Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Remembering Sushma Swaraj: First full-time female foreign minister to Twitter's favorite

  • A seven-time Member of Parliament, Sushma Swaraj was the youngest cabinet minister to serve in the Haryana government at the age of 25 in 1977
  • Sushma Swaraj was the first full-time woman foreign minister

Feisty, warm, and acceptable to all across political spectrum are some of the ways people say they would remember former Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj as.

Swaraj, 67, passed away late Tuesday after suffering a cardiac arrest. She was rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), but efforts to revive her failed. Her career in politics spanned five decades.

Born on 14 February, 1952 at Ambala in Haryana, she studied law at Panjab University in Chandigarh. She was married to Swaraj Kaushal, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court who served as governor of Mizoram. A seven-time member of Parliament, Swaraj also served as MLA thrice in the Haryana state assembly. She was the chief minister of Delhi for a brief period in 1998. Earlier this year, she opted out of the general elections citing poor health.

Sushma Swaraj joined politics at a time when few women were part of India’s political scene, taking part in the anti-Emergency movement launched by Jayaprakash Narayan against the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. She first contested elections in 1977 from her home state, Haryana.

Among the several firsts to her credit are -- youngest cabinet minister to serve in the Haryana government at the age of 25 in 1977 and first full-time woman foreign minister (Indira Gandhi held additional charge of the ministry when she was prime minister).

An acute diabetic, in November 2016, she took to Twitter to announce she had to undergo a kidney transplant. She used the social media platform extensively to connect with the public.

Also watch | RIP Sushma Swaraj: Fiery Opposition leader, people's Foreign Minister



In her last Twitter post on Tuesday at 7.23 PM, said, Swaraj “Thank you Prime Minister. Thank you very much. I was waiting to see this day in my lifetime." She was referring to Parliament passing the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

It was through Twitter that she made the Indian foreign ministry — otherwise seen as elitist, bureaucratic, distant and indifferent — people friendly, accessible and responsive to the needs of the common people. Quick to respond and intervene when issues were brought to her notice, Swaraj was approached for help not only by Indians abroad but people of other nationalities as well – most notably Pakistan. A quick read through her Twitter timeline shows that she had intervened on many occasions to grant visas to Pakistan nationals wanting to visit India for medical treatment earning her the title of “Mother Teresa".

“A glorious chapter in Indian politics comes to an end. India grieves the demise of a remarkable leader who devoted her life to public service and bettering lives of the poor," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a Twitter post late Tuesday. “Sushma Ji’s demise is a personal loss. She will be remembered fondly for everything that she’s done for India. My thoughts are with her family, supporters and admirers in this very unfortunate hour. Sushma Swaraj Ji was one of her kind. She was a source of inspiration for crores of people," Modi said in another post.

'Didi' (or elder sister) is how most leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would remember her. Swaraj's stepped into national politics in 1990 when she became a Rajya Sabha member and later contested Lok Sabha elections also. During the first tenure of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Swaraj was a union minister but she resigned from the top post and took oath as the chief minister of Delhi. Although BJP lost the assembly election in Delhi, Swaraj had made her presence felt in national politics. She became a protégé of senior BJP leader LK Advani who groomed her in politics at the national level.

The former external affairs minister was instrumental in launching the BJP in southern part of the country in 1999 Lok Sabha polls when she took on former Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Bellary, Karnataka. Even though Swaraj lost the election, her campaign style, her speech in local Kannada language and her personality ensured that BJP gains strong foothold in the southern state. Nearly 8 years later, BJP formed government in the state with its leader as the chief minister for the first time.

In 2014, Swaraj was seen as an unlikely pick for foreign minister when the Narendra Modi-led National Democractic Alliance government took office – given her proximity to former BJP president Lal Krishna Advani. She was often mocked by the opposition for having a minimal role in the foreign ministry despite being the boss, given the prominent role played by the prime minister in foreign affairs. There was speculation about her equation with the prime minister, but Swaraj never gave any hint of difference of opinion with Modi on matters of national interest. She not only defended her role in the government but also defended Modi and his foreign policies on many occasions in Parliament.

Soon after joining Modi’s cabinet, in 2015, Swaraj faced accusations of having lobbied on behalf of former Indian Premier League chief Lalit Modi, who was then in London and seen as a fugitive. She defended her decision “on humanitarian grounds" to recommend to the British government to give Lalit Modi travel documents to see his sick wife in Portugal. She was defended by both the BJP and the RSS.

However, there were seemingly few to defend her when she was trolled on Twitter for taking action against an officer in the regional passport office in Lucknow for allegedly humiliating an inter-faith couple when they went to apply for a passport. But many officials in the Indian foreign ministry supported her action.

That she commanded their respect was clear from the messages that were posted on Twitter on Tuesday.

“Leaving behind indelible memories. We @IndiaUNNewYorkwill always cherish memories of her @UN Farewell Madam @SushmaSwaraj #RIPSushmaSwaraj" said a post by former Indian foreign ministry spokesman and permanent representative to the UN, Syed Akbaruddin.

“Smt Sushma Swaraj - an extraordinary life. An extraordinary person. I am deeply privileged to have served as Secretary under her leadership in MEA. My heartfelt condolences to her family," said another Twitter post by Secretary Economic relations in the Indian foreign ministry T.S. Tirumurti.

“Deeply shocked to learn of the passing away of Smt Sushma Swaraj. Difficult to accept this news. The whole nation grieves, the Foreign Ministry even more so," said Swaraj’s successor S Jaishankar, who served as foreign secretary for two years between 2015 and 2017.

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