No PMO's Parrot, Swaraj Stands Tall with 'Maximum Outcome, Minimum Visibility'
Diminutive she may be, but indomitable she certainly is. External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, perhaps the shortest in terms of height in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet, has been setting an example for the rest to look up to, as she charms the world with her tireless but discreet diplomatic missions to various international capitals. While Modi has positioned himself as India’s most effective leader, Swaraj seems to have adopted the principle of maximum outcome with minimum visibility. In advance of Modi’s Madison Avenue address, the Big Apple had acquired saffron hues; Modi’s cut-outs were giving the skyscrapers competition and banners adorned with his smiling visage became the leitmotif of what promised to be a historic visit by a leader, once demonised by the same hosts who are hero-worshiping him now. But it is Swaraj’s persuasive iron hand in the velvet glove diplomacy—she chastised Pakistan for spoiling the talks by meeting with separatists—which reveals her training as a lawyer and educationist with the motto that the more you speak, the more attention you get. In Manhattan, Swaraj graciously allowed TV channels and photographers to capture her on camera with foreign guests, but refused to deliver one-liners to reporters hungry for sugary or bitter bytes. She is one of the five women ministers in Modi’s Cabinet. Yet Swaraj is following the leader in creating records.
She is India’s first female foreign minister since Independence, with the exception of Indira Gandhi, who for a brief period held the portfolio when she was the Prime Minister. Swaraj is also the first Indian woman foreign minister to lead her country’s delegation to the United Nation General Assembly, as well as being part of the Prime Minister’s team during his entire stay in the US.
In fact, for the first time, two women, Swaraj and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, who appear to be made for each other, lead the Ministry of External Affairs. They also seem to be perfect partners in delivering perfect diplomacy. Most of the time, they have been travelling together, strategising against India’s foes and partnering to project Modi as a global leader with a ‘vision and mission’, causing much dismay to those South Block mandarins who pose as walking encyclopedias of global statecraft.
Modi landed in New York with a purposeful agenda and a list of targets to achieve, while Swaraj had a clearly defined assignment. Unlike the previous foreign ministers, who were cocktail party captives of pin-striped diplomats, spending more time sightseeing and raising toasts with the high and mighty in global financial capitals, Swaraj’s meetings were restricted to those who matter and can contribute in helping her restore India’s stature in international politics and the global economy. Modi’s unspoken objective is to acquire the global status, which India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru enjoyed. Nehru, along with Marshal Tito of undivided Yugoslavia, forged an alliance of non-aligned nations to engage the contradictions of a bipolar world divided between the US and USSR. But now the world is divided by money and not ideology. Since India is where the fast buck starts, Modi is leveraging his economic ecology to place it in a better position to dictate international economic and strategic narratives. He has wisely chosen his political colleagues to aid him in this, instead of superannuated and supine babus or inane intellectuals sponsored by dubiously funded think tanks. Swaraj’s mandate is to network with both powerful and not-so-powerful nations. During her 10 days in the US—the longest ever visit by any foreign minister in recent times—she was expected to meet over 100 ministers from over 40 countries. While Modi spent his time impressing his fans and half-a-dozen heads of states, Swaraj was sorting out thorny issues with smaller but politically significant countries. For Modi, it was a visit to establish his superiority and triumph over a country that had treated him as a pariah. Hence, both leader and follower had defined their itinerary and objectives to achieve the maximum impact with minimum labour.
Swaraj was spending almost 10-12 hours every day to meet her official commitments. It was not a coincidence that she met foreign ministers from other nations, who could help further India’s current and future interests. Within a few hours of her arrival in New York, she met with seven of them. She had longish parlays with Philip Hammond, Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Norwegian foreign minister Borge Brende, and Greek deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos among others. She didn’t leave out India’s neighbours and African leaders either. She met her counterparts from Sudan and Maldives. Her idea was to cover all continents and regional economic groups like BRICS, G4, IBSA, the Commonwealth and SAARC. She met ministers from West Asia to understand the contours of the ongoing conflict in the region. Her confabulations with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the UN headquarters ended the military stand-off on the Indo-China border following intrusions by PLA soldiers. During all her meetings, she chose to speak extempore except on occasions when formal introductory speeches were required. Those who attended her events confided that they were yet to come across another person who could pick up the subtle nuances of complex diplomacy in such a short time. Since the Prime Minister always sets the tone and tenor of diplomacy, it was left to Swaraj to articulate Modiplomacy, at the same time without sounding like the PMO’s parrot.
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