From being first noticed as one of the most popular faces on the small screen as a TV actress in ‘saas-bahu’ soap opera, former HRD minister and now at apex of the textile ministry, Smriti Irani’s journey has not been smooth. She has been under spotlight after switching over from acting to politics, fighting two electoral battles, including one against Congress heavyweight Kapil Sibal from Chandni Chowk in Delhi in 2004, and a decade later against Rahul Gandhi from high-profile Amethi seat.
Her sudden rise as Union HRD minister at the relatively young age grabbed attention from every corner, and was the subject of envy and even misogynistic derision. Her critics, within and outside the party, questioned her educational qualifications, and even accused her of using feminine charm to woo the political leadership.
She aggressively responded to her critics and made her place in the party as well as in the sangh parivar for fulfilling the ideological agenda in appointments to key institutions or in promoting hindutva on expected lines of the RSS.
Despite being conservatively dressed in sari, with blazing sindoor and mangalsutra, Smriti Irani is yet to get her acceptability in the male-dominated political world. Other prominent woman politicians, including Mayawati, Jayalalithaa or Mamata Banerjee, can afford to be aggressive and autocratic for they lead their political fronts. In the BJP too, leader like Sushma Swaraj, who emerged from the emergency era rubbing soldiers with seasoned politicians, gradually built her career. But Smriti Irani, who in lack of any dynastic or political legacy, in meteoric rise failed to emerge as a mature politician.
Born in Delhi on March 23, 1976, to bengali mother Shibani and a Punjabi Khatri father Ajay Kumar Malhotra, Smriti (Malhotra) Irani is the eldest of three sisters. Irani, who passed class XII from Holy Child Auxilium School in New Delhi, got married to Parsi businessman Zubin Irani, is mother of a son and a daughter.
Irani’s brush with fame started as one of the finalists of the beauty pageant, Miss India 1998. Prior to her debut with TV serials, she also appeared in a song ‘Boliyan’ of the album ‘Saawan Mein Lag Gayi Aag’ with Mika Singh. But in mid-2000, Irani won the lead role of Tulsi Virani in Ekta Kapoor’s production Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, and became a household name. In her acting career, she holds the record of winning five consecutive Indian television academy awards for best actress (popular), four Indian telly awards.
While working with TV serials, she joined the BJP in 2003, and became vice-president of the Maharashtra Youth Wing in 2004. As an executive member of the central committee of the BJP, she courted controversy in December 2004, by threatening to stage a “fast unto death”, demanding the resignation of the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi for the party’s electoral losses. She, however, retracted as the central leadership chided her. In her aggressive demeanour, controversies seems to have have been her natural soulmate.
Irani, who became a Rajya Sabha member of parliament from Gujarat in August 2011, has been accused of misrepresenting her educational qualifications. She is alleged to have submitted conflicting affidavits for different elections. A lower court in June 2015 held that the allegations against Irani were maintainable. Irani, as HRD minister, asked people to file a PIL to ascertain the truth behind the affidavit controversy.
In the BJP, where leaders groom their career over many years of sweat and toil in the field, she is yet to learn lessons in politics to distinguish between appearance and reality. There is no doubt that Irani is a talented politician. With an oratorical skill and charismatic persona, she creates an instant connect with large audiences. But her perennial presence on the front pages, often for the wrong reasons, recoiled on her.
Her inept handling of the suicide case of Rohith Vemula, a Hyderabad central university student, and later JNU episode may have placated her ideological brethren but it alienated moderate voices. She committed the folly of crossing the thin line between self-confidence and arrogance too often.
Despite all criticism, she can be credited for appointing women, for the first time, on eminent national bodies like the IIT council and as chairpersons of IITs and NITs. With all her good intentions, she tried to make a mark as the youngest cabinet minister, but very measures she used to prove her critics wrong undid her.
Hitting out at her, historian Ram Guha told a news channel that Smriti Irani was “a deadly combination of arrogance and ignorance”. Professor Guha, who has taught at Yale and the London School of Economics, offered instances of how Irani was high-handed with senior professors. “At one meeting, an IIT director asked her a question to which she said, ‘do you think you are a TV anchor to ask me such questions?’” he said, adding, “she also named the TV anchor!”
Calling her “whimsical” with policies that changed frequently, Guha said, “the academic community will welcome her exit.”
Perhaps, these are a few reasons that went against her, but she never crossed the line of party discipline.
As an HRD minister, she is also accused of damaging the BJP politically, while handling Rohith Vemula issue, alienating dalits, who voted for the Modi bandwagon in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Besides, in the JNU episode too she damaged the party, as these issues brought together the opposition parties, including the Congress, the Samata Party and the Left, for the first time in a couple of decades.
Still, all is not lost. Irani has vowed to meet the government’s efforts in the textile sector, which is the second largest employment generator in the country after agriculture. With a recently awarded package of Rs 6,000-crore, she can write a new script with the sector, which even today is one of the largest contributors to India’s exports with approximately 11 per cent of total exports.
Since this sector also comprises unorganised sector of handloom, handicrafts and sericulture, it consists of artisan class mainly from minority and poor segments of society. With her deft handling, she has ample opportunity to placate a vote bank, for which the BJP has always pined for, and extend her contribution to the upcoming assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh. It would be too early to write her off, she may be the BJP’s one of the main faces in the battle for Uttar Pradesh?