Great Going Sushmaji

India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj

Under Sushma Swaraj, Indians abroad have realised their lives aren’t cheap….writes Bikram Vohra

India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj
India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj

In 45 years of journalism, I have never wanted to call on any Foreign Office official and express praise or gratitude. Having run newspapers abroad for 30 years, the ongoing joke has always been that when it comes to India and Pakistan, both countries are ready to accept their own embassies and consulates are worse than the other’s. I have even heard heated arguments to that effect.

This disaffection is pretty dated, but the joke still manifests itself occasionally, and it is on this canvas that you got to give props to Sushma Swaraj. Here is a woman just recovering from the trauma of a kidney transplant and yet she has taken it upon herself to care.

It’s an embassy’s job to make Indians abroad feel their lives are not cheap. Far too often, people feel our missions are too busy partying and having a good time. But this is clearly no longer valid; there is a new value system in place.

Read this quote: “External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said the bodies of Abis Hasan Rizvi and Khushi Shah from Gujarat will be brought back by Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul on Tuesday night and will reach Mumbai on Wednesday morning.”

The two are victims of the Reina nightclub bombing in Istanbul. And this level of involvement by a foreign minister has never happened before. Never. It’s incredible that the External Affairs Ministry kept the country informed about two of its citizens dying, and shows that it matters enough to the government.

The two are martyrs of the war on terror, as much as any soldier on the border. We tend to forget or overlook the tragedies that can hit 30 million Indians living outside the country and another couple of million, who’re travelling at any given time.

But here is the foreign minister giving the nation updates on the deaths, senseless as they were. She even got visas for the families to reach Istanbul, and that, to my mind, is a warm beneficence on a cold moment of grief.

This is a new approach by India’s usually dreary and uninspiring diplomatic corps, and one that genuinely must be appreciated. Indians count. Our lives are not cheap. Not because the two victims were a fashion designer and a Bollywood producer, but because they were Indians and India cared.

We don’t normally have that confidence. Travelers, especially to the West, have often remarked acidly that if you are in trouble abroad go anywhere but not the Indian embassy, because they will not even talk to you properly. Things they are a changing.

When that flight lands in Mumbai on Wednesday morning, I think not just Mumbaikars but all of India will at least spiritually be at the airport to receive the two caskets.

This is a trend we saw a week ago when diplomatic moves succeeded, in a Christmas day release of 220 fishermen in Pakistani custody and they were home for the new year. That was no reciprocal, purely a unilateral step, and it had the Sushma Swaraj stamp on it.

Last week she helped a Canadian of Indian origin get a visa to Toronto for India where his mum had suffered a stroke. She did the same for an Indian man in Chicago with a US passport whose dad had died and he wasn’t able to get a visa to come home.

Great going.

But it does underscore one question. Why should she have to tweet the embassies…by now they should have got the message…you are there to help Indians…so just follow the example of your boss and do it.