Sushma Swaraj, a Woman of Many Firsts

Her rapid political rise in both the Janata Party and the BJP was a result of Swaraj's oration and debating prowess.

“Left, right; left, right,” children at the SD College in Ambala would scream every time Sushma Swaraj’s name was called out for an award. As a member of the National Cadet Corps, she had developed a typical walking style. Little would either Swaraj or the other students have known then that these screams would go on to define her political path. She entered politics due to the leftist-socialist leanings of her husband Swaraj Kaushal, but later went on to join the right-wing BJP.

Swaraj won many awards, mostly for her oratory skills and debating prowess. Her classmates also remember her as a fighter. “She was short, slightly plump and very strong. She came to college from Regimen Bazaar on a cycle. She was one of the leading cadets of the NCC,” recalled a former student of the school.

Popular in the city for her oration and the numerous awards she won as a Hindi debater, Swaraj was usually referred to as “Vaidji’s daughter”.

Her Hindi lecturer and mentor, Ramakant Goswami remembered her as a “very good student, hugely talented, one who showed promise and was a very good orator.” Goswami would later work as a journalist before joining politics and going on to become a minister in the Delhi cabinet.

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“I went with her to Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Amritsar for declamation contests. Everywhere we went, she bagged the first prize. She also worked hard to achieve what she did. She was a very simple girl and then she did her LLB from Panjab University, Chandigarh.”

It was here that Swaraj’s husband, Swaraj Kaushal, also did his bachelors in law.

Another former journalist, Baljeet Parmar, who also studied in the same university, recalled, “She was a fighter all the way.” He remembered that during declamation and poetry recitation contests, “Whenever she felt that some sort of injustice was done to her, she would fight.”

He also noted that Swaraj Kaushal was “an ardent reader with professed leftist-socialist leanings. He was a fan of George Fernandes and his socialist ideology.”

Anti-Emergency movement 

During the anti-Emergency movement, both Swaraj and Kaushal became close aides of Fernandes. Subsequently, it was on the Janata Party’s ticket that Swaraj won her first assembly election, from Ambala in 1977. She was also made the labour and employment minister of Haryana. This would mark one of the many firsts in her political career, as she became the youngest ever cabinet minister in the state at just 25 years of age. Two years later, she became the youngest state unit president of the Janata Party in Haryana.

Following the demise of that anti-Congress movement, Swaraj joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1984. Though she had no rightward leanings till then, after her joining the party, word began spreading in Ambala that her father was an “RSS activist”. However, locals insist that the manner in which the local RSS unit denied the claim clearly showed where the truth lay.

Swaraj’s rise within the party was rapid. In the years to come, she was again a minister in the Haryana cabinet (1987). She also became the first female spokesperson of any national political party. In 1990, she entered parliament for the first time as a Rajya Sabha MP. Overall she had three terms as an MP of the Rajya Sabha and four as a member of the Lok Sabha, the last being in 2014. She did not contest the 2019 general election due to ill-health.

In 1998, Swaraj also became the first female chief minister of Delhi. Then in 2009, she became the first female leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha. And when she was made the external affairs minister in the Narendra Modi government in 2014, she was only the second woman – after Indira Gandhi, who as prime minister held the EAM post as an additional portfolio – to do so.

Throughout her political journey, Swaraj often reached out to her old friends and well-wishers. As Goswami recalled, “When I was a journalist, she took me to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and introduced me as her ‘guru’. She did the same several years later, when Prabhu Chawla was interviewing her and Sheila Dikshit. She declared from the dais that I had mentored her. She had no hesitation to call me a ‘guru’ despite having risen so much.”

It is Swaraj’s ability to reach out to others and develop that personal bond – which she also managed to do through social media while being the external affairs minister – that she will probably be most remembered for.