Indian politics is a messy place, with too much of politicians to keep a track on. This new monthly column will feature one of these high profile figures. Right from their career highs to the mistakes they have done-everything will be discussed in brief. So that you are well informed for the coffee table/water cooler conversations next time!
Back in the 2000s the entire nation was glued to the screens watching the most successful show ever – Kyuki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. Little did we know then that Smriti Irani playing the lead Tulsi, the face of Indian television then, would become the face of Indian politics in a decade. Once loved by millions on-screen, she became an extremely controversial figure after joining politics. Recently, her reshuffling from HRD ministry to Textile ministry has brought her into the news and discussions again. So let’s analyze her brief, but highly impactful political career.
During the course of the show itself, in 2003, she started looking towards politics. Amid huge hue, she decided to join the Bhartiya Janta Party. And in the next year itself, she was seen contesting for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections against the Congress bigwig Kapil Sibal. Such a huge step in such a short time didn’t go down too well with many. Celebs joining politics is never taken positively. And even initially, her interview with Shekhar Suman on a chat show proved she had little knowledge about India’s geography.
Despite the criticism and losing the LS elections, the party still decided to have big plans for her. In 2004, she was made the vice-president of the Maharashtra wing of Yuva Morcha. There are other titles that followed throughout her career – National Secratary of the BJP , all-India president of its women’s wing – Mahila Morcha and ultimately the vice-president of the party before finally stepping in the Modi cabinet. All these titles came to her for one main reason – her excellent oratory skills. It is her accessibility to the media and public that gave her an edge over many of the party veterans. What she lacked for education qualifications and experience, she made it up by showing her concern for issues such as women safety. Her loyalty towards BJP and its workers was staunching. Her entry as the Rajya Sabha MP representing Gujarat escalated her hold over the game. Because, she was about to be noticed by someone important.
In her initial days if someone would have said that Irani would be one of Modi’s important persons, no one would have believed it. From going to a hunger strike against him to becoming one of the firsts to back him as a PM candidate, Smriti-Modi have seen quite ups and downs in their relations. But the focus here is of course, on what Smriti managed to achieve by joining hands with Modi. Her oratory skills were used effectively by the then Gujarat CM for communicating with the industrialists and diplomats. And not just in Gujarat, but her presence was felt nationwide. Manohar Parrikar’s sweep in Goa election was thanks to her involvement in the campaigning. Her attacks on Congress during UPAs reign helped BJP in many ways. All that culminated into getting a high profile ticket in the last assembly elections – Amethi in UP against Rahul Gandhi.
Of course, everyone knew that the Gandhi tag would still snatch the seat away from Irani. But it was a testing ground for her by the party to see her performance. With the skills she had developed over the years, her performance was far from disappointing even if she lost the elections. She lost to the Gandhi scion by a mere margin of 1 lakh voters. After winning the elections and swearing in as a PM, all were certain that Irani could expect a high office.
But the decision to take her into HRD Ministry met with more flaks than praises. A 12th pass given the job to handle a ministry that oversees education raised many eyeballs, specially of the Congress. Leak of papers from the DU revealed that the Irani holds fake degrees. Her conflicting documents on her educational qualifications in various elections brought in more trouble to an already highly debated seat. Some accused her of favoritism in appointment of crucial positions. And the handling of the JNU case was also rattling to many.
What everyone does agree upon is she excelled into her role as parliamentarian. On Feb 24, her speech in Lok Sabha took the internet and media by storm. While there were still questions put by a section of people, it otherwise got a unanimous applause, even from some of the oppositions sitting there that day. And it is not just once, but many a times that Irani has answered to every controversy that came underway. She even took the reshuffling order with utmost grace, with no noticeable disappointment.
The main question, though, is did she deserve it? Amidst all the conundrum of controversies, how did her ministry actually fared? Not quite bad, actually. Her efforts towards bringing about changes in the education system was apparent in the various schemes launched during her tenure. Initiatives like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan focused on spreading educations to rural areas. In-STEP (India Support to Teacher Education Program) helped North Eastern teachers to learn more about teacher education. Being in Modi’s close circle, it was apparent that Modi’s pet project would be ably supported by her office. Beti Bachao Beti Padhao took big steps in improving girl’s education in the rural areas, whereas Swachch Vidyalaya became a subset of Swachch Bharat wherein efforts were made to ensure a toilet, separate for girls and boys, would be built for each school.
Though there are many of the decisions that backfired. The increase in fees for IITs and NITs was not taken well. Even the decision to make more IITs/IIMs when the existing new ones need more development, faced criticism. Her handling of the JNU controversy was questionable too. And despite many of the schemes, there’s still a lot left to be improved in the education sector.
A certain line, used often in films, fits Irani well – ” You can love her, hate her but cannot ignore her.” That has what she has been for the Indian politics. Her being in politics was questioned, which was brushed aside. Her educational qualifications were doubted upon, to which she answered by making a satisfactory mark as the HRD Minister. But there’s more that could be expected from her. A less controversial Ministry of Textile might just be the perfect office for Irani to work in.