Sharad Pawar is a man of few words, Smriti Irani a woman with a vast vocabulary.
Last week, when the HRD minister delivered a remarkable “performance” in a Parliament debate that captured the imagination of the country, she was congratulated by one and all (including this columnist).
Sitting quietly in one corner of Central Hall, Pawar appeared less impressed. While Irani was basking in the glory of the moment, the veteran politician called her over for a brief word. What did you say to her, we asked him later. “You see, Parliament is not a TV show or a boxing ring. I only told her that she should be less shrill, and not personalise her attack,” he said with typical candour.
Pawar contested his first election in 1967 when Irani was not even born. The discomfort the grand old man of national politics might have felt with the young minister’s aggression could be brushed aside as the result of a generation gap.
This is the age of the telegenic politician, and Irani with her superior communication skills is a made for 21st century neta. There are also, arguably, shades of misogyny in some of the criticism of a woman who was once the biggest star of general entertainment channels -- remember how former Congress MP, Sanjay Nirupam once disgustingly referred to Irani as a “thumke lagane wali”? Would anyone dare refer to a non-performing actor-politician like Govinda, for example, in similar disparaging terms?
The fact is, Irani is a hugely talented politician. Few can match her oratory, or her multi-lingual skills (she can speak fluently in half a dozen languages). She oozes confidence and charisma: her debating skills are exceptional. When I interviewed her last year, I was scarcely prepared to face up to her ability to hit back with sharp answers. To be honest, she made “chutti” of me. She may have never won a direct election yet, her political career is just over a decade, but her meteoric rise is a tribute to her ability to stand out in a crowd.
And yet, Pawar is no misogynist nor is he a loose talker. Which is why his advice needs to be taken seriously. Did Irani, for example, overplay her hand by waving her finger at Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati and virtually daring her to prove her wrong in the Rohith Vemula suicide case? Did she get needlessly involved in a tu tu main main by threatening to reveal the names of all the politicians who had sought help from her office?
Irani is right -- the Opposition is guilty of playing politics over the suicide of a young Dalit student in Hyderabad. She is correct that most members of the executive council that recommended Vemula’s suspension were appointed by the previous Congress-led government.
She is not wrong in suggesting that there had been little outrage when Dalit students had committed suicide in the past. And yet, exposing the double standards of the Opposition is one thing, being contemptuous of any criticism is quite another.
The fact also is that Irani’s office seemed to take undue interest in the Vemula case after the intervention of the ABVP and the Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya. It is also apparent that the ministry went along with the claim that the Ambedkar Students Association is an “anti-national” group. And there was little empathy shown when Vemula was found dead: Did the minister or any senior government official seek to provide solace to the grieving family?
Empathy, sadly, is a word which has gone missing in the highly polarised political atmosphere. Then be it the Vemula suicide or the JNU sedition case, there is an increasing feeling that the people involved (in this case, mainly students) are caught in a political tug of war: Either you are with “us” or with “them”, either national or “anti-national”.
Little attempt is made to understand alternative viewpoints without name-calling. Instead, there is an edge of almost permanent combativeness, a constant desire to seek confrontation over conciliation. We could blame the Opposition for refusing to co-operate with the government, but equally there is a sense that the ruling arrangement relishes the idea of being in 24x7 adversarial mode.
The Prime Minister’s “chappan ki chatti” machismo might have been attractive as an oppositional force during an election campaign but in government it can seriously erode claims to good governance.
Irani has, at times, fallen into the trap of believing that her strength lies in her self-image as a modern-day political Durga: Any dissenting voice has to be shown its place. Then be it jousting with vice-chancellors, senior academics and IIT directors or even getting into Twitter wars with journalists, Irani has become a symbol of this government’s penchant for shouting down its critics rather than engaging with them.
The result is that the education sector in the country is getting sharply divided on ideological lines: teachers versus administrators, students versus fellow-students, academics versus government bureaucrats. It isn’t as if previous governments haven’t used campuses to push their agendas but that is a practise hardly worth emulating: the Left in Bengal is a good example of what ideologically driven politics can do to the health of education.
Which is why Irani maybe needs to consider a course correction: The HRD ministry should facilitate open dialogue, not become a space for “culture wars” or for settling scores with ideological ‘’enemies’’. Public speaking is Irani’s great asset, but governance can also be done in prose, not always in high-decibel poetry.
Post-script: While Irani grabs the headlines, spare a thought for the original BJP sindoor-laden bahu. At one time, Sushma Swaraj too was the fiery woman face of the party, ready to tonsure her head if Sonia Gandhi became prime minister. Today, Swaraj is more mellow, whether by choice or design. Her quiet dignity stands out in a political milieu where too many netas are spoiling for a fight.