NEW DELHI — Sushma Swaraj's relationship with the chirping Twitterati was never painless. When Swaraj announced her presence on Twitter in December 2010, her nemesis appeared in the shape of Suhel Seth, a self-described "bon vivant, traveller, author, marketing maven" as per his Twitter bio.
"Can someone like Sushma Swaraj be on twitter because twitter has IQ barriers?" Seth acerbically asked, in a tweet now deleted, but reported in The Telegraph on Dec 2, 2010.
Suhel, isn't a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but his close friends are — notably senior minister Arun Jaitley. Back then, as leaders of opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, Swaraj and Jaitley were seeking to position themselves as the BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate. (A battle that was famously won by Narendra Modi).
As the elections drew nearer, Swaraj had a scrap with her BJP colleague and now defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman. In the Parliament session just before the 2014 polls, Swaraj claimed a share of the credit for Telangana's birth, not wanting the Congress to be the sole claimant. Sitharaman, whose husband's family is from Andhra, retweeted a tweet to express Andhra's collective anguish.
— Nirmala Sitharaman (@nsitharaman) February 20, 2014
As Nirmala's retweet went viral, Sushma hit back. "With Spokespersons like @nsitharaman, u don't need enemies," she said.
Swaraj subsequently deleted her tweet, Sitharaman didn't delete hers. The spat was widely covered in the press.
Now, as BJP leaders jockey for influence in the run up to the 2019 polls, Swaraj's political isolation is evident. As foreign minister, Swaraj has been trolled for days, by Twitter handles followed by senior BJP functionaries, after her ministry transferred a passport officer in Lucknow for allegedly humiliating a Hindu-Muslim couple.
Her party colleagues, the exception of a half-hearted gesture by Rajnath Singh, are silent. Even her few sympathisers refuse to commiserate.
"Prime Minister Modi and BJP president (Amit Shah) are trolled nastily by the Left-Liberals for years," one said. "The BJP has ignored them and gone on from strength to strength. Sushma need not have made a production of her so-called victimisation."
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), too has disowned Swaraj, who was once a Sangh favourite. Rajiv Tuli, the RSS's Delhi spokesman, spoke for the paterfamilias when he insinuated that Swaraj had crossed the bounds of discipline:
Should the BJP win a second term in 2019, Swaraj is unlikely to be part of the BJP's plans. A new generation of women leaders such as Smriti Irani, Sitharaman, Meenakshi Lekhi and Anupriya Patel (though she's from an ally, the Apna Dal) have grown into formidable entities.
Swaraj, conversations with ruling party members indicate, may not even get a ticket to fight the next Lok Sabha. Her marginalisation is the most recent indication of Modi and Amit Shah's meticulous quest to exert complete control over all aspects of a party once known for its many leaders.
Although Swaraj's political style is often compared to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, her rise in the BJP owes as much to the mentorship of LK Advani in an era when his writ was seldom challenged. At a time when women in the BJP had to be content playing adjutants to the males and had limited ambitions, Swaraj emerged a prima donna: brimming over with confidence, doughty, articulate, and intelligent.
Like Vajpayee, she quoted verses from Hindi literature's doyens in the proper context. Like Vajpayee, she was never a party person, she never created networks of support from within the BJP organisation or raised a coterie, convinced that like him, she would scale the heights on the back of her oratory and charisma which remained bountiful for years. While Vajpayee ruptured his facade of "liberalism" with a rank communal speech he made, Swaraj was indifferent to the tactics of religious polarisation. But she never once spoke out against the BJP-RSS's culture of communal divisiveness — a culture whose online avataar has now turned against her.
Her sole misstep came after the Congress won the 2004, and Sonia Gandhi looked like she was about to be seated as the Prime Minister. Swaraj went apoplectic and declared that if Gandhi moved into South Block, she would shave her head, don an ascetic's robes and eat "channa" for the rest of her life. An industrialist from the east called on Swaraj, bearing an entreaty from the Congress's leadership to ease Sonia's path but to no avail. For a long time, Swaraj became the butt of jokes within the BJP until she worked overtime to reach out to Gandhi and just about befriended her.
But their convivial chats on sarees and health issues inside Parliament were construed negatively by the BJP's hardliners who deduced that Sushma was "over-friendly" with Gandhi and not adversarial enough to confront the Congress in the 2014 elections. Swaraj was out of the RSS-BJP's shortlist of PM contenders shortly after this campaign gained traction.
She got the foreign ministry alright, but Modi ensured that her part was pruned and pared to that of an agony aunt who was available at a moment's notice to rescue Indians trapped in conflict-ridden zones abroad.
At the pinnacle of her power, Swaraj leveraged her proximity with Advani to refuse party posts when they came her way and extract plum ministries in Vajpayee's cabinet (against his wishes). When Swaraj rebuffed the offer to become a BJP general secretary, because another female compatriot, Sumitra Mahajan (now the Lok Sabha Speaker) had held it before becoming a minister, Advani was upset and would not pull strings to get her back in the cabinet after she was out briefly to lead a Delhi election that the BJP lost.
Swaraj became impatient with her benefactor. At a BJP national executive in Nagpur in 2000, she castigated the government's Kashmir policy before the press, leaving Advani, then the home minister, red-faced. Thereafter, he worked hard to get his enraged protégé a ministry.
Cut to 2014: Swaraj was among those who never concealed her distaste for Modi and Shah. Indeed, after the spectacular win that year, she termed it as a "pure BJP victory" and refused to acknowledge Modi's leadership and role. The buzz was Modi didn't want her in his cabinet but the prime minister, party source said, was "prevailed upon" to induct her in a ministry befitting her stature within the party.
She got the foreign ministry alright, but Modi ensured that her part was pruned and pared to that of an agony aunt who was available at a moment's notice to rescue Indians trapped in conflict-ridden zones abroad. Foreign policy was handled by him and his national security advisor, Ajit Doval. So badly fenced out was Swaraj from policy-making-and-execution that she savoured that rare moment she got to personally interact with the deposed Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif, his wife and mother when she was in Islamabad for the "Heart of Asia" meet in December 2015.
Should the BJP win a second term in 2019, Modi will likely preside over a regime and not just a government. Meanwhile Swaraj, as the party's liberal face, is struggling to stay afloat in the BJP, the only party she has ever known.