Published On : Tue, Jun 2nd, 2015

Stay away from media and do your work

That was Sushma Swaraj replying to the last question at her first press conference since taking over as External Affairs Minister in the Modi government. This was in reply to a question asking her what is the secret to her success as India’s Foreign Minister. Now, opinion on Sushma’s work is divided depending on who you speak to. If you speak to beat reporters, people who cover the MEA for a living, they say she’s the worst minister in a long time. But this is borne out of a very selfish reason. And that is, she never speaks to the media. In fact, this was the first and only press conference she addressed in the entire year that she has been minister. Compare that with Arun Jaitley her contemporary in the cabinet who gives us a soundbite a day. I can’t recall any other Cabinet minster being so sparse in his or her engagement with the media.

The reason reporters find this a problem is because they contrast Sushma’s latest role as EAM with her far more high profile previous role as Leader of the Opposition, when she was the media’s darling giving us juicy soundbites and great copy virtually every single day. That Sushma has been a forgotten entity in the last 365 days. She was asked about it in the press conference and her response was: yeh aap media ke log mere role ko purane LoP ke role ke saath compare karte hain. Main in dinon itni bolti nahin hoon kyunki jab videsh mantri bolti hain, toh yeh sirf party ki yah sarkar ki raai nahin hoti, yeh desh ka rai hota hain. Aur isme hame sathark hona chahiye.”

Now you couldn’t argue with that too much. For a long time now, the most important foreign policy decisions have been driven from the Prime Minister’s office. In fact for a long time the Prime Minister himself retained the foreign portfolio, whether it was Nehru or Indira to Rajiv and Narasimha Rao, among others. Along the way also came some very capable foreign ministers, but not one of them has tried to overshadow the PM. So whether it’s fronting the Non-aligned movement to siding with the Soviets during the cold war, to the Pokhran tests, to breaking ranks for the civil nuclear deal with the US, almost all path breaking foreign policy decisions of the country have had the firm stamp of the Prime Minister’s Office. From Sardar Swarn Singh to Salman Khursheed, Sushma is only doing what her predecessors have done, amplify Her Master’s Voice on the most important diplomatic decisions the country makes.

Where you need to appreciate the hunkering down of Sushma Swaraj is how she has re-defined the role of Foreign Minister to something she is comfortable doing without drawing the wrath of her boss, the Prime Minister. Sushma now has become a champion for individual Indians, resident and non-resident. There are umpteen tales of her helping ordinary citizens with passport and visa issues, people who have been stuck in dangerous places like Yemen and Iraq and going out of her way to present a more hospitable face of Indian diplomacy. This is low brow work. It doesn’t involve pontificating from inside seminar halls or air-conditioned meeting rooms but actually ensuring that diplomacy works for the aam aadmi. You speak to any non-resident Indian, almost all of them will complain about how un-cooperative the Indian mission in their respective country is. This is almost near universally true. Sushma has been fighting to change that. And if she is successful in changing that even by a small measure, her job as EAM would be well appreciated. Never mind what the media says.

By Zakka Jacob – as published on