Diminutive in size but certainly not in stature with nine Lok Sabha wins under her belt, Sushma Swaraj, the second woman to be Foreign Minister after Indira Gandhi, announced today that she will not contest the upcoming election.
Political insiders have know for a while that Swaraj, a fiery orator in the league of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who has been uncharacteristically subdued during the Modi government's term, wanted to opt out.
The decision, ostensibly taken for health reasons (she had a kidney transplant in December 2016), became a solid resolve after she was savaged by right-wing trolls in June for punishing an official who allegedly humiliated an inter-faith couple when they applied for passports. Swaraj also offered no comment on her junior minister, MJ Akbar, as one woman after another came out to accuse him of sexual harassment and/or assault which led to his resignation last month.
Swaraj shared her decision to retire from active politics with mentor LK Advani after confiding in her husband, Swaraj Kaushal, who is a lawyer, and daughter Bansuri.
Swaraj's formal announcement has created a piquant situation for Advani, who at 91, wants very much to run again for parliament like Murli Manohar Joshi, who is 84. Both are among the founders of the BJP; both have been deposited by Modi-Shah into the old-age home of the BJP, its Margdarshak Mandal or advisory council, whose advise has yet to be sought.
The section of the Sangh which wants Modi's hand to remain firmly on the wheel, hopes that Swaraj's exit will nudge others once groomed by Advani (Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley) to also head out. Perhaps Venkiah Naidu, once among the Gen Next leaders of the BJP, read the writing on the wall and happily opted out of politics to become Vice-President.
The second-generation leaders, most of them now well into their 60s, were supernovas for a while handling important ministries during the Vajpayee government and openly jostled for power. Their rivalry was a testament to the strength of the inner-party democracy in the famously cadre-based BJP.
Pramod Mahajan had been anointed his "Lakshman" by Vajpayee but his murder at the hands of his brother in 2006 sharpened the ambition of all wannabe PM candidates of the second rung. The huge press they all courted as a result was viewed with suspicion by the RSS. They were derisively called "D-4" (Delhi Four), and considered ideologically impure for being hugely comfortable in Lutyens' Delhi with amicable cross-party relationships. Swaraj is a former socialist and the Sangh has always considered Jaitley a "Lutyens' lawyer". The RSS, however, is comfortable with the shrewd Singh and approves of his low profile.
After the disaster that was the Advani-for-PM bid, Jaitley, his campaign manager (who has lost the only Lok Sabha he contested in Amritsar in 2014) openly switched allegiance to Modi, who was then the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Swaraj was the only one of the second-generation leaders who openly displayed reservations against the growing party sentiment of Modi as the presumptive Prime Minister.
She then made some sort of peace with Modi, in part by keeping a dutiful if unnaturally low profile throughout her tenure, ceding huge space and power to Modi's PMO in foreign affairs. The once voluble and OTT leader who threatened to shave her head if Sonia Gandhi became PM has not once given an interview during this term.
Modi does not like ministers who crowd out his own opportunities. The RSS likes them to show restraint. Nagpur favourites Nitin Gadkari (61) and Singh (67) follow that brief. Piyush Goyal, Minister for Railways, is 54, and Dharmendra Pradhan, Petroleum Minister, is 49. Nirmala Sitharaman is 59 and Textiles Minister Smriti Irani is 42.
They are the favourites of all-powerful BJP President Amit Shah. Sure, none of them have any mass base but all that helps in the presidential-type projection of Modi and, increasingly, Shah himself. "Modi-ji does not like Lok Sabha leaders. They are too independent. He likes to be able to mould his ministers," said a BJP minister to me, poker-faced, and only on the condition of anonymity.
Yogi Adityanath, age 46, chosen by Modi as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, is another indicator of things to come. The saffron-robed monk who has won his Gorakhpur constituency 5 times was reported as not getting along with Modi-Shah but has patched up with them. And with the Ram Mandir becoming a major issue in Ayodhya for this election, he will be a crucial asset for the party.
If Singh and Gadkari are to survive, it will be at the RSS' behest. If they are to flourish, they must do it on Shah-Modi's terms. Else, the Margdarshak Mandal awaits.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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