The Big Bindi On The Saffron Forehead


ONE OF the consequences of the deepening of regional politics and parties in the 1990s has been the gradual disappearance of the all-India politician. In the early years, Jawaharlal Nehru could conceivably have been elected to the Lok Sabha from just about any state. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, won two seats in 1980 – Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh and, halfway across India, Medak in Andhra Pradesh.

Heir apparent? BJP veteran LK Advani blesses Sushma on her new role in the party
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Yet, today, outside the first family even the Congress would be hard put to find a politician who can win an election in a state other than his or her janmabhoomi or karmabhoomi. This was not always so. In the 1960s, VK Krishna Menon became the MP from Midnapore, in rural Bengal. As recently as 1980, Subramanian Swamy, a Tamil, was representing Bombay. George Fernandes, a Mangalorean Catholic, has been elected to Parliament from the OBC heartland of Bihar. Part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s appeal was that he won Lok Sabha contests in four states.

In the BJP of 2009, if there is one individual who can claim Vajpayee’s patchwork mantle it is Sushma Swaraj. She has won elections in Haryana, her home state, in Delhi and in Madhya Pradesh. In 1999, she gave Sonia Gandhi a close run in Bellary (Karnataka), till then an impregnable Congress fortress. She culminated a whirlwind campaign with a rousing speech in Kannada, a language she had mastered in a month.

Bellary eventually became a BJP stronghold. There were many reasons for this – including the iron ore boom that made the Reddy brothers fabulously rich and changed the political-economy of the constituency – but Sushma’s memorable campaign of 1999 was the trigger. It bolstered the perception that, at her best, she has the sort of “Aunty next door” persona that middle class India warms to.

As she readies to take charge as Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha when Parliament opens in February, Sushma brings to the table a heftier experience than many of her peers in the BJP. In the NDA government (1998-2004), she was a standout health minister, still remembered by civil servants and international agencies for her support of innovative technologies and emphasis on health infrastructure expansion. The proposal to build clones of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in half-a-dozen states, and so decongest India’s premier medical research facility in Delhi, was hers.

As Information and Broadcasting Minister, Sushma faced some criticism for talking of curbs on allegedly vulgar and permissive programming. It was a minor, short-lived controversy. More substantively, it was during her months in office that the first moves were made towards genuine community radio in India, with universities and educational institutions being given the right to run FM stations. Even India’s news television boom – or cacophony – owes much to Sushma’s contention that uplinking licences should be issued liberally.

Happy parivar? Sushma with Maneka Gandhi, Ananth Kumar and Arun Jaitley (right)
Photo: AFP

Sushma is extremely well-networked in Parliament. When the CPI(M) and the BJP tangentially discussed voting out the Manmohan Singh government in July 2008 – at the height of the India-United States nuclear agreement crisis – it all began with Brinda Karat seeking a conversation with Sushma.

An articulate, forceful speaker, Sushma understands the media as few do. She was among the generation of mid- 1990s politicians who owed their rise to prominence to presence on the news pages and, later, television screens. In an age when politics is run in accordance with news network timings, this is a rare gift.

Left-leaning feminists tend to give Sushma’s meritocratic career graph less credit than is due, perhaps unable to reconcile female empowerment with their distaste for the political right. It is noteworthy that of the three senior women in the Lok Sabha – Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the Speaker, Meira Kumar, being the others – Sushma is the only one without a family legacy.

She began with no pocket borough, had no political father or godfather to give her that early start. A girl from the small town of Ambala, born to ordinary parents, Sushma is as much a miracle of Indian democracy as, in their own ways, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati are.

SO FAR, this piece has sounded like a panegyric and highlighted every positive semicolon in Sushma’s admittedly formidable CV. Does it also suggest that Sushma’s anointment as the BJP’s parliamentary leader by her long-time mentor, LK Advani, confirms her as the party’s prime ministerial aspirant for 2014? If so, what sort of candidate and what sort of chief executive will she make?

It is here that the issue gets a little confusing. Indeed, these days everything about the BJP tends to get a little confusing. Sushma would certainly be one of no more than two or three people in reckoning to be the face of the BJP campaign in the next general election. Political circumstances and public concerns at the time would dictate the final choice, as would the party’s internal chemistry.

Sushma Swaraj Will Be The Preferred Choice Of Those Who Are Uncomfortable With Narendra Modi Or Arun Jaitley

If a BJP prime minister does take office in 2014, he or she will represent one of three templates:

First – and this is admittedly the grimmest scenario – a collapsing Pakistan and a surge in terrorism seriously damage India’s national security climate and lead voters to a muscular candidate, a strongman within a democratic framework

Second, Indian business tires of slow-moving reforms and the UPA’s inability to adequately dismantle the rentier state, and actively promotes an economically rightwing candidate

Third, the NDA expands into an even bigger non-Congress alliance and a gaggle of parties gather around the BJP. The leader is more a coalition manager, probably lacking an independent mass base

Of the three hypothetical situations, the third one is the most likely – however small even that likelihood may be. The third one is also the situation Sushma is intrinsically comfortable with. She has no strong positions on anything. In politics this can be both weakness and strength.

Sushma’s new job gives her an opportunity to expand her acceptability beyond just the BJP and build partnerships with other opposition parties. If it works, she could emerge as a sort of Vajpayee II – a genial middle class symbol, occasionally given to rabble rousing, somebody whose compelling electoral attributes are reassurance and compassion, not necessarily sharp-edged policy intervention.

What is Sushma’s positioning within the BJP? There is a sense of independence to her in that she is not from the Sangh stable. She came to the BJP from a socialist background – and in the 1970s almost everybody in public life seemed to be some form of a socialist – and gravitated towards the anti- Congress half of the arena. Some socialists moved into a variety of regional and fringe parties; others, such as Sushma, found the building of an alternative national party a more wholesome enterprise.

Thirty years on, Sushma can no more be called socialist but neither is she a religious radical. If anything, she is a middle- of-the-road politician, with tendencies towards social conservatism or an exhibition of social conservatism. Only she could have made the large bindi a political trademark!

In the post-2004 period, Sushma has focussed on the parliamentary wing of the party. She has rarely handled organisational matters and state elections, for instance. Her one attempt at becoming a crisis manager – brokering a peace between Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa and the robber-baron Reddy brothers in Karnataka – was not without its pitfalls.

Her rivals accused Sushma of resorting to empire building rather than disinterested statesmanship. Eyebrows rose even higher in December 2009 when Sushma’s husband, Swaraj Kaushal, was appointed standing counsel of the Karnataka government. It did seem a little irregular.

There are also other apprehensions. In recent years, a small fixer-businessmen clique has manipulated in-house decision-making in the BJP. It has travelled from leader to leader in search of willing tools and succeeded in virtually hijacking the Rajnath Singh presidency – influencing, for instance, his options in Rajasthan, Haryana and Jharkhand, among other states. Will this clique target Sushma as well? Can she firewall herself from it?

Perhaps she can. Like all deft politicians, Sushma can give the impression of driving in two lanes simultaneously. A realist at the end of the day, she is mindful that the BJP cannot afford to be seen as the front office of a millenarian cult. To that extent, she is one of the BJP’s “politicals” and is aware that RSS control of the party can go only so far.

Yet, Sushma has been careful never to contradict or confront the RSS publicly. Quite to the contrary, her delicately cultivated “Bharatiya nari” self-image also panders to the Sangh’s idea of a middle-brow, middle-Indian conservativeness. There is a perception that Sushma will be the preferred choice of those in the Sangh and the BJP who are uncomfortable with, say, a Narendra Modi-Arun Jaitley duumvirate and fear it might sideline them completely.

FRANKLY, THOSE three names and personalities just cannot afford to be adversarial. Between them, Sushma, Jaitley and Modi represent the best of the BJP’s so-called “Generation Next”. The lady and the lawyer are simply the most accomplished central party leaders of their age category. The man in Gandhinagar carries the baggage of 2002 no doubt but his achievements in governance make him the most successful administrator in the BJP’s history.

In 2014, this trio will need to be in harmony. It will not be an easy election. They will all be in their early 60s, leading their first national campaign a good decade after they should have done so. They will also be facing a rival some 20 years their junior, a man blessed with five years of brand building.

While there can be freak outcomes, elections are not usually won or lost in the final hour. The build-up, sometimes going back several years, has its uses. The BJP’s ability to become a serious contender in 2014 will depend to a large extent on the party’s capacity to re-imagine and reinvent itself in the coming two years or so. As parliamentary helmswoman, Sushma will need to make this part of her job description.

This reimagining and reinvention of the BJP is actually a two-stage process. Even before it presents itself to the electorate, the party needs to decide what sort of entity it wants to be and how it wants to present itself to its own people. The power struggle that is imminent is one that will seek to gradually extricate autonomy for the political impulses of the BJP from the grip of the RSS. Nevertheless, such is the nature of the enterprise that the person who speaks out most forcefully and is the most trenchant conscientious objector may not eventually be the winner.

An analogy may help. In the stormy November of 1990, Margaret Thatcher faced a rebellion from an ambitious and seriously clever Michael Heseltine. He challenged her for leadership of the Conservative Party. She won the first ballot but not decisively enough – and realised her era was over.

Yet, she was determined not to have Heseltine as her successor. Mrs T backed the milder and more loyal John Major as the compromise prime minister. The flamboyant Heseltine was finished. He walked into the sunset with the immortal phrase, “He who wields the dagger never wins the crown.”

Sushma is not the stuff of Heseltine, though others in the BJP may yet be. Like Thatcher, will a retreating RSS someday prefer her to the alternatives? Even without the references to British politics, it is a question people are asking.


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