Swaraj was among BJP's most popular campaignersPTI | New Delhi | Updated: 07-08-2019 17:42 IST | Created: 07-08-2019 17:42 IST
As Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani charted BJP's path to power in the 90s, Sushma Swaraj emerged as one of its most popular leaders, with her oratory and common touch making her the party's leading campaigner and go-to person in places as afar as Delhi and Karnataka. A senior party recalled that in late 90s and 2000s she was the most in-demand campaigner, especially in Hindi-speaking states, after the party's top two leaders due to her eloquence, measured aggression and image of 'Bharatiya Nari'.
A protegee of Advani, she stood out due to her mass appeal, an ability most of the party's second generation leaders lacked, resulting in her being elected to the Lok Sabha four times. She was elected to the lower house from South Delhi twice. In 1996, when she was made the cabinet minister for information and broadcasting in the 13-day Vajpayee government, and again in 1998. But Swaraj's most famous electoral battle came in 1999 when she was the BJP's choice of candidate against Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Bellary.
For a few months in between, she had taken over as Delhi chief minister when the party turned to her to lead it back to power in the city amid popular anger against its government. However, her short tenure failed to do the magic. The 1999 Lok Sabha election had marked Gandhi's debut after she became the Congress president. The BJP pitched the contest between Swaraj and her as one between a 'Bharatiya Nari' and the 'Videshi Bahu', a reference to Gandhi's Italian origin.
The Congress president won as expected from the Karnataka seat, which her party had never lost, but Swaraj's remarkable campaign, as she learnt Kannada to address people and the relatively small margin of defeat, only boosted her image. She had bagged over 3.58 lakh votes against Gandhi's 4.14 lakh. Her graph in the BJP rose as the party came back to power.
After the BJP lost power and Vajpayee retired from the active politics, Swaraj was made its leader in the Lok Sabha in 2009 as the party looked to her to lead it out of political reverses. Liked by the RSS for her Hindutva credentials, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray named her as his choice for the prime minister's post if the BJP-led NDA came to power again.
The rise of the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, after he became the party's prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, raised questions about her future but she carved a niche for herself as the external affairs minister in his government. Her health forced her out of active politics but her oratorical and administrative skills ensured that she would remain one of the BJP's most recognised faces for a long time to come.