As a correspondent covering both the I&B and Health Ministry, I had the good fortune of meeting Sushma Swaraj, who was the I&B and Health minister in the Vajpayee-led BJP government (1998-2004), several times. I found her to be a well-informed, accessible and an affable minister. She answered questions with elan and deftness.
In her now much-celebrated style of touching the hearts of thousands of Indians across the globe as the former External Affairs minister, then too, she reached out to us correspondents personally. I remember fondly how, after a press conference, over a cup of tea, she smilingly asked me, “Manisha, aaj tumne zyada sawal nahin poochhe” (You didn’t ask too many questions today).
Sushmaji was perhaps, the only I&B Minister who held a weekly meeting every Friday with beat correspondents in her chamber. Then one got a chance to ask informal questions and understand more about the nuances of the ministry’s functioning. She, as always, was warm and welcoming.
She was never at a loss for words and possessed a great sense of humour. Being media-savvy, she dealt with both the English and Hindi press efficiently. At her press conferences, she answered questions in Hindi and English with equal ease. Once, she used the Hindi word “matt”. An English journalist asked her: “What is “matt”? She answered: “Opinion”, quickly adding, not to interpret it in a negative way, punning on the word ‘matt’, meaning ‘don’t’. Everyone in the conference hall roared with laughter.
She was always very well-turned out, in crisp cotton sarees or flowing silks and of course, her trademark jacket. In Parliament, she was in turn fiery, aggressive and conciliating. She left her mark on many a controversial debate in parliament.
The fact that her popularity cut across party lines is evident from the glowing tributes that opposition leaders paid her. As External Affairs Minister, she reached out to many an Indian, stranded in foreign lands, helped return safely to India.
In 2001, when she was I&B Minister, the Indo-Pak summit took place in Agra. The talks had failed. A social scientists’ seminar was held coinciding with the talks, in which several delegates from Pakistan participated. Following that, there was an official dinner for both Indian and Pak delegates and journalists. That evening is etched clearly in my memory. Pak delegates could be heard reciting Urdu couplets and the atmosphere became rather poetic. Sushmaji, soon broke into chaste Urdu and charmed everybody with her shayari. You could see the Pak guests visibly impressed. When I asked her a question, she affectionately held my hand, moved towards my side and said, “Manisha, let the beat be, for today.”
This is the way I will remember this endearing personality: affectionate, vivacious and charming.