What I Learnt While Covering Sushma Swaraj's Campaign

Published: August 07, 2019 14:53 IST

Karnataka first became familiar with Sushma Swaraj when she chose to contest the Lok Sabha election in the iron-ore rich constituency of Ballari - then called Bellary - against the Congress's Sonia Gandhi. Political watchers were, of course, already familiar with her image; with her big bindi and saree, she stood out in a sea of male politicians.

In 1999, we lost count of the number of trips we made between our NDTV bureau base in Bengaluru to dusty Bellary as we covered this feisty campaign and the contest between these two women. On one of the trips, I was in the room next to hers at one of the town's simple hotels. On a campaign trail, you can always tell the presence of a candidate by the number of people with them and those waiting to meet them. The hotel was like a party office.

The challenge she took on was a big one. Bellary had voted Congress since Independence. I remember one elderly woman there telling me she would vote for Indira Gandhi, years after the former Prime Minister's death. It was, to use a word popular with political journalists, a Congress 'bastion'.


Sushma Swaraj visited Bellary for many years after her poll defeat in 1999.

Sushma Swaraj took to the campaign with vigour. She swiftly learnt enough Kannada to address public meetings, to the delight of the crowds who came out to hear her. She did lose that election, but she triggered a change in the region, opening it up to the BJP. She did that by taking the help of - and helping - the Reddy brothers of Bellary. G Janardhana Reddy and his brothers Karunakara and Somashekar, millionaire mining barons, helped Ms Swaraj familiarise herself with their home district. And she helped them gain a foothold in politics. They described her as their mother. The images of her blessing them were widely spread through television and newspapers; WhatsApp was still far into the future.

Sushma Swaraj did not disappear from Bellary after her defeat. She visited the city for many consecutive years on the occasion of the Varamahalakshmi Puja which she celebrated with the Reddy family.

The combination worked. Bellary shifted away from the Congress and towards the BJP, which won and held the seat for many years. After a win for the Congress in the 2018 by-election, it went back to the BJP in this year's election.

But allegations connected to illegal mining against Janardhan Reddy continued to grow. And that led to my seeing an angry side of the genial politician. On one of her Varamahalakshmi Puja visits to Bellary which I was reporting on, I asked her about her connection to the Reddys who were becoming increasingly controversial. It was 20 years ago and I cannot remember if she actually said the words or if it was just the message of her eyes, but the message was clear: "Do not ask me this question at this time".
I do remember that I got no answer.

Soon after, Sushma Swaraj distanced herself from the Reddys. She stopped her Bellary visits. But the family continued to speak of her with admiration.

Her warmth, her vitality, her responses to people who sought her help will be remembered. And the tributes are pouring in even from political adversaries. I remember her every year when Varamahalakshmi Puja rolls around. Coincidentally, it is just around the corner. Sushma Swaraj is gone. But will not be forgotten. In Bellary or elsewhere.

Maya Sharma is Executive Editor - South

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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