Minority Report | Swaraj Mail4 min read . Updated: 17 Apr 2015, 12:48 AM IST
Physically defined by saris, sindoor and mangalsutra, India's external affairs minister has evolved her own culture of elegance
If a shortlist of Indian women politicians were to be made (or a long list even), Sushma Swaraj, India’s external affairs minister, will be among the first few on it. She is a matter-of-fact working woman whose consistency of image has never deserted her.
Being a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) veteran is encoded into Swaraj’s resume. It makes her right-wing, which is rather uncool in global identity politics. Besides, she is a traditional Indian woman in her style—she has always been sari-clad, with her sindoor, bindi, mangalsutra intact; never a cutting-edge stylista nor a contemporary handloom diva like the Gandhi ladies. That is precisely why the modernity of her manner attracts me. She beats the clichés while being one.
Since May 2014, ever since she became India’s foreign minister, Swaraj’s brand of feminine elegance has been an evolving story. I am kicking myself for not tracking it earlier. One of her recent photographs in a well-chosen, cream-coloured Banarasi sari worn with her trademark bandi (half-sleeved jacket) alerted me to reopen the Sushma Swaraj charm files.
Has Ms Swaraj lost weight, I wondered reacting in the sometimes cursory manner typical of popular culture writers. I am always on the hunt for an inflection in life choices of people perceived through their appearances. She has, I convinced myself (without any verified report), or at least she now looks much better than she ever did. Look at her photographs from the last couple of years, especially since 2014, and you will notice how she has calmed down in her mannerisms, the subtle changes in her wardrobe, the kind of watch(es) she wears, the gold bangle(s) on one arm, the attention she has begun paying to her choice in saris and, more than anything else, her assured ease. Seldom on the offensive yet seldom a woman who can be taken lightly.
Only the second woman politician after Indira Gandhi to hold the portfolio of external affairs as minister, Swaraj is ostensibly in an enviable position, but one that imitates a hedgehog’s skin. As the world knows, India’s real foreign minister is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He loves Swaraj’s job and does it with proactivity and self-indulgence. It could have thrown Swaraj off kilter. But, instead of looking rattled or sulky, she does what ministers are expected to do—keeps her head down, maintains the dignity of her portfolio and works.
It must be said that I am not writing this piece on the basis of a few photographs and smart articles authored by smart political journalists.
I have had the opportunity to interview Swaraj in the past, in the days when she used to keep aside Friday evenings (am trusting my memory on the Friday bit) to devote “exclusively" to her daughter, Bansuri, then a growing up child and now a legal professional. Swaraj’s verbal articulation and her fine control over Hindi enamoured me then, though I was never a fan of her plans and policies for the state-run broadcaster, Doordarshan, when she was India’s information and broadcasting minister from 2000 to 2003. In fact, during my journalistic stint at India Today magazine, I remember a particularly caustic discouragement offered to me by an aide of Swaraj’s. I was digging into a not-so-pretty story on Doordarshan and the aide, acting presumably at the behest of “madam", had firmly suggested I drop the idea.
Yet I remained somewhat of a Sushma Swaraj admirer. The clarity of her speech and tone, her no-nonsense implementation of whatever she believes in, even when it came to the hysterical threat of shaving off her hair in protest if Sonia Gandhi became India’s prime minister in 2004, the way she warmly greets and gets along with her female contemporaries in India and abroad gives me reason to like her.
After 2010, when she began to regularly wear black (or cream) bandis over her saris to Parliament, I tried hard to interview her as an Indian Express journalist to ask why she had added an androgynous accessory to her saris. It was a distinct statement and clearly a story. She didn’t grant me that interview—her staff was polite but I never heard back. She didn’t have good taste in saris then like she has now, and even her bandis are now matched to her saris—black or white are no longer fixtures.
Yet she stands out not because of what she wears but the way she conducts herself. In the context of the attention-seeking human resources development minister Smriti Irani, the still-smug Uma Bharti, the always angry about something Jaya Bachchan or the “look at me, I am right because I am left" Mamata Banerjee, Swaraj gets the vote for the Hindustani nari elegance.
PS: She also redeems the sari-sindoor-mangalsutra style package that has unfortunately acquired a terribly retrogressive reputation due to the antics of women on Indian TV.