L.K. Advani camp. There were also reports about her unhappiness and that she wanted the announcement to be postponed.

But, while Advani skipped the crowning of Modi as the party’s face for 2014, Swaraj attended. Her inclusion in the cabinet as a senior member of the BJP was not surprising, but it meant that she had to handle her portfolio in a politically deft manner.

A low profile

With Modi striding on to the world stage as the face of India, Swaraj’s profile remained less visible as the helmsman of Indian foreign policy. She had been a fiery and vocal leader of opposition, but after she joined the cabinet, Swaraj’s pronouncements were largely only on Twitter.

In fact, throughout her term, she never gave a single media interview – neither foreign nor domestic – which was a remarkable fact for a foreign minister of any country. The key event to get answers from Swaraj was at the annual press conference held in June to mark the anniversary of the NDA government’s formation.

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The only time that she seemingly lost her even temper was at her last press conference. A Hindi newspaper reporter asked her to comment on the opposition’s claim that the external affairs ministry had shifted to the Prime Minister’s Office and she was only handling her Twitter account. “You have asked me questions as a Congress spokesperson,” she bristled.

Within the ministry of external affairs, Swaraj was highly popular due to her warm interpersonal skills, coupled with a sharp memory and brain.

A serving Indian foreign service officer recalled that one of her first meetings after taking over as minister was to sit through day-long presentations by Indian ambassadors of neghbouring countries.

“At the end of the day she summarised the points made by each ambassador while having their names on her fingertips. What was remarkable was that she did this without taking any notes during the meeting,” he told The Wire.

Sushma Swaraj in conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI/Files

Required her to be innovative

Her circumscribed space, however, meant that Swaraj had to be innovative. Social media outreach to help Indians stuck abroad was her way to remain relevant and visible, but without treading on any sensitive toes. The kudos that she received were certainly well-deserved and allowed her to maintain an independent mass base.

It was also useful for the government to deploy Swaraj’s goodwill and ‘humane’ touch when requiring a sensitive handling of tricky humanitarian issues like dealing with families of hostages in Iraq.

In the age of ‘clickbait’, Swaraj was savvy enough to realise that a witty tweet could generate thousands of viral articles and Facebook ‘likes’. Her most famous – and often cited – riposte was to a social media complaint about a refrigerator. As a sign of ultimate approval of her online persona, Buzzfeed gave her its unique treatment – “11 Times Sushma Swaraj Proved That She’s The Most Badass Foreign Minister On The Internet”.

Her speeches at the annual United Nations general assembly were also a crowd-pleasers. “She would spend a lot of time discussing the speeches, but she wrote them herself,” said the official.

For Indian diplomats, Swaraj’s key quality was her ability to listen. “The officers’ meetings in New York (before UNGA) were great fun as she allowed all senior officers in the delegation to make suggestions for the speech. There used to be lively discussions and great camaraderie under her leadership”.

However, the key subject that future historians of this period of modern India would possibly study is the relationship between PM and his foreign minister.

The Lalit Modi controversy

Even as she was being crowned as the best performing minister in the Modi cabinet, 2015 also marked her lowest point. It had seemed from leaked documents that Swaraj had helped Lalit Modi, who had escaped to London, to get travel documents from the UK government after his Indian passport was confiscated. It had been the first whiff of scandal for the Modi government.

In parliament, opposition were calling for her resignation, while the media raised questions about her role. She even famously and uncharacteristically lashed at a TV journalist on Twitter.

While there were rumours that the media attack had tacit support from her political rivals, her indignant and emotional defence in parliament and strong backing from Modi meant that she survived the storm.

Lalit Modi. Photo: PTI

She certainly had a restricted space – but that she had no role in policy-making was not entirely true. Swaraj had warm relations with most of her global counterparts, and was frequently dialing their numbers. She had to, of course, stop travelling for eight months while recovering from a kidney transplant.

When Modi went unannounced to Lahore on December 25 in his boldest move till then, Swaraj apparently had a substantial role in paving the way for the attempted reconciliation by endearing herself to the ruling Sharif family. The sophisticated attack by Pakistan-based terror groups on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot in January 2016 ensured that this attempt died at the first step.

Also Read: Sushma Swaraj Cremated With Full State Honours

Last year, the MEA had announced that Swaraj would be meeting with her Pakistani counterpart on the side-lines of the UNGA. But the decision was withdrawn less than 24 hours later. There were subsequently a couple of media reports that claimed that the MEA had taken the decision to meet Qureshi without the PMO’s consultation – a highly unlikely scenario when it comes to policy making on Pakistan.

She, however, never commented publicly about speculation over her equation with Modi and always unequivocally praised him at every occasion.

Though she announced that she would not be contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, her removal as external affairs minister after Modi’s re-election was surprising, but even that did not loosen her lips. And her last tweet was again to compliment Modi and his key aide, home minister Amit Shah.