Sushma Swaraj: The BJP leader who won LDF-led Kerala’s heart
Over the course of her career, Sushma Swaraj had many interactions with Kerala - all of which won her a place in the hearts of the state.
It is not often that Kerala rallies around the legend of a senior member of the BJP. The LDF led state has produced a number of noteworthy leftist leaders, and the BJP has failed to leave a mark on the consciousness of the people there.
Sushma Swaraj was different.
In June 2014, 46 Indian nurses, predominantly from Kerala, were held captive by ISIS in Iraq. Held by militant forces for 23 days, these nurses were caught in the crossfire between the Iraqi army and ISIS forces. Seized by Sunni insurgents, they were freed due to, in no small part, Swaraj’s efforts at diplomatic negotiation.
Sushma Swaraj personally got in touch with senior government leadership in all the major Gulf Countries, particularly Iraq and Saudi Arabia. While pushing forth diplomatic negotiations, she also used informal channels to work behind the scene, speaking to Indian business men who could negotiate with people in power in Iraq. She personified a fierce Indian goddess in her tireless efforts to retrieve Indian - Malayalee - citizens in danger in a foreign land.
At Swaraj’s insistence, New Delhi went so far as to establish peripheral contacts with some ISIS splinter groups and managed to expedite negotiation proceedings. The Foreign Ministry, at Swaraj’s behest, refused to give away their contacts and sources within these groups, protecting their identities. It was this continued integrity and quiet grit that won Sushma Swaraj the whole hearted respect of a state sitting on the edge of their seats, hoping their daughters could come home.
When the nurses were freed, she chartered a special Air India flight to bring them home. The state was rapturous, and Swaraj’s status as a BJP official who worked for their people, as a central government official who cared, as an effective authority was cemented.
Four years later, when Kerala was inundated by flash floods and the people faced severe damage, Swaraj once again won the hearts of millions, with a simple gesture, in her capacity as External Minister: she said all passports damaged on account of floods would be replaced free of charge.
In a state ravaged by a natural disaster, even as the State government was scrambling to handle damage control, rehabilitation, and loss assessment, having a message as simple as this come from what often seems like a far-removed Central government was enough to win the state over. While Kerala has never been a BJP stronghold, Sushma Swaraj was beloved by the people.
Her impact on the state can be traced as far back to 2003, when she met with Bensy and Benson Chandy. At the time, Bensy was 8 years old, and her brother Benson was 6. They were both HIV positive. Brought to the attention of the government by their grandfather’s lobbying efforts, Mr Geevarghese Johny told then president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam that the children had been trying to gain school admission for years, but were constantly rebuffed because of their diagnosis.
Sushma Swaraj, who was then the Health Minister of India, flew down to Kerala, met with the family, and made it a point to be photographed hugging and kissing the children. She was quoted then as saying, “society must learn that AIDS cannot spread by touching and hugging”.
To dispel myths, #SushmaSwaraj, who was the Health Minister in 2003, embraced 2 HIV Positive kids in #Kerala. Benson and Bency’s grandmother said that she is shocked after hearing about her death. “We will never forget her.#RIPSushmaJi— Raya Ghosh (@RayaGhosh1) August 7, 2019
Pic by @Piyu_Nair pic.twitter.com/EGqpxJL0wP
Despite being a party stalwart through and through, Swaraj’s image in Kerala is far removed from the image of the BJP. Swaraj was well liked and respected across the political spectrum. Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan also mourned her death, expressing deep sorrow and paying tribute to her diplomacy. Former CM Ooman Chandy also mourned the loss of a good leader, public worker, and parliamentarian. He was quoted as saying, “Our friendship started when Sushma Swaraj and I were ministers of housing at Haryana and Kerala respectively in 1977. She had heard about the Chengalchoola housing project during its first phase and visited the state to see the model project.”
Delhi: Kerala's former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy pays last tribute to former External Affairs Minister & BJP leader #SushmaSwaraj, at her residence. She passed away last night due to cardiac arrest. pic.twitter.com/hQJ8E9r0pm— ANI (@ANI) August 7, 2019
Sushma Swaraj represented someone everyone could rally behind. Much more than a politician, she was the true embodiement of the characters you would expect from a leader.