Life on Twitter can be nasty, brutish and short. Which is perhaps why within moments of the news breaking that Smriti Irani had been shifted out of the HRD ministry, her critics had pounced on her and were happily trending #ByeByeSmriti. “Aunty National” is now “Sari National”, they scoffed, a reference to her sudden move to the relatively low-profile textiles ministry. While her supporters lined up to strongly defend her, the polarising views on social media perhaps reflect just why in the end Ms Irani had to go: Quite simply, she had become far too controversial for even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, her one-time political benefactor, to be able to handle.
Make no mistake: Ms Irani is a talented politician. She is a first-rate orator, multi-lingual, charismatic and someone who can create an instant connect with large audiences. Those are all fine qualities to possess in this media age of 360-degree communication. But they need not necessarily make you an effective minister, especially in a portfolio like HRD, which requires careful handling of multiple stakeholders across the country. It is one thing to “take on” pesky, loquacious television news anchors (we perhaps deserve a tongue lashing at times!); it is quite another to have spats with university vice-chancellors, IIT directors, academics or state education ministers. A seeming disregard for scholarship is hardly the ideal recipe for heading a ministry that is expected to set the standard for education excellence.
Perhaps Smriti Irani failed to recognise the difference between the exciting buzz of television studios and the relatively humdrum existence in Shastri Bhavan, where file clearances and shaping policy matter more than TRPs. By constantly appearing on the front pages, often for the wrong reasons, she acquired a larger-than-life persona, which is always a double-edged sword. Publicly upbraiding JNU and Hyderabad central university students with little sign of empathy may earn applause from ideological fellow-travellers but can be politically self-defeating since it ends up alienating the more moderate voices. The line between combativeness and histrionics, between self-confidence and arrogance is a thin one and Ms Irani ended up crossing it a shade too often. When even a seemingly innocuous tweet by the Bihar education minister addressing her as “Dear Smriti Iraniji” sparks an angry response, there is reason to believe that the minister is losing the plot.
And yet, one is tempted to ask whether Ms Irani’s “ouster” is purely because of her belligerent approach or it is also reflective of a patriarchal set-up that is discomfited with strong, outspoken women who won’t take a step back. After all, it isn’t as if she is the only NDA minister wrapped in controversy. A Giriraj Singh, a Sanjeev Balyan or a Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti has made terribly inflammatory remarks without facing any repercussions. It’s also isn’t as if she was acting against the party or sangh parivar line. Indeed, when it came to admissions and appointments in key institutions or promoting cultural Hindutva, Ms Irani was seen to go out of her way to oblige the RSS’s core agenda. And if energy and efficiency are the main criteria for retaining a ministry, then many others in the Modi government should have also faced the axe.
The truth is that from the moment Ms Irani was sworn in as a cabinet minister at the relatively young age of 38, she was the subject of envy and even misogynistic derision. Her critics, within and outside the party, questioned her educational qualifications, lampooned her for passing off a one-week course in Yale University for a degree, and even hinted that she had used feminine charm to woo the national political leadership. A Congress MP had even shockingly described her as a “naachne gaane wali”, a reference to her earlier avatar as a leading television serial actor. In this male-dominated “boys club”, Ms Irani, even while conservatively dressed in sari, with blazing sindoor and mangalsutra, was always a bit of an “outsider”.
Ms Irani is not a Mayawati or a Jayalalithaa or a Mamata Banerjee, all of whom are political “supremos” in their respective parties, and therefore can risk being brazenly autocratic without any major fallout. She is not a Sushma Swaraj, who cut her political teeth in the Emergency years and then gradually built her career. She is not a Sonia Gandhi, who benefited from the dynastical principle, or even a Vasundhara Raje, with a royal political lineage. Instead, she was a lateral entrant from a middle-class home with no political ancestry and had seen a dramatic rise in fortune in a very short span of time. Politics is hard graft; the conventional view in parties like the BJP is that individuals are expected to earn their spurs over many years of sweat and toil in the field. Her meteoric ascent meant that Ms Irani had cut through the traditional hierarchies to become the youngest BJP cabinet minister.
This meant that Ms Irani was always vulnerable to any move to downsize her political growth. Which is also why she should have perhaps been more careful in her approach instead of picking fights with one and all. She had a great opportunity to prove her detractors wrong but a certain political immaturity meant that she was found out when it came to the challenges of daily administration. Maybe the HRD experience will stand her in good stead in her new role as textiles minister as she comes to terms with a bitter truth: an embecious woman in a hurry is an endangered species in Indian politics.
Post-script: Those writing off Ms Irani would be doing so at their own peril. Two years ago, a senior BJP politician was contemplating moving back to his home-town after his Rajya Sabha term had ended and there was no immediate vacancy. Today, the individual is well ensconced in the Delhi durbar with all thoughts of retirement banished. He is the new HRD minister Prakash Javadekar. Maybe six months from now, Ms Irani could be one of the BJP’s main faces in the battle for Uttar Pradesh?