Sushma Swaraj had several 'firsts' to her credit: first full-time woman External Affairs minister, first woman Chief Minister of Delhi, first 25-year-old cabinet minister of Haryana. She will be best remembered, however, for blazing a trail in politics that thousands of women would follow. She made it kosher for women politicians to emphasize their femininity. A woman could present the appearance of a traditional Indian hausfrau, complete with saree, eight-anna bindi and thick track of sindoor and still succeed in the cut-throat, male-dominated and often misogynist world of politics.
Indeed, she turned her 'adarsh bharatiya nari' image into an overwhelming advantage. By emphasizing her womanly traits, she encouraged women voters to identify with her. And by appearing on TV in her elaborate karva chauth regalia, she won their hearts and votes for the BJP.
In the line-up of BJP women leaders, she was the only one – other than Sumitra Mahajan – who came neither from dynasty nor a religious calling. What she brought to the table were her intelligence, lawyerly skills, gift for articulation and political ambition - exactly the virtues Lal Krishna Advani was looking for in his protegees in 1990. He groomed her to become part of the BJP's second line leadership, along with Arun Jaitley, Pramod Mahajan and Rajnath Singh. The young Sushma Swaraj, by all accounts, was feisty and combative.
She'd joined politics in her early 20s and participated in the JP movement. For a crusty old patriarch like Devi Lal (then Haryana CM) to induct her into his cabinet in 1977 meant that he saw her as exceptional. She switched to the BJP in the 1980s, but her beginnings were socialist and hard-core sanghis never failed to bring that up whenever her name was considered for BJP president.
For all her fuzzy maternal warmth, Swaraj was a fighter. In sheer guts, she outstripped her male colleagues. She never turned away from a challenge. When the party asked her to resign from the Union Cabinet and become chief inister of Delhi in 1998, she obeyed, although she had barely a month to prepare for the assembly elections. One year later, when she was asked to contest against Congress president Sonia Gandhi from Bellary in Karnataka, she agreed, although it was the safest of the Congress pocket boroughs.
In 2009, when L K Advani requested senior party leaders to contest Lok Sabha elections, most refused, but Sushma contested from Vidisha and won. She mellowed as she grew older and her motherliness, humanitarian approach and empathy became more pronounced. As External Affairs minister, she used twitter to reach out to citizens and took note of aggrieved posts, regardless of their provenance. Indian and foreign nationals, Pakistanis included, turned to her for help and were rarely turned away. She came to enjoy the goodwill and affection of many Opposition leaders, including Sonia Gandhi.
At first, they had their daggers drawn. When Sonia was tipped for PM in 2004, Sushma made a strident protest. Her male colleagues were still catatonic from the shock defeat in the general elections, when she confronted the unprecedented political crisis. She declared that if Sonia Gandhi, born and brought up in Italy, became PM of India, she would shave her head and don a white sari for all the rest of her days.
Her protest brought into focus the discomfort felt by millions of Indians over the 'foreign origin' issue. Fortuitously, the Congress opted for Dr Manmohan Singh and Sushma was spared a tonsure. Later, the two women became friendly. Swaraj was a founding member of the Kamal Sakhi Manch, an informal group of women BJP MPs and spouses and daughters of BJP leaders.
A woman legislator recalled how she and Sushma would speak on the phone, discuss clothes and skin care, share gossip and giggle like schoolgirls. She was secure – and generous - enough in her stature in the BJP to use her influence on behalf of other women in the party. She thoroughly enjoyed dressing up and had a large collection of saris, which she wore along with a matching sleeveless jacket. She wore a different colour on each day of the week and never carried a handbag, preferring to put what she needed in her jacket pockets.
Swaraj suffered more than her fair share of controversies. As a successful woman politician in a male-dominated world, she was often the target of vicious gossip. On three occasions, she felt the need to stand up for herself. The first was in 1998, when her name was linked to the underworld don and Dawood Ibrahim associate, Romesh Sharma. Hurt and upset, she became a tad melodramatic, swearing on the Bhagavad Gita that she did not know him. The second occasion was in 2011, when she publicly denied any association with the 'Bellary brothers'.
They had joined her election campaign in 1999 and within a few years, became the 'mining mafia' ministers. Sushma Swaraj was alleged to be responsible for their rapid rise (it was at this time that her rumours regarding her on-off battle with Arun Jaitley reached a peak). She not only denied it, but in 2014, protested against their entry into the BJP. The third occasion was in 2015, when it was alleged that she had helped IPL king Lalit Modi, who had fled the country, to get British travel documents.
The government supported her and accepted her explanation that she had only helped Modi's wife, who was suffering from cancer (and later passed away) to get treatment abroad. Like millions of Indians, including several BJP leaders, she had severe diabetes. She underwent an eye surgery and later, a kidney transplant. She informed the PM before the 2019 general elections that she could no longer serve, because of her deteriorating health. She will always be remembered as a role model and a symbol of empowerment for millions of women across India.