Indo-Caribbeans and the veteran Indian politician Sushma Swaraj had a very warm relationship. Sushma passed away on the evening of August 6. She was a very graceful woman. There are several Indo-Caribbeans (in the diaspora and within the region) who would mourn the passing of Sushma-ji as she was popularly called.She took interest in Indo-Caribbean and girmitya culture. She was among a few Indian politicians who closely interacted with a few of us from the Caribbean since the 1990s, and she was a patron or sponsor of events (conferences including travel arrangements) pertaining to Indo-Caribbeans and the Indian diaspora. She was a supporter of Guyana and other poor countries for increased developmental assistance and for scholarships to the Indian diaspora including a sizeable increase to Guyanese nationals. In fact, the idea of a Senior Know India Program, that subsidizes travel to India, was an idea of myself and Ravi Dev when we interacted with her in August 2016. It was also through our requests to her and other Indian politicians that there has been an increase in scholarships for descendants of indentured laborers and Afro-Caribbeans to India.
I learn of the tragic news of Sushma’s demise on a flight to Guyana and my mind was instantly focused on interactions we had including one at her home in August 2014 shortly after her election in a one on one exchange of views on varied issues pertaining to Guyana and the Caribbean. We met again in February 2015 in Delhi and advised her of political development in Guyana and in Trinidad. She was eager to listen. Like several of us in the diaspora, Sushma was a nationalist . She was joy to converse with her. She was a deeply religious person who conducted daily puja. She also spent a lot of time with family sharing meals almost daily except when she was out of station.
Although Shrimati Sushma never visited Guyana, Guyanese and the people of the Caribbean region was close to her heart. She queried about Guyana and Caribbean. She was very sympathetic to and supportive of Guyanese causes and on the descendants of indentured laborers from India – seeking my views on increased connectivity and linkage with India. I requested and she supported an increase in financial assistance (and scholarships and the Know India Program) to Guyana and the greater Caribbean region.
I have very fond memories of my exchanges with the late foreign Minister. I don’t think Guyanese or any global politicians had the opportunity to have met her as many times as I did and to have as extensive exchanges on the Indian diaspora. I met her several times in India and in New York and New Jersey including at her residence shortly after she became Minister of External (Foreign) Affairs where we had extensive discussions on Guyana and the Caribbean region.
My first encounter with Sushma-ji was during her stint as Information Minister in the late 1990s under PM Vajpayee and Deputy PM Advani and again in New York when she inaugurated Asia TV station in Edison. They trusted her. A few prominent Guyanese, including the late Ramesh Kalicharran, were invited to that event that was graced by Members of Congress and the US Administration. (Many Indo-Caribbeans have subscribed to TV Asia that is broadcast internationally on cable, and it initially featured Guyanese programs). Sushma was warm, friendly, down to earth, and she exuded confidence in her speech. She cut the ribbon to the launching of the station along with Senator Larry Pressler and his wife. Sushma drank tea from a saucer as is a norm in India.
I also interacted with her at several diaspora gatherings (PBDs) in India that began in 2003. The concept of a global Indian diaspora conference that came to be known as PBD was proposed by Guyanese Dharamdatt Sukhai Durjan, Ramesh Kalicharran and myself in a meeting with then BJP leader Atal Beharri Vajpayee in Manhattan in mid 1990s; Sushma was a confidante and favorite of Vajpayee. Besides those encounters, I had lengthy conversations with Sushma on the Caribbean region and the diaspora in North America where she visited regularly.
Sushma was a patron and financial supporter on conferences relating to Guyana and the greater Caribbean in India and the Caribbean. I helped to plan and organize several of these conferences including the last one held at Benaras Hindu University in January of this year. And she supported requests for increased financial aid to Guyana and the region going back to the late 1990s when she was a Minister of government serving in varied capacities.
Sushma-ji, as she was fondly called, was very knowledgeable of World Affairs having served as Foreign Minister for five years. Aside from the late PM Atal Beharri Vajpayee and Deputy PM Lal Kishan Advani, she showed the greatest interest among Indian politicians on Indians in the diaspora. She was very close to the aging Advani (approaching 90) on diaspora and other affairs and would interact with Indo-Caribbeans in New York and at PBDs in Delhi. She often solicited ideas on the diaspora and issued messages related to their events.
Sushma was among the nominees for PM position of the BJP in 2014, but she stood down making way for Shri Narendra Modi who led the party to victory and becoming External Affairs Minister. Modi-ji tweeted several laudatory remarks on Sushma-ji as a public servant and politician.
Sushma was very popular and won all of her contests to parliament except once when she lost to Sonia Gandhi in 2004 from the Bellary constituency in Karnataka. She gave Sonia-ji a run for her money; journalists never forget that contest forcing Sonia to spend a lot of time campaigning in the seat rather than nationally as Opposition Leader and candidate for PM. She lost the fight but consolidated her image of being a powerful, respected and likeable orator.
The two became friends afterwards although from different parties. She was also close with Sheila Dixit, the Congress Chief Minister of Delhi state. Sushma served as a cabinet member in state government of Haryana. She was an efficient minister and someone who would do things to ensure success.
In December 2014, she was the keynote speaker on a conference on Indian culture in the diaspora praising overseas Indians for their cultural retention and for promoting India’s soft power. The forum provided an opportunity for those of us of Guyanese descent to have an exchange with the respected Minister. In August 2016, she invited the esteemed Ravi Dev and I for an all expense paid special summit in Delhi on a conference on preservation of documents pertaining to Indian indentureship. The Indian government was committed to digitizing historical documents in Guyana so that diaspora countries would be on the same wavelength to facilitate research. But regrettably, support from the Guyana government (going back several years) was not forthcoming and the idea was shelved. Documents pertaining to Indians are in terrible shape; the government that Indians supported showed no interest in preserving documents on Indian history.
Guyanese politicians would have met Sushma in 2018 in Delhi at the parley for MPs of Indian descent. She also interacted with former President Donald Ramotar in January 2015 in Delhi and in Gandhinagar, and she had many exchanges with Foreign Minister Carl Greendige and our political leadership on international issues and on foreign aid for Guyana. She also hosted Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo. They would attest to her friendliness and intelligence and warmth hospitality. Sushma interacted with Guyanese, Trinis and Caribbean people at the first International Yoga summit in New York at the UN in 2010. Because of health reason, Sushma withdrew from being a candidate in the elections in April and stood down as a Minister of government after the BJP won re-election last May. Unlike other politicians, including several here in Guyana, she retired with grace and honor. She was being rumoured to serve as Governor of a State although she had shown little interest in a position. She had a very good innings although she has dismissed at 67. She served with honor and integrity; there was never any allegation of impropriety against her. Guyanese and other politicians should take a page from the book of Sushma. Indo-Caribbeans will miss a champion of her development and financial assistance and a firebrand leader of the ruling BJP. Those of us who knew her up front will not forget her.