Just as the nation was gearing up to celebrate the historic doing away of Article 370, a cloud of gloom has cast its shadow with the passing away of one of the ‘tallest’ standing leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Sushma Swaraj.
Former and most fondly remembered external affairs minister Swaraj died last night (6 August) in New Delhi following a cardiac arrest.
Even as leaders across party lines head to Delhi to pay their last respects to ‘Didi’ Swaraj, the district of Bellary in Karnataka mourns in silence for it has lost its ‘mane magalu’ (daughter).
That is how she came to be known in the town of Bellary after she fought against Sonia Gandhi in 1999. And despite her defeat, she promised to visit Bellary every year. She kept her promise and visited Bellary every year until the Reddy brother’s scam surfaced.
She would attend the Varmahalakshmi pooja that was held in the house of Dr Srinivasa Murthy and then head to the mass marriage ceremony that was conducted by her ‘foster son’ B Sriramulu, which she presided over.
But this year the Murthy household and Bellary will miss this ‘daughter’ as it conducts the pooja this Friday (9 August).
Soon after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government fell, Sonia Gandhi staked claim to form a coalition government. Despite telling the then president K R Narayanan that she had enough numbers to cobble a coalition, she failed to muster the required numbers.
Going into the electoral battle, Sonia Gandhi was seen as a prime ministerial candidate challenging Vajpayee’s leadership. Congress decided to field its leader from two constituencies.
One was from its traditional stronghold of Amethi and the other was from Bellary (now Ballari) where Congress had never lost a Parliament election.
In Amethi, the BJP put up Dr Sanjay Singh who was expected to make things tough for Sonia Gandhi. It didn’t happen. But what happened in Bellary was far more interesting as it witnessed an intense battle with the entire Congress leadership having to sweat it out. It was to lay the roadmap for the BJP’s domination in the 2000s.
For Bellary, the BJP handpicked Sushma Swaraj to take on Sonia Gandhi. At the start, every one thought it would be a cakewalk for the Congress president but Sushma Swaraj turned around things to make it tough for Sonia Gandhi. It turned out to be a ‘Big battle of Bellary’.
Congress strategy in Bellary was simple. It started to campaign that the people there were getting an opportunity to elect Indira Gandhi’s bahu (daughter-in-law). At every meeting, Congress leaders would first invoke the name of Indira Gandhi and then urged the people to vote for her daughter-in-law, Sonia. Congress lined up its star speakers and strategists to take care of the party’s fortunes in Bellary.
At that time, elections to Karnataka assembly were held simultaneously and the BJP roped in Janata Dal (United) led by former state chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde as its alliance partner.
It was to prove a classic mistake as the BJP got hammered by the anti-incumbency factor against Janata Dal (United) as Congress won the assembly elections quite comfortably.
Bellary is a huge constituency and Sushma Swaraj faced a tough battle as the Congress had a head start, particularly depicting Sonia Gandhi as the people’s bahu.
The first thing that Sushma Swaraj did on being nominated to take on her rival from Bellary was to learn Kannada, at least the part of the speech she was to make to the people in the constituency.
In a week’s time, she began to speak in fluent Kannada that left the people impressed and began swinging support to her side.
The next smart thing she and the BJP did was to call herself as the beti or daughter of Bellary. “I am your beti. I have come to seek your blessings and your vote,” she would thunder in Kannada as the people applauded her fluency in their language.
She travelled widely and to remote corners of the constituency, introducing herself as the daughter of the people. Thus, the ‘Big battle of Bellary” became a classic ‘daughter vs daughter-in-law’ contest.
Sushma Swaraj had a dedicated team of workers to help her in her Bellary campaign. Among them was her driver, who played a valuable role in helping polish her Kannada. She made a fine gesture to thank the driver on the polling day.
That day, she first asked him to drive her to his polling booth. On arriving there, she asked him to cast his vote and said they could then go to other parts of the constituency. It was something that attracted nation-wide attention, a contestant ensuring that her team voted without fail and any problem despite their busy schedule.
Despite putting in her best efforts, she couldn’t get past the post in Bellary, losing by just 58,000 votes. What went against her was the then 90,000 strong Muslim voters in Bellary town who voted en masse for the Congress. But she ensured one thing — Bellary would never be a safe bet for the Congress again.
Though Congress won the by-elections after Sonia Gandhi vacated the constituency in favour of Amethi in 2000, the party has lost all subsequent elections.
Defeat didn’t define ‘Didi’
Another major incident which proves that Swaraj took on tough tasks was when she quit as union minister in 1998 to become Delhi chief minister. It was a battle against the odds for her, sworn in 40 days before the assembly elections, as BJP faced backlash from the voters over spiraling onion prices in 1998. (It lost the elections in Rajasthan too due to high onion prices.)
To her credit, she tried her best setting up fair price shops but the record prices of Rs 40-50 for a kg of onion proved insurmountable. (Later, it was found that a cartel operated just to ensure onion prices remained high and BJP paid the price for it.)
For the BJP and its millions of cadres, Sushma Swaraj was one who was never afraid of taking up a battle in which the odds were against her.
In fact, she always believed in taking the fight to the rival’s camp. That way, Sushma Swaraj would be remembered as a valiant fighter and a committed footsoldier of the BJP.