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Reuters/Larry Downing
Swaraj in Washington.

Why foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has clocked fewer flyer miles than Modi

By Anita Katyal

When the United Progressive Alliance government was in power, Sushma Swaraj was the most recognised and visible face of the Bharatiya Janata Party in parliament. As the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, the fiery Swaraj led the attack against the ruling alliance. She successfully cornered the UPA government on several occasions with her powerful oratory and uncompromising stand. Given her high profile and seniority in the BJP, she was also mentioned as a potential prime ministerial candidate.

But there has been a sea change since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government came to power seven months ago.

Swaraj, now the external affairs minister, is virtually invisible and is neither seen nor heard. Except for a few sound bytes, she has not interacted with the media at great length or given any interviews. She is also not tweeting as frequently as she did earlier. And her appearance in parliament has so far been limited to reading out statements on prime minister Narendra Modi’s successful visits abroad.

Running the show

Swaraj may be the external affairs minister but it is quite evident that Modi is running the show as far as foreign policy is concerned. He is assisted in this task by national security advisor Ajit Doval. For instance, the news about US president Barack Obama being invited as the chief guest at next year’s Republic Day parade was given out first by Modi who tweeted about it.

The prime minister’s whirlwind trips to various countries and the series of meetings he has held with numerous world leaders since he assumed office in May has sent out a firm message that he is the face of Indian diplomacy.

Swaraj’s position in this dispensation was best summed up by a recent photograph which showed her greeting Modi on his return from a foreign trip with a bouquet of flowers while the caption said, “I am your external affairs minister.” The photograph has emerged as a talking point in the BJP with Swaraj’s detractors commenting derisively on it in private conversations.

Not in the loop

Speculation about Swaraj’s marginalisation has been rife ever since she took over the external affairs ministry. She did not accompany Modi when he visited Brazil and Japan and she was again missing on his trips to Australia, Fiji and Myanmar, though she did make it to the United States and Nepal.

There is growing talk in government circles that Swaraj has a peripheral role in key foreign policy issues, which are being handled by the prime minister’s office. In fact, this message has even travelled to foreign shores. A former diplomat of a neighbouring country, who is active on the Track Two front, commented that there were high hopes from Swaraj but they soon realised that “she is not in the loop” in her own government.

Modi camp followers cite the examples of his predecessors like Manmohan Singh and even Rajiv Gandhi to argue that foreign policy has always been handled by the prime minister’s office and that an external affairs minister is not always expected to travel with the prime minister on his foreign trips. Moreover, they point out that Swaraj has visited several countries like Singapore, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Nepal on her own and her discussion with leaders here have been highly successful.

Bitter opponent

At the same time, BJP insiders admit that Swaraj was lucky to have got a portfolio of her choice even though she has always had an uneasy relationship with Modi. Known for her proximity to veteran BJP leader LK Advani, Swaraj had opposed Modi’s candidature as prime minister till the bitter end. “Yet she was given one of the four top portfolios, which also makes her a member of the key cabinet committee on security,” said a BJP leader.

But not many are convinced with this argument. “The fact is that she is paying the price for opposing Modi,” remarked a long-time BJP watcher. “She certainly does not have the same space in this government as Arun Jaitley, or as Jaswant Singh had in the Vajpayee government.”

This post first appeared on Scroll.in.