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The legacy of Sushma Swaraj

Sushma Swaraj. Image credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office [CC BY 2.0 (]
The death of Sushma Swaraj – once named “India’s best-loved politician” – drew widespread condolences and memorials. 

The veteran BJP politician passed away on August 6th after suffering a heart attack, at the age of 67 in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi (heart disease is India’s leading cause of death). Her cremation with full state honours followed on Wednesday. Tributes poured in from across the political spectrum in India as well as from abroad. Thousands thronged the street to pay tribute during her last rites. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to declare that “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 [the] lives of the poor. Sushma Swaraj Ji was one of her kind, who was a source of inspiration for crores of people.”

“The country has lost a much loved leader who epitomised dignity, courage & integrity in public life,” wrote President Ram Nath Kovind. “Ever willing to help others, she will always be remembered for her service to the people of India.” Tribute was also paid by former President Pranab Mukherjee, Congress Presidents Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, numerous Chief Ministers and foreign officials including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Afghani President Hamid Karzai. 

Swaraj addresses the 73rd United Nations World Assembly. Image credit: AbhiSuryawanshi [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]
In a storied career, Swaraj occupied a number of positions at the state and national levels. Arguably her most notable tenure was as Minister of External Affairs, in which time she was widely lauded for assuming the role of “Samaritan-in-chief for Indians in distress” owing to her diligent efforts to save Indians who encountered difficulties and struggles abroad. A Times of India profile noted how she intervened on behalf of 42 Keralite nurses stranded in wartorn Tikrit in Iraq; five Indian sailors captured by pirates in Nigeria; a human trafficking victim enslaved in Saudi Arabia; and even for foreign nationals, such as Swiss tourists attacked in Agra. 

One of the most notable examples was Geeta, a deaf and mute girl who spent thirteen years in Pakistan after inadvertently crossing the border into Lahore aged eleven. Swaraj secured Geeta’s return to India in 2015, calling her “the daughter of India”. Following Swaraj’s passing, Geeta paid tribute to Swaraj using sign language. 

Swaraj as Union Health Minister in 2004. Image credit: Government of India [GODL-India (] This file is a copyrighted work of the Government of India, licensed under the Government Open Data License – India (GODL). This file or its source was published by Press Information Bureau under the ID 551 and CNR 4564. (direct link)
Beginning her career in Haryana, Swaraj was elected to the Haryana Legislative Assembly. She served from 1977 to 1982 and again from 1987 to 1990 until her election to the Rajya Sabha. During her time as an MLA, Swaraj served as a Cabinet minister for Labour and Employment and Education – aged 25 when first appointed, she was the youngest Haryana Cabinet minister in the state’s history. 

Elected to the 11th Lok Sabha in 1996, Swaraj served as Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting; and Telecommunications. After a brief stint as Chief Minister of Delhi in 1998, Swaraj returned to the Rajya Sabha in 2000 and resumed charge at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting during the Vajapayee premiership. 

In 2003, Swaraj was appointed Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare. During her tenure, she played a pivotal role in expanding access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV-positive Indians despite political opposition to a programme many regarded as too costly. Current Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan paid tribute with the words “Bye sister.” 

Swaraj greets Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who paid tribute to her following her passing and said “a glorious chapter” had ended. Image credit: Prime Minister’s Office (GODL-India) [GODL-India (] This file is a copyrighted work of the Government of India, licensed under the Government Open Data License – India (GODL).This file or its source was published by Press Information Bureau on behalf of Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India under the ID 110251 and CNR 98837. (direct link)
Appointed Union External Affairs Minister in 2014 – the first woman to occupy the post full-time and the second to occupy it at all after Indira Gandhi – Swaraj occupied the position until this year’s Lok Sabha elections in which she did not stand for re-election. Her retirement from electoral politics followed prolonged periods of ill health including a kidney transplant. Her passing marks the climax of what is one of modern India’s most renowned political careers. 

Swaraj is survived by her husband and daughter.

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