What happened to Sushma Swaraj’s Stratagem to supplant Modi?
By Jitendra Kumar Sharma*
Sushma Swaraj’s well-timed announcement to retire from elective politics seems to have lost its sheen sooner than expected. Political observers are no longer speculating about her intentions or next moves. Will Sushma Swaraj Challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi Post-2019 Elections? The question now seems inane if not mindless. Yet, when the announcement was made, Sushma Swaraj appeared to have outwitted Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo with a sense of vengeance. Those who know Sushma as I do, she seldom makes a move without a well-calculated design.
For most Indian politicians, politics is either business or avocation. Sushma Swaraj is of a different kidney. She is a professional politician, a careerist to the core. She has no political beliefs or commitments, only goals, and targets. Her political graph has several impressive benchmarks that speak of her high skill and success in furthering her career as a professional politician sans political struggle, intraparty conflicts, ideas, or major ups and downs. Only ambition, envy, jealousy propel her to move upward. She has seen the rise and only rise, vertical rise in politics. Electoral failures have not deterred her. She has changed not only political parties but even states to seek new opportunities to advance her political career just like a middle-class professional executive who seeks transfers to different places or switches loyalties from one Private or Public Limited company to a rival competitor corporation to grab a higher post or position.
Thrice she contested the Karnal parliamentary seat, then known as the Brahmin Seat, but failed to emerge as a Brahmin Leader of Haryana, a successor to Bhagwat Dayal Sharma. The fourth time she wisely let someone else try. She dropped her claim to be B.D. Sharma’s ‘niece’, ditched the Socialists, the Brahmins of Haryana, and finally, Haryana itself. She enjoyed a brief tenure as Delhi Chief Minister but found Delhi even more inhospitable than Haryana and finally shifted to the safer Madhya Pradesh, then a BJP stronghold, under Shivraj Singh Chauhan and, as they say, never looked back.
Not politics but politicking in the upper echelons of party hierarchy for self-promotion is Sushma’s forte or USP. For her, politics is a competition courtyard rather than a public platform. A push and pull game of cards played indoors with a few party bosses, seated well-ensconced on sofas in well-appointed drawing rooms rather than a free-for-all game resembling cockfights most Indian politicians play at ill-organized crowded rallies. She is the conclave woman. Caucus and coterie and not the crowd and crew are the right milieus for her kind of politics. I have seen her gossiping and politicking in the company of political bosses endlessly till the wee hours of the night, not yawning once but coming out as chirpy and lively as she had gone in much before midnight. No wonder, she has remained a spiritless shadow of herself at Modi’s Five-year One-Man Show.
For policy matters and ‘getting work done’ she entirely depends on government bureaucrats and party officials with whom she has a remarkable rapport. Her style of competitive politics demands inner push and pull to stay, survive and soar higher than her competitors. She enjoys the perks and prestige of office and keeps up with the Jones with gusto like any go-getter middle class professional in a commercial outfit.
Sushma has jumped into many a high position, occupied several high offices but could never attain political altitude. She could never become a political leader in her own right like Mayawati, Jayalalitha or even Chandravati, a thorough-bred Haryanvi, nonagenarian leader of yesterday. Her rise was more because of her hobnobbing with leaders like George Fernandez, Chandrashekhar, Devi Lal, Bansi Lal, L.K. Advani. She always sought and found patrons, big and small, at crucial turns in her political career and they helped her climb the political ladder and went on gladly to confirm her as a ‘baseless’ leader, that is, a political leader without a mass base.
Her recent announcement about her intention not to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha election and withdraw from elective politics was a well-timed move to make a final fling at the highest seat of political power. She has always tried to be an over-reacher and succeeded in reaching positions that were much beyond her grasp.
Sushma plays the politics of default or preselected option. Bypassing elections is a part of her political style. She has given a miss to elections as a political tactic earlier too.
For instance, in 1982, when as the Haryana Janata Party President she distributed party tickets but herself escaped Assembly elections. She, in fact, gifted her Ambala Assembly seat to Swami Agnivesh that ensured his and other possible rivals’ defeat and exit from politics. It did not require much calculation to see that Chandrashekhar’s Janata Party, after the multilayered split was a mere rump and had no future in Haryana. Sushma and her husband Swaraj Kaushal, her political strategist at that time, had the last laugh when Agnivesh saw through the political trick a bit too late to withdraw from the ill-omened Ambala seat.
Immediately after Haryana Janata Party’s electoral debacle, she started rubbing elbows with Devi Lal hoping for a Rajya Sabha seat because Chaudhary Devi Lal’s Lok Dal had 31 seats and could manage to win a Rajya Sabha. This made her unpopular within the Janata Party [Chandrashekhar].
In 1983, at a Janata Party meeting at Pati Kalyana, near Samalkha, Sushma took me aside and started explaining the ‘misunderstanding’ about her seeking Rajya Sabha from Devi Lal who did not have good relations with Chandrashekhar at that time. She said, “Devi Lal had himself made the Rajya Sabha offer addressing her as ‘Beti’.”
Soon after this incident, she ditched Chandrashekhar and made a bid to join BJP. She was not welcome there. Ram Bilas Sharma, then a blue-eyed boy of the RSS and Devi Dass the Sonipat Jan Sangh MLA were deadly opposed to her. They came to my house at Hindu College Flats, Kakroi Road Sonipat and made dirty stories about her. I did not appreciate and snubbed them for their tattle in bad taste about her.
Anyway, I came to know that she was desperately trying to join the Bharatiya Janata Party. Vajpayee was not particularly fond of her. Finally, she found an intermediary in Vishnu Kant Shastri whom she had met in 1977 after becoming an MLA from Haryana. Shastri whom she used to address as “Pita Shri” was a kindly soul and a Hindi Professor at Calcutta University. He got elected to West Bengal Assembly on a Jan Sangh ticket in 1977. He enjoyed the respect of RSS top brass. He pleaded for her. Haryana BJP President Ramesh Joshi who knew me was not at all amused.
Joshi got bypassed and Vishnu Kant was able to obtain the RSS leaders’ clearance for Sushma’s entry. He went to meet L.K. Advani then BJP President. Advani was enamored of Sushma Swaraj’s oratory. He once, in my presence and Sushma was not there, compared his own sloppy way of speaking with Sushma’s impressive style and delivery. Someone in that meeting pointed out, “But she is not a vote catcher and people respond to her speeches as they respond to college debaters. She does not convince political audiences but entertains them”.
Like Madame Curie who was able to advance her career as a scientist with the help of her husband, Sushma Swaraj is lucky to have Swaraj Kaushal as her husband. He is his secret advisor and strategist.
Swaraj Kaushal, a former public relations man with the Thapars, avoids going to social and political functions with her. Emulating most wives of Indian politicians who are seldom seen with their husbands, Swaraj Kaushal, as a husband, observes strict pardah! He is never seen or spotted in public with his wife except for a fleeting glimpse of the karava chauth ritual. This does not mean that he is a dumb spouse. Behind the curtain, he has made an impressive pile of political gains for himself. He became a Governor of Mizoram and a Rajya Sabha Member on his own. In a way, his achievements are more remarkable because he does not rub shoulders with political high ups. He mixes with the political second bananas and through them reaches high places.
For example, it was not George Fernandez who got him Governor’s post. It was a Bohemian Kamlesh Shukla, Fernandez’s underground conspiracy accomplice who got Swaraj Kaushal, the briefless lawyer, the brief of Lal Dinga, in my presence at 4, Kalindi Colony, New Delhi and later Governorship of Mizoram when Lal Dinga, after the fall of Morarji Government, became the Mizoram Chief Minister. It was not Bansi Lal who brought him to Rajya Sabha; it was Bansi La’s son Surender Singh who got him Haryana Vikas Party’s ticket to Rajya Sabha in 1998. It was not Lalu Prasad but Lalu’s brother-in-law Sadhu who got Swaraja a special diplomatic assignment to negotiate with the rebel Naga leaders in Holland.
A worse situation than an outright defeat for Narendra Modi would be a reduced NDA majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha. Many leaders within the NDA and outside it have been banking upon this scenario. Nitin Gadkari has surely stolen a march over Sushma Swaraj since she made her declaration to retire from elective politics but not from the politics of power. Gadkari has won the praise of the Opposition and is in very good books of the RSS. Mamata, Mayawati, Naidu, Nitish Kumar too are waiting for the NDA’s electoral fiasco. Sushma Swaraj’s chances may have been dimmed since her announcement. But she was the first to take a leap in the dark and that will keep her visible when and if an alternative to Modi becomes ineluctable.
Sushma, before renouncing elective politics, mustered courage and cunningly annoyed Amit Shah and Narendra Modi. She contrived to amend the rule that required a woman to produce a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from her husband for getting a passport to travel abroad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been denying NOC to Jashodabehn, his deserted wife. Jashodabehn was hapless and could do nothing against the Ministry of External bureaucrats who had rejected her passport application for this reason alone. Sushma amended the rule and Jashodabehn is now free to apply and get her passport without her husband, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s NOC. This ‘act of courage’ shall keep her distinctly in focus if and when the time to replace Modi does arrive. She will be in the race for the top post without her even trying!
*Kundli-based Writer, freelance journalist and academic, Jitendra Kumar Sharma is a former General Secretary of Haryana Pradesh Janata Party when Sushama Swaraj was its President and was a member of Janata Party’s Central Manifesto Committee for March 1977 Lok Sabha Elections. His articles on politicians and their politics have appeared in Power Politics Monthly, the Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Hamilton Spectator, Canada. His latest book The Prime Minister and His Robot Wife got published at Amazon.com on Feb 27, 2019
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