By Sushil Kutty
Outgoing External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj spoke last on the Balakot air-strikes when going by protocol she should have been the first. February 26, the wee hours at which the Mirage 2000 strikes took place, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale got the right to announce the IAF accomplishment. No politician foreign minister of any country would have let go an opportunity such as this, but knowing how Prime Minister Narendra Modi functions, especially in his role of ‘Super External Affairs Minister’ of India, which took him to more countries than any other Prime Minister in the history of independent India, it was no surprise Gokhale got to speak over Sushma.
Swaraj, it must be noted, bucked the “buck stops here” only now, when the Modi Government is on its way out and the ongoing general elections will decide if he continues or is cast out in political wilderness with no right to rule. May 23, 2019 could be the cul de sac Modi will be boxed in if the electoral tide drowns him and the BJP and by that token the NDA. It is in such uncertain times, Swaraj’s voice broke through and asserted her top position in the foreign ministry. For the most part, Swaraj was kept sidelined with hardly a substantial role to play. At least that was impression gained by Indians at large.
Swaraj has now gone and cleared the air on the Balakot air-strikes, essentially saying that the IAF struck deep in Pakistan and found its target, the hilltop JeM terror camp, Spice-bombed it to Kingdom Come. Whether it was a rat-infested abandoned terror-training camp, left to spiders to weave webs in, or humming in terror-talk continues to be a contentious debate. Swaraj’s clarification that “no Pakistani civilian or Pak Army soldier” was killed and that it was an attack on a JeM terror-training camp and JeM terrorists were the targets has only added to the song and dance.
Swaraj took a risk but then she might have calculated that factor when she spoke. Pakistan has latched on to “Sushma’s clarification” and given it a spin. Pak Army DGISPR Gen. Ghafoor got another opportunity to look smug, express Jabba-high self-righteousness and satisfaction that India has finally got the message that “lying”, too, has its peak and cannot be taken to an Everest high. It’s another matter that Gen. Ghafoor should know that when he explains in Urdu, journalists doing the reporting miss the woods for the tree and get lost in the translation.
The domestic-Indian media, national and regional, however, should draw meaning from the timing of the ‘Swaraj Declaration’ – right in the midst of general elections! Does it help the BJP and Narendra Modi? Swaraj made the correct noises, praising Narendra Modi’s exceptional leadership qualities and his bright chances to return to power May 23, but her declaration is also a declaration of breaking free from an obvious constraint placed on the External Affairs Minister for five years, from playing her role to the fullest. Modi’s grip on the external affairs of India was so full and total these last five years that to many in the realm, Swaraj was more an issuer of visas than EAM. To Pakistanis she made possible Indian heart transplants and they should be grateful for that.
So, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent a wallop on world travel, holding the diaspora in thrall, from Madison Square Gardens to choked halls in Dubai and London, poor Sushma Swaraj kept to the mundane and the minor ministerial, mostly. Even her two Ministers of State for External Affairs, Gen. VK Singh and MJ Akbar, were given more substantial assignments around the world, when EAM Sushma Swaraj hardly got to go around to make her presence felt at momentous global events graced by foreign ministers of the world powers. At the end of her tenure, she did get one such opportunity, at the OIC Summit in Abu Dhabi.
A word of caution, though. Maybe, for all that’s being conveyed in this column, Swaraj could not be harbouring any ill-will for being sidelined. Her health also had a bearing on her job and she was for a while out of action. But, whether she says it or not, agrees or not. India has never in 70 years had an External Affairs Minister more left out and sidelined than Sushma Swaraj. Modi not only hogged her role but also went places with it. And, today, if she has spoken, it has only underlined this fact. Swaraj is not contesting these elections, but that doesn’t rule further roles for her. As far as who got killed in Balakot and how many, there is not much in Swaraj’s comments to take to Jabbatop! (IPA Service)