New Delhi, Sept. 8: As she fights what increasingly seems a lonely and losing battle to block Narendra Modi’s anointment as candidate for Prime Minister, Sushma Swaraj will vouch that being a woman in the rough and tumble of Indian politics isn’t easy.
Especially so in a party whose ideological parent considered women persona non grata for decades. When the Sangh eventually created a women’s wing, the mandate was “enlightened motherhood”.
Sushma, in many ways a pioneering woman in the orthodox Sangh parivar, realised early on that the going could be tough, even brutish.
Her oratorical eloquence, energy and innate audacity, which led her to treat even a towering personality like Indira Gandhi as an equal, endeared her to the Sangh though she was a lateral entrant from the socialist family.
That her grandfather and father were swayamsevaks and that she had done a stint with the Sangh’s student wing perhaps smoothed her induction into the Jan Sangh in the 1970s. It helped that power was elusive at the time for the party, except through collaboration with the socialists.
After Vijayaraje Scindia, who was placed in a special niche because the Sangh and the Jan Sangh were awed by royalty, Sushma was the only woman in the BJP to make the cut as a national-level leader.
Yet, notwithstanding her potential for political success, she often got the wrong end of the stick. She fought back —amazingly, without the crutch of a cabal until recently.
She once told this correspondent: “I have never done coterie politics, so I remain the same in adversity and prosperity. I don’t have fair weather friends who desert a leader when she’s down and out.”
Sushma has had few friends in her party, fair weather or genuine. Her peers, who included Pramod Mahajan and Venkaiah Naidu, never passed up a chance to “fix” her.
Just as she was settling in as I&B minister in the Vajpayee government, Mahajan pulled strings to get her relocated as Delhi chief minister six months before an election the BJP looked set to lose.
Vajpayee never came to her aid. Neither did L.K. Advani, the only steadfast ally she has ever had.
Sushma retaliated after a fashion. In the year 2000, at the party’s national executive meeting in Nagpur, she criticised the working of Advani’s home ministry before the media. She was given a berth in the next cabinet shuffle.
Her clout increased in direct proportion to the growth in Advani’s power, especially after he was re-designated as deputy Prime Minister. The duo’s importance was demonstrated in the July 2001 India-Pakistan summit, hosted for Pervez Musharraf in Agra.
The BJP’s other senior ministers tactically stayed out of the meeting, fearing fireworks and an eventual fiasco. Sushma dominated the space in the print media and on TV.
In one of her first interviews, she studiously clarified that “everything” would be on the table, “weather” included, but not Kashmir.
The BJP’s conspiracy theorists and the Sangh’s hawks, upset with Vajpayee for warming to Islamabad, construed Sushma’s statements as part of a project to foil a positive takeaway from the summit. Anyway, that was how the script played out.
Since then, Sushma has been Advani’s most unwavering loyalist. So much so that as Lok Sabha Opposition leader, she never outgrew his shadow because she let Advani micro-manage her decisions.
So, when it came to thwarting Modi’s elevation, the duo worked in unison.
Curiously, Sushma was reticent when Modi was anointed the party’s national campaign committee head in Goa in June this year while her mentor openly displayed his pique.
Sources said Sushma had perhaps counted on the Sangh not taking the “extreme” step of proclaiming Modi the prime ministerial candidate.
When it dawned on her belatedly that the Modi decision was a fait accompli, she fought back by taking on a Sangh senior like Suresh “Bhaiya” Joshi, perpetrating what would amount to sacrilege in the organisation’s philosophy.
Sushma got isolated in the process. Ananth Kumar, a general secretary who, sources said, too felt “threatened” by Modi, has been her only ally in the past few days.
Advani could survive his flashes of rebellion because his contribution to the BJP’s rise via Ayodhya is embedded in the Sangh’s chronicles. But the system can be harsh to an “outsider” like Sushma, a “recalcitrant” woman at that.