January 26, 2020
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Sushma Swaraj, 62

External affairs minister 4.5/10

Sushma Swaraj, 62

The irony is apparent: in his first 200 days, Modi has gone to Brazil, Japan, USA, Australia, Nepal. In contrast, his external affairs minister has made more news for wanting to turn the Bhagawad Gita into the national scripture. In recent years, India’s foreign ministers have enjoyed a high profile and high visibility. But Sushma Swaraj, though one of the senior-most leaders in the government, has acted more like a face-less junior minister, allowing much of the policies to be formulated and articulated by the PMO.

Actually, the MEA is key to the Modi government’s development plank and promise to revive the economy since much of that can only happen once investment from outside starts coming in. And in this, the perception of India as an attractive investment destination and business-friendly market depends much on how the leadership manages to sell that image to the outside world. Modi has been extremely active on this score (engaging with India’s immediate neighbours in South Asia to dining with the world biggies at the high-table of international diplomacy) and Swaraj has willingly played second-fiddle in the efforts.

Officials in the MEA who work closely with Sushma say she is intelligent, smart and quick to grasp an issue, regardless of its complexity. She also ensures that much of what is being promised or announced—as happened on the Indian nurses case in Iraq or the Indian fishermen facing a death sentence in Sri Lanka or sorting out the latest water crisis in Maldives—are done promptly. Yet, she does not lead from the front and has deliberately left that role for the PM.

To be fair, Sushma’s problem stems from the wrong judgement calls on Modi during the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. Having backed the wrong horse for the PM’s post, she only got included in the cabinet as external affairs minister—which also makes her a member of the elite Cabinet Committee on Security—as she had the RSS’s support and bec­­a­use Modi’s bench lacked experienced hands. No wonder that given her new equation with the PM, Sushma is extremely careful about not opening a new front with Modi. Which is why she has willingly accepted the “role of a junior minister”, allowing Modi to walk away with the credit and also, perhaps, with the running of her own ministry.

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