No holds barred

Topics Sushma Swaraj

She was indeed a powerful orator and a people’s leader but what added to Sushma Swaraj’s charm and set her apart from most other ministers — past and present — was her connect with the media despite frequent disagreements over policies. It is this connect that holds relevance in the current times when media believes its access to the government has been curtailed.

Some of her trendsetting media outreach was seen during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, when she held portfolios ranging from telecom to health and parliamentary affairs to information & broadcasting (I&B). As I&B minister from September 2000 to January 2003, she met the beat reporters every Friday in her office to discuss relevant issues. Quite often, hard core political correspondents also dropped in because Swaraj was an important leader with insights into developments in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as the highest circles in the government including the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

One recalls how the weekly meetings, which journalists used to jokingly call Sushma’s darbar, were far from one-way statements from the minister. Whoever had a question got the chance to ask. Unlike some current arrangements, nobody was required to send questions beforehand. Swaraj answered them all. Those were changing times for broadcasting, both in terms of technology and investments from big businesses within India and overseas, and Swaraj conveyed the government message through media quite effectively. 

Control and censorship across television and cinema often turned out to be among the contentious issues. But that did not result in a media ban or restricted access to officials. While the weekly darbar, always over dhokla, samosa, gulab jamun and tea, was meant for an overview of the ministry’s workings, reporters were free to meet officials for their exclusive stories. In fact, officers who Swaraj trusted had a free hand in giving out information to the media. On some occasions when she was busy and she realised that media needed her voice in their reports, Swaraj’s trusted aides were allowed to give quotes on behalf of the minister.

Swaraj also made it a point to return calls from journalists. So if you called her and didn’t get to speak, it was a good idea to sleep with a notebook and pen close by. She was sure to call back the following morning, mostly between 7 and 8 am. Not many other ministers did the same at that point, and certainly not many do it now. 

There was no social media in those days, but Swaraj bonded with the media, calling reporters by their names. It’s another matter that many years later, she took to social media as external affairs minister in the Narendra Modi government, using Twitter as a diplomacy tool.

Way back in 2003, she was among the key people to encourage Vajpayee to invite all women journalists to the PM’s residence on Women’s Day. 7, Race Course Road (now Lok Kalyan Marg) would come alive with hundreds of women journalists enjoying high tea and photo ops with the PM. That was Swaraj’s way of media diplomacy.

Tired of being chased everywhere by media, she once told this writer after a meeting at the Parliament Annexe, “you should leave me alone sometimes”. Even so, she rolled the car window down and stopped to speak. She didn’t forget to smile before leaving.

All those who tracked the media sector during Swaraj’s tenure as I&B minister would remember all the controversy as well. Conditional access system (CAS) was one such. While passing of the CAS Bill in 2002 was counted among her achievements, it boiled down to a mess because of poor preparation in switching to a “pay for what you watch” model. Pay TV was an alien concept for Indians and the PMO had to be ushered in subsequently to douse the CAS fire the I&B ministry had failed to control. Her showdown with international businesses like Fashion TV was another controversy then. She had summoned the chief of FTV from France as she thought the channel’s content was in conflict with Indian culture. 

Through all the policy ups and downs, Swaraj kept in touch with media in an endearingly informal way. She never felt the need to install coffee machines for media in any of the ministries she was in charge of. She preferred to call reporters in for a chat. Snacks and tea were sure to follow.

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