Smriti Irani’s journey from condemning Modi to embracing him

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For Smriti Irani and parliamentary elections, the third time really has been the charm.

Yesterday (May 23) saw the union minister defeat Rahul Gandhi, president and dynast of the Indian National Congress party, in his family bastion of Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. It is her first Lok Sabha victory ever. Five years ago she lost to Gandhi in Amethi, and 10 years ago she was beaten by Congress heavyweight Kapil Sibal in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk.

Her victory was part of a massive sweep for the ruling alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by prime minister Narendra Modi. The alliance secured a staggering 350 out of 542 parliamentary seats, besting most pollsters’ expectations by improving its count from the 2014 “Modi wave.”

And Irani’s victory was the jewel in the crown. Headlines called her a “giant killer” for ousting Gandhi from Amethi, which he has held since his 2004 electoral debut. The constituency, created in 1967, has been held by a Congress leader for 48 of those 52 years.

“By defeating Congress party president Rahul Gandhi in his family bailiwick, she has called into question the viability of India’s oldest party as a counter to the BJP,” Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Quartz.

The political see-saw

A former soap opera star, Irani has had a rocky rise in the BJP ranks. In fact, her political career almost ended before it began—with her heavily critical remarks against Modi in 2004, her first year with the BJP.

Her ministerial years have also been full of controversy. In 2014, she was made cabinet minister in charge of the crucial education ministry. Two years later, though, she was shunted to the relatively less prominent textile ministry, sparking speculation of her diminishing influence in the party. She had come under fire for her perceived lack of experience and tendency to exhibit public anger.

It remains to be seen what role Modi will give her in the new government. There seems to be little doubt now, following her Amethi victory, that Irani is here to stay.

Early days

Starting in 2000, Irani starred in one of India’s most popular television soaps: the Ekta Kapoor-produced Kyunki Saas Bhai Kabhi Bahu Thi (“because every mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law”).

She played the traditional daughter-in-law, a priest’s daughter who marries into a rich business family. “Critics called the plot regressive, and claimed her role promoted patriarchy and orthodoxy,” The Caravan magazine reported (paywall) in a profile of the politician. “But Irani firmly defended it, arguing in one interview, ‘Being traditional is not being regressive.’”

She entered politics in 2003, joining the BJP. She soon came close to becoming politically radioactive, publicly slamming Modi over the 2002 Gujarat riots that occurred during his chief ministership. She demanded his resignation, failing which she would fast until death.

This was a political miscalculation, especially for such a new politician. She withdrew her statement within hours and publicly apologised to Modi. Some public grovelling followed—she touched his feet—and he forgave her.

Explaining her 2004 episode on television in 2014, she said she had been a “victim of propaganda ” and therefore believed ill of him in light of the Gujarat riots.

Now a Modi loyalist, Irani is extremely close to the prime minister, evidenced by the positions she held in his government despite her 2014 loss in Amethi.

Lightning rod

As education minister, Irani presided over a wave of campus protests across the country.

One of these was sparked by the January 2016 suicide of Rohit Vemula, a doctoral student of the University of Hyderabad. In his death note, Vemula described the caste-based discrimination he and a group of fellow Dalit students faced at the institution. Irani gave a speech in parliament in which she alleged that the suicide was being used as a “political tool”; supporters of Vemula called her remarks “absolute lies.”

Under her, the ministry used a colonial-era sedition law to charge several students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, following a protest at the campus against the hanging of Afzal Guru, a convict in the 2001 parliament attack case. After a furious parliamentary debate on the matter, a biting frontpage headline of The Telegraph newspaper, dubbing her “Aunty National,” was widely circulated across the country, apparently ridiculing her theatrics in the House.

Irani’s educational qualifications themselves have been under the scanner, especially considering her ministry. She claimed in 2014 that she had a “degree” from Yale, but later, it came to light that she had been referring to a six-day training course conducted at the university. Irani has also been criticised for shifting stories about her educational background in her electoral affidavits over the years; it has only been made clear this election cycle, from her filings, that she did in fact never graduate from college.

In 2016, the year that both the Vemula and JNU scandals erupted, Irani was reshuffled from the education ministry to the textiles ministry, where she has remained and mostly kept a lower profile. Memes and mockery abounded, with some saying that her ousting had been Modi’s “single biggest reform in education.”

Yet, for the former education minister, the controversies from 2016 still seem to be fresh. On the eve of vote counting, Irani posted a series of tweets about the campaign, one of which described how the election had been a pitched battle between the “people” versus “the anarchists who screamed ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’ (India, you shall be split into pieces)”—a reference to the slogan the JNU protesters were allegedly raising.

In 2017, Irani was given additional charge of the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B). Her time there saw some controversy as well, most notably in April 2018, when she issued an order to suspend the press accreditation of journalists who had been accused of reporting “fake news”—a term not fully defined. The prime minister’s office swiftly told the ministry to withdraw the order following a public outcry, but a mockery of Irani and the order continued.

The following month, she was removed from the information and broadcasting ministry, and the charge handed over to Rajyavardhan Rathore.

Vindication?

Irani drew the public spotlight a few times during the campaign leading up to the 2019 election, too.

For instance, there was the hot-button issue of the Sabarimala temple. This Hindu pilgrimage centre in the southern state of Kerala traditionally barred women of menstruating age from entry, until the supreme court lifted the ban, sparking much rage in the Hindu community. Standing with the religious dissenters, Irani said, “Would you take sanitary napkins steeped in menstrual blood and walk into a friend’s home? You will not.”

She initially claimed such reports were “fake news,” but later owned her comments. “Fake news” is a common refrain for Irani, who used the moniker again this election season to defend the government against reports that it had been suppressing a damning report on national unemployment. And in 2014, her pointing the finger at the media for misleading her about the 2002 riots shows how she engaged in such rhetoric long before “fake news” became a buzzword.

This year, while Gandhi, as party leader, spent more time campaigning around the country, Irani reportedly spent months on the ground in Amethi, campaigning to locals. Her combative and direct approach there has proven useful; she hasn’t hesitated to hit the Congress scion where it hurts, saying the constituency had rejected him and urging him to contest from another state.

She also called Gandhi “proudy” and a “missing MP” after he failed to show up in the constituency on voting day.

In a way, continuing such campaign rhetoric past the victory will be useful to the BJP, some say. “In parliament, the BJP will use her to torment Gandhi and the opposition benches with her pugilistic broadsides,” Dhume said. (Gandhi will still be an MP; he also contested from Wayanad, Kerala, and won that seat.)

The post-victory onslaught is already beginning, with BJP supporters delighting over a comment that Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s sister, reportedly made in Amethi during the 2014 campaign: “Smriti… who?”

It will be interesting to see how Modi, in his second term, chooses to use Irani. On one hand, her governance of two of the three ministries she was charged with has been controversial at best. On the other, her electoral success has proven her credentials as a fierce and effective campaigner.

“Smriti Irani is neither a good administrator nor an able parliamentarian. In spite of that, she had managed to get very powerful ministerial positions before,” said Ashok Swain, a professor of peace and conflict research at Sweden’s Uppsala University. “Now, after defeating Rahul Gandhi, she will be given a more powerful cabinet position in the Modi government. She might even get MoD (ministry of defence) or MEA (ministry of external affairs).”

Irani’s devotion to Modi has remained unwavering for the past 15 years since her apology. “I will leave politics the day Narendra Modi retires,” she said this February: a striking claim for a 43-year-old to make about a 68-year-old.

Now, with Modi preparing for another term, India is readying for more of Irani.

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