The timing of Sushma Swaraj’s announcement to quit electoral politics has raised more questions than provided answers to the basic question: what is she about?

Any politician can choose when to hang up her boots, especially if she has had health problems. In many democracies around the world, this would be accepted without eyebrows being raised. In India, we tend to be more sceptical, for politicians here do not call it quits so easily. And Swaraj is only 66, nine years from Narendra Modi’s unstated retirement age of 75 for Bharatiya Janata Party’s ministers. It is not as if she is unable to function. Only that, as she says, she has developed an allergy to dust since her kidney transplant in December 2016. After all, she has been travelling the world as the foreign minister.

Swaraj has made it clear that she is not quitting politics. It’s just that she won’t contest the 2019 election – unless the party decides otherwise. In other words, if the BJP asks her to contest, she will, for it is the party’s word that’s final. Alternatively, the party could always give her a Rajya Sabha seat.

But why did Swaraj choose to make her announcement in the midst of the campaign for the Madhya Pradesh election, which is being billed as “kaante ki takkar” – a close fight – between Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan of the BJP and an ascendant Congress party? Swaraj could have waited until December 11, when the result is set to be declared.

Further, she made the announcement in Madhya Pradesh, and not in Delhi, even though she had not been campaigning in the state. In fact, her absence – until she went to Indore on November 20 – was noted, considering she is a “tall leader” and the stakes are high for the BJP. If the party loses, there will be a demand for the minister to campaign in Madhya Pradesh for the general election.

Swaraj’s surprise announcement cannot be to explain away her sustained absence from her constituency – Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh – which some months ago led to posters going up there about the “Missing MP”. Indeed, her husband Swaraj Kaushal’s reaction on Twitter indicates the decision and its timing were carefully planned.

For one, it reinforces her image of a family woman which she has long nurtured – reaching the bus stand by 4 pm to collect her daughter after school, caring for her mother-in-law in hospital when Swaraj Kaushal was posted out of Delhi, observing Karva Chauth year after year, with the media covering it.

Swaraj’s announcement is also expected to bring her sympathy and draw attention to the years of work she has put into the BJP. Yet, it is hardly a secret that Modi and Amit Shah will try to put in place their own team if they return to power in 2019. Although Swaraj has made peace with Modi, she is still seen as an LK Advani acolyte who had reservations about Modi becoming prime minister. As it is, with Modi operating as his own foreign minister, Swaraj has had to contend with a downgraded role in the government. And she deserves credit for maintaining dignity in such a difficult situation.

By taking up cases of visa denial or of Indian citizens stranded overseas, she has managed to stay in the news and project a “humane face” of the foreign ministry. These episodes stick in the memory of ordinary people more than the broad-brush strokes of foreign policy.

Modi’s possible replacement?

Swaraj is too savvy not to know that Modi’s return to power in 2019 could mean the end of the road for her. And yet it would be naive to think she is ready to be a “has been”. For India’s political situation is evolving, and no one knows what direction it will take in the next six months. Modi is still well regarded, though his popularity is not what it was in 2014. The Congress is also picking up pace and opposition unity is on the cards in several key states.

What role, if any, might those in the BJP who are not firmly in Modi’s camp play in the coming months? Many of the party’s MPs are unhappy knowing that a significant number of them could face the axe when tickets are given out for the next election. Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie are already on the warpath but they do not enjoy the public connect that Swaraj does.

I watched Swaraj reach out to village women after the Emergency (by likening Indira Gandhi to Kaikayi of the Ramayana at whose instance King Dashrath banished Ram) and become a Haryana legislator, and minister, at the age of 25. In 1997, I witnessed villagers in Odisha wait until 1 am to hear her speak and the youth applaud her even more than they did Advani, who was leading one of his Rath Yatras at the time. They had seen televised debates of her in Parliament. In Bellary in 1999, she took on Sonia Gandhi at a few weeks’ notice.

Much is made of the possibility of Modi being replaced if the BJP slumps to around 180 seats in the Lok Sabha next year. So far two names have been bandied about as possible replacements who would be acceptable to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh. Could Swaraj be the third?

She has not been the Sangh’s favourite. But given her oratorial prowess, she would be the only one who could take on Modi in the public domain – and that is something the Sangh might have to consider. She might also appeal to women who are increasingly becoming a vote base.

A realignment of political forces cannot be ruled out in what remains an evolving situation. But it would be outlandish at this stage to imagine a Jagjivan Ram or VP Singh type of situation, wherein the exit of a senior leader from the dominant party (the Congress then as the BJP is now) catalyses a realignment of forces. While Jagjivan Ram’s exit had helped unseat Indira Gandhi in 1977, Singh leaving the Congress felled Rajiv Gandhi in 1989.

This is not to say Swaraj is banking on a similar scenario in 2019. Only that her move is more likely to be political than merely personal.