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Sushma Swaraj: An inspiration for woman leaders

Sushma Swaraj made it possible to believe that it’s possible for a woman without famous parents to raise a family and at the same time ascend the political ladder.

Updated: Aug 08, 2019, 00:19 IST

By HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times New Delhi

Senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj welcomes newly appointed BJP Mahila Morcha chief Smriti Irani in 2010. (Sonu Mehta/HT archive)

New Delhi: In a political world in which women don’t even make up 15% of the workforce -- the 17th Lok Sabha is celebrating the election of a record number of women MPs, who occupy just 62 seats in the 543-member House -- Sushma Swaraj provided a ray of hope.

Swaraj made it possible to believe that it’s possible for a woman without famous parents to raise a family and at the same time ascend the political ladder, even becoming one of the top members of the cabinet, as she did when she was made external affairs minister in the Narendra Modi government in 2014.

On a day that tributes to her memory trended on Twitter, many woman politicians felt the loss of an aspirational exemplar in Swaraj, who died of a sudden heart attack late on Tuesday at the age of 67. One of her political gurus, LK Advani, said Swaraj had been a “role model for women leaders” in India.

Known as didi, or elder sister, by many, Swaraj inspired not just cabinet colleagues like Smriti Irani and Harsimrat Kaur Badal, but also those in the party who were elder to her.

Former Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan claimed her as a role model too, ``When Swaraj, as an MP, used to attack the opposition, it felt that their leaders had become speechless. I have learnt many things from Swaraj who was younger to me in age but had a bigger stature in work,” said Mahajan, 76.

According to two political experts,Swaraj and Mahajan may have played a part in increasing women’s participation in politics in Madhya Pradesh. In their book, Performing Representation: Women Members in the Indian Parliament, Carole Spary and Shirin M Rai say that at the time Swaraj represented Bidisha and Mahajan Indore in the Lok Sabha, the number of women candidates in MP went from single digits to 11% and 13% in 2008 and 2013.

While it isn’t something that can be definitively correlated, other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) women talk about the positive role that her presence played in encouraging them.

“We were campaigning in Chattisgarh post the 2004 defeat,’’ said Vani Tripathi Tikoo who rose from the youth wing to becoming a party spokesperson and Censor Board member. “She taught me never to lose heart and lose hope.’’

Tikoo spoke about how Sushma Swaraj would make it a point to offer advice to women workers about raising their children while continuing to work. Work-life balance was something Swaraj exemplified, out-arguing her critics in Parliament, but never ignoring her family

Photographers would land up at her home on Karva Chauth, a ritual that women observe for the protection of their husbands, and she would always allow them to photograph her in her festive attire. She vied for the top posts in the party, becoming Leader of the Opposition in 2009, but would also tweet throwback photos of herself with her husband.

“I lost an elder sister today,’’ Akali Dal leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal tweeted after Swaraj’s death.

In Parliament, she bonded with fellow woman MPs on issues that went beyond politics

In 2015, Supriya Sule of the Nationalist Congress Party fainted at a political rally in Maharashtra as a result of dehydration. The only woman politician who sought her out to ask about it was Swaraj. She apparently swapped notes and told Sule how she suffered from the same problem -- a small gesture of empathy that defines what Swaraj meant to others.


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