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The journalist who spoke last to Sushma Swaraj

Last updated on: August 07, 2019 18:33 IST
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Journalist Anita Saluja was one of the last persons to meet Sushma Swaraj on August 6.

She spent nearly an hour chatting with the late leader, which is why her sudden death later in the evening came as an unexpected shock for her.

She talks to Savera R Someshwar/ about her association with Sushma Swaraj over the last few decades.

Photograph: PTI Photo

At 10.49 pm, when Delhi-based senior political journalist Anita Saluja was going through her WhatsApp messages, she saw a shocking post.

'Sushma Swaraj taken to AIIMS (the All India Institute Of Medical Sciences, New Delhi). She has expired.'

Saluja's fingers flew over her phone’s keypad. ‘It's all lies. I met her today. She's perfect.’

But India's former Union minister of external affairs had been taken to AIIMS at around 9.30 pm on August 6 and had passed away after a massive cardiac arrest.

Saluja could not believe the news.

She had just met Swaraj earlier in the day, at noon.

"She looked so healthy. She was so cheerful," says a shocked Saluja.

The journalist and the politician, who spoke to each other regularly, had not been in touch since the general election in May 2019.

Swaraj, who did not contest the election and had not been named in the Modi 2.0 Cabinet or been given a role in the party, was moving house -- and probably wrapping her mind around the fact the party had effectively ended her political career. Saluja was in Hyderabad "on work".

"I messaged her as soon as I returned and she gave me an appointment after a week," she says.

"She used to follow this dress colour code... Mondays, it was white... Tuesdays, it was pink... today also she was wearing pink. Achchi tarah se sari pehenke khoobsoorat lag rahi thi (she had draped her sari well and was looking pretty)."

Swaraj had a strict colour code for every day of the week (green on Wednesdays, yellow on Thursdays, cream on Fridays and black on Saturdays).

"When we asked her about it, she said it make things easier. She didn't have to spend too much time thinking about what to wear."

At their meeting -- which lasted nearly an hour -- they caught up with the Delhi political gossip.

"She was happy about Article 370. 'Achcha hai, woh toh hona hi tha, (It’s good. It was bound to happen),' she said," Saluja recalls.

In fact, the 67-year-old political leader’s last tweet, at 7.23 pm on August 6, was, ‘@narendramodi  ji - Thank you Prime Minister. Thank you very much. I was waiting to see this day in my lifetime.’

Rumours had been swirling within the Delhi political circles that Swaraj would be made governor.

"I asked her about it," says Saluja.

Swaraj told her she wasn't keen on moving out of Delhi; she didn't want to be away from her family. The former minister, says Saluja, was "very attached to her daughter".

And Bansuri Swaraj, a lawyer like her father, worked in Delhi.

"My daughter is here. We have dinner together and talk about our day. If we don't do that, we can't sleep. Mujhe chain nahi hai jab tak main apni beti se baat nahi kar leti (I am not at peace until I talk to my daughter)," Swaraj told Saluja.

She added, says Saluja, "If I left Delhi, my husband (Swaraj Kaushal, criminal lawyer) would have to shuttle between my daughter and me.”

In some ways, Swaraj was traditional. “As a wife, she would wear a bada sa sindhoor all the time.

“She would celebrate Teej and Karwa Chauth. She was very fond of festivals. During Teej she would invite her friends and sit on the swing.

“She was very fond of dressing up…. good clothes, good saris and now the jacket also. She was careful about her appearance. She would dye her hair.”

Swaraj was “glowing” when they met on August 6, says Saluja.

The late minister talked about her colleagues. "We talked about other leaders and their health, about leaders who had passed on. She talked about Ananth Kumar and his cancer… with no idea that, by the end of the day, she would be no more.

"I asked her how she was. She said she was fine. She looked healthy. Aaj (this interview was conducted late at night on August 6) toh laga bhi nahi (It didn’t seem) that she was weak."

Swaraj, says Saluja, met at least 9-10 people on August 6.

"She said, I tell everyone, especially the younger ones, that ups and downs are part and parcel of politics. Be prepared for it.

“She may have been unhappy inside (at being ignored by her party after a stellar performance as the minister for external affairs) but she told me that she was okay; she was happy because she has seen everything in her life.

"She was laughing. She said, ‘Yeh sab chalta hai, yeh sab hota hai. Main bolti hoon sabhi ko ke ups and downs hote hain (These kind of things happen. I tell everyone to be prepared for the ups and the downs).’"

Swaraj was getting ready to meet people again, to figure out a role for herself. “You have such a fan following, you should be active.”

Saluja adds, explaining the familiarity, “She liked me. I liked her. She was very forthright. She was not a hypocrite. She didn't hide anything.

“When she was the leader of the Opposition (in the 15th Lok Sabha), we all (journalists) would meet her for off-the-record briefings. She would talk to us on the assurance that we would not quote her.

“She would tell us what happened in Parliament. She would explain the nitty-gritties. It became easy for us to report on the thinking of the BJP. With the media, she was very, very friendly.”

There was one time though, recalls Saluja, though she won’t name any names, when Swaraj got “really annoyed with a senior journalist who quoted her from an off-the-record conversation. ‘I’m there to help you,’ she said angrily, ‘and you’re putting my name.’ And she stopped meeting journalists for a month or two.”

For a second, Saluja loses her composure. “Oh God, I can't believe... I can't believe... I can't believe... It's a shock for me.’

Saluja gathers herself and continues, “No one was as cooperative as she was.

“We never used to feel that she was a politician and we were journalists. She would joke with us. She’d talk about her colleagues and how fond they were of eating.

“‘Meeting mein hota hain toh kaun kitna jaldi khata hai (who was interested in food during meetings). Koi laddoo khata hai (who would eat sweets). They don't care about their health. They are diabetic but still they eat without thinking it will harm their health,’ she would tell us.”

Swaraj herself was “very cautious” about her health, says Saluja. “She did not eat sweets because she was diabetic.

“But she liked sweets so she would have gur (jaggery) after a simple meal. She would also tell us to have it because it is good for digestion.”

On her birthday, February 14, “Valentine's Day, we would go and celebrate with her. She was a good hostess.”

Her staff was very attached to her, says Saluja. Spotting one of them at her meeting with Swaraj, Saluja asked, “Arre, you are still here?”

The staff member, says Saluja, replied, “Naturally. We are there... as long as she is there, we are there.”

Swaraj “had a good rapport with everyone,” says Saluja.

The 30-year veteran journalist says, “If I had not met her today, I would have never forgiven myself. I would have always regretted that I didn’t insist on an earlier appointment.”

She recalls how active Swaraj was on the campaign trail.

“I was there in Bellary (in Karnataka, September 1999, when Sushma Swaraj took on Sonia Gandhi). She was very good at picking up languages and would address meetings in Kannada.

“In fact, wherever she went, she would speak the local language.

“She would prepare her points in the aircraft itself. She was totally bindaas and very, very active. She was a good orator.”

Saluja recalls how, even as the BJP spokesperson, she would remember every journalist's name. And how, as external affairs minister, “she was very quick in remembering the names of diplomats and secretaries. Any ministry would have suited her because she was a quick learner.”

Swaraj proved that by quickly getting familiar with social media. She was accessible on Twitter and had quick solutions to problems. “She was the first to take to Twitter and became very popular. Her colleagues, the senior ones, at the time were critical. Later, seeing her fan following, they too took to Twitter.’

Saluja believes Swaraj was hurt at not being part of Modi 2.0. At the same time, she was astute.

“She told me,” says Saluja, “‘I knew that if I was not there, (former foreign secretary Subrahmanyam) Jaishankar (who served in her ministry) would be the external affairs minister. There is no one in the Cabinet or in the party who can handle the MEA. That is why Jaishankar was obvious choice.”

In Bansuri Swaraj’s office, where the Sushma Swaraj and Anita Saluja met for the last time, there is a beautiful idol of Lord Krishna.

“She was a great believer in Krishna. She told me, ‘Bhagwan ne mere liye kuch achcha socha hi hoga. Wohi hoga'."

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