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Name: Swaraj, Sushma
Current Position: Minister for External Affairs

Sushma Swaraj is the current Minister for External Affairs, only the second woman to hold this position. She was appointed in May 2014 as part of Narendra Modi’s cabinet. A lawyer by training, she served as the BJP’s (Bharatiya Janata Party) most recent Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, frequently taking on former PM Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition.

A senior BJP leader, Swaraj is considered one of the ‘next generation’ leaders who rose to further prominence following party trailblazer Pramod Mahajan’s death. Swaraj, along with party leader and senior statesman LK Advani, was part of an internal BJP group that opposed Modi’s rapid ascension and prime ministerial ambitions. Her appointment to the prestigious Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is seen as a reconciliation and unification attempt by both sides to avert a potential internal meltdown that could strengthen the opposition and distract from successful governance. Swaraj is considered to be an excellent orator with a penchant for dramatics. A formidable politician, her long career weaves through state, national, and party positions and includes various firsts.

Swaraj was born on February 14, 1952, in Ambala Cantonment, Haryana, to Hardev Sharma and Laxmi Devi. A middle class family man, Hardev Sharma was heavily involved with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Swaraj’s political philosophy comes from growing up in this environment. After receiving her B.A. in English at S.D. College in Haryana as a gold medalist, she pursued her law degree at Punjab University’s Law Department in Chandigarh.

She was the Best Cadet of the National Cadet Corps at S.D. College and received the Best Speaker award at law school. She received her L.L.B. and became a Supreme Court advocate.

Swaraj participated in student politics and was particularly involved with the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarti Parishad (ABVP), a BJP-affiliated national student organization and a close ally of the RSS. She then jointed the Janata Party, an entity created to oppose then PM Indira Gandhi’s declaration of Emergency. She led protests against the Gandhi regime but was one of the lucky ones not placed under arrest for the duration of Emergency rule.

In 1977, following the end of Emergency, Swaraj rode the wave of popular support for the Janata Party and was elected to the Haryana Legislative Assembly at the age of 25. She was confirmed as a cabinet minister for the Labor and Employment Department in the Devi Lal state administration, making her the youngest cabinet minister in Haryana. She remained here till 1982.

In 1980, Swaraj joined the newly established BJP and became its secretary, and later, the general secretary. She was re-elected to the Haryana Legislative Assembly in 1987 and headed the education, food, and civil supplies departments. In her three years here, she was recognized as the Assembly’s Best Speaker each year. Swaraj failed to convert her popularity into a Lok Sabha seat, losing elections in 1980, 1984, and 1989 to Congress’ Chiranji Lal Sharma.

In 1990, Swaraj made the switch to national politics. She was elected to the Rajya Sabha. From 1992 to 1994, she served as the chairperson of the Joint Committee on Catering and a member of the Committee on Government Assurances. From 1994 to 1996, she served as the chairperson of the Committee on Petitions.

Swaraj finally found herself in the Lok Sabha in 1996 as a representative of the South Delhi constituency. In her first term, she served as a member on the Committee on Defense and the Committee of Privileges as well as the chairperson of the Sub-Committee on Upgradation and Modernization of Naval Fleet. She was also appointed as the union minister for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting during the 13-day Vajpayee government. She was re-elected to the Lok Sabha in 1998 and was appointed as the Information and Broadcasting Minister with additional charge for the Telecommunications ministry during the second Vajpayee term.

Her second term in the Lok Sabha as well as the Vajpayee administration ended abruptly as she successfully contested the Delhi chief minister elections. On October 13, 1998 Swaraj became the first female chief minister of Delhi. While an incredible accomplishment, Swaraj was in power for less than two months. The BJP’s resounding defeat in the state elections pushed Swaraj back to the national stage.

In 1999 Swaraj decided to challenge Gandhi dynasty’s matriarch Sonia Gandhi, widow of former PM Rajiv Gandhi, in the Lok Sabha election for the Bellary constituency in Karnataka. Although she gained popularity by addressing crowds in Kannada, Karnataka’s native language, she lost the election. Bellary had voted for Congress since independence and Swaraj was expected to lose. What was surprising was the slim margin of 7 per cent (Gandhi secured 51.7% of the vote and Swaraj received 44.7%).

In 2000 Swaraj ran successfully for a Rajya Sabha seat from Uttarakhand. She was reinstated as Information and Broadcasting Minister and served till January 2003. After that she was tapped to head the ministries of Health and Family Welfare as well as Parliamentary Affairs, where she remained till 2004 when the BJP-led NDA lost the general election to the Congress-led UPA.

Swaraj’s actions following the UPA victory generated significant controversy. She claimed she could not accept the concept of a foreign-born PM, and threatened to shave her head, wear a white sari, and eat only groundnuts if Sonia Gandhi became the new PM. That situation never materialized because Gandhi selected Manmohan Singh to become PM. While it remains unclear if Swaraj’s threat had any influence on Gandhi’s decision to not seek the position, the episode cemented Swaraj’s nationalist credentials.

In 2006 she was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh. It was speculated that following LK Advani’s resignation as BJP president, Swaraj would assume the role. But Rajnath Singh was ultimately chosen for this position and Swaraj assumed the mantle of Deputy Leader of the Opposition. In her second and third Rajya Sabha terms, Swaraj served as the chairperson of the Committee on Home Affairs and a member of the Business Advisory, General Purposes, Rules, House, Ministry of Defense, and Ethics committees.

In 2009 Swaraj was re-elected to the Lok Sabha from Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh and in December of that year was appointed as the Leader of the Opposition. She remained in this position till May 2014.

Swaraj and Modi have a difficult history. A stalwart of the BJP, she and others found themselves sidelined as Modi rapidly climbed through the party ranks. Many assumed that Swaraj would be tapped as the BJP’s PM candidate, but after Rajnath Singh took over the BJP that quickly changed. In addition, the RSS threw its weight behind Modi.

It is noteworthy that in her 2014 Lok Sabha campaign in Madhya Pradesh, Swaraj did not once mention Modi by name. Swaraj also disagreed openly with Modi on a party decision to not let Jaswant Singh, a long-time BJP member and former finance minister, contest a Lok Sabha seat. Swaraj was also vocally critical of the Modi-led BJP’s decision to realign with B Sririmulu, a former BJP leader in the south, who resigned in 2011 following charges of illegal land acquisition.

In foreign policy, she is recognized as a supporter of Israel. From 2006-09, she served as the chairperson of the Indo-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group. In a trip to Israel in 2008, Swaraj lauded Israel as a “reliable partner” and thanked it for its support during the 1999 Kargil War. With Modi also considered pro-Israel and looking to strengthen Indo-Israeli diplomatic, business, and security ties, it can be assumed that Swaraj, in her role as foreign minister, will interact significantly with the Jewish state.

Swaraj is known to be a strong believer in astrology and gemology, and coordinates the colour of her diet and wardrobe based on the day of the week. Hindustan Times explains: “…every Monday she will wear white and eat white: usually safed channa and cauliflower if it is in season, The logic: Monday is governed by the Moon and the ruling gemstone is pearl. The auspicious colour for that day: White.  Hence there is little chance that Swaraj will wear anything but white.”

Swaraj is married to Kaushal Swaraj, a former Mizoram governor, with whom she has one daughter. The family maintains its permanent resident in Madhya Pradesh.

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