New Delhi: Just ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha election, BJP leader and prime ministerial candidate LK Advani called a meeting of senior party leaders at his residence on Delhi’s Prithviraj Road.
He had one request to those in attendance: contest Lok Sabha elections from a constituency of their choice. Many party leaders at that point in time had shifted to the less-demanding Upper House or the Rajya Sabha.
Among those present, many were visibly and vocally reluctant to take the plunge. But not Sushma Swaraj. She contested from Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh and went on to become the leader of opposition in the 15th Lok Sabha.
Two decades back, then a Union minister in the Vajpayee government, Swaraj was asked to quit and was sworn in as Delhi chief minister just three months ahead of polls. She concurred without a whimper of protest, took on Sheila Dikshit but lost.
Her willingness to take on challenges thrown at her by her party was perhaps the hallmark of Swaraj’s politics. It may also have been out of the burden of being initiated into politics in alternate ideological moorings.
In 1977, when she was barely eligible to contest elections, she was an MLA from Ambala and a minister in Devi Lal’s Janata Party government in Haryana.
She, perhaps, was one of those in her generation to realise and assess the rise of the BJP as a political force in the country. Joining the BJP in the 80s, Swaraj was mentored by Advani along with Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, Ananth Kumar and Venkaiah Naidu.
For RSS’ patriarchal structure or otherwise, BJP and its earlier avataar in Jan Sangh showed a marked diffidence or inability to carve space for women in an institutionalised set-up.
Swaraj for BJP proved to be a mascot in that sense, contrasting and yet so similar to the archetypal image of a woman BJP leader epitomised by Vijayaraje Scindhia since the Jan Sangh days. In the years to come, she would inspire several women to join the BJP.
With the rise of Sonia Gandhi in the Congress party, the BJP sought to project Swaraj in contrast to the daughter-in-law of the Gandhi family with ‘foreign origin’.
Swaraj was fielded against Sonia Gandhi from Bellary in Karnataka. She lost, but in the process of a short campaign, picked up another language — Kannada.
Her felicity in many languages and ability to grasp the idiom established Swaraj as a powerful speaker who could debate extempore on a range of subjects.
During a discussion in Lok Sabha, she pummelled Manmohan Singh on corruption charges as she quoted Shahab Jafri’s famous couplet:
Tu Idhar Udhar ki na baat kar, ye bata ki karwan kyun luta.
Mujhe rehjano se gila nahin, teri rehbari ka savaal hai
(Do not subterfuge, tell us why the caravan was looted. We have no complaint with the passersby, it is a question of your leadership.)
Singh replied to the jibe in another couplet:
Maana ki tere deed ke kaabil nahin hoon main, tu mera shauk dekh, mera intezar dekh.
(I agree I am not worth your looking at me; but see my keenness, my anticipation.)
Swaraj's political rivalry with Sonia Gandhi would sustain for years to come. After Vajpayee government’s shock defeat in 2004, Swaraj announced she would tonsure her hair if Sonia Gandhi were to become the Prime Minister.
But in the later years, the two leaders would come closer to develop a cordial working relationship. In fact, three women MPs shaped and defined the tenure of the 15th Lok Sabha: Sonia Gandhi as UPA chairperson, Sushma Swaraj as Leader of Opposition and Meira Kumar as Speaker of the House.
In the midst of a Parliament logjam over 2G scam, one day while Swaraj was interacting with MPs in the central hall, Sonia Gandhi entered un-noticed from the other side and embraced the LoP leading the charge against the Manmohan Singh government.
Despite a bitter battle on the floor of the House, communication never broke down between opposition and treasury benches in all of those five years. Especially during the period when fellow advocate from Chandigarh, Pawan Bansal, was parliamentary affairs minister.
Just ahead of the Madhya Pradesh assembly polls last year, Swaraj suo moto announced her retirement from electoral politics.
She was one BJP leader who could never say a ‘No’ to her party.