Smriti Irani at the oath-taking ceremony | ANI
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New Delhi: Smriti Irani, the BJP’s ‘giant slayer’ who defeated Congress president Rahul Gandhi in his family bastion of Amethi, will take over as the Women and Child Development (WCD) minister.

While there was speculation that Irani would be rewarded with a bigger role in the government, following her election-defining victory over Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen her to head the WCD even as she retains the textile ministry.

While in the UPA years, the WCD ministry was headed by far less prominent women, Modi’s first term saw former union minister Maneka Gandhi — a feisty, outspoken minister in her own right — at the helm. Once again, the prime minister has chosen one of the most visible, popular faces of his team to head the ministry.

If schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana played a big role in the party’s landslide victory, then the role of the WCD ministry cannot be brushed aside as being peripheral.

In the last five years of the Modi government, women-related issues — Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, the government’s push to ban triple talaq, the focus on women in the flagship Mudra loan scheme, along with the Ujwala scheme — have been at the core of politics and governance.

Irani inherits a buzzing WCD ministry from her predecessor.

Also readSmriti Irani’s Amethi act and the rise of palatable feminism in India

Irani’s stand on women’s issues

A loyal soldier of the BJP, Irani has always toed the party line on issues such as triple talaq, free toilets — or as the party likes to call them ‘izzat ghar‘ — for women.

The minister has also seemingly taken anti-women stands on issues such as Sabarimala — going as far as to call the act of menstruating women entering the temple as a “desecration” — in order to emphatically defend her party.

At the peak of the #MeToo movement in India last year, Irani became one of the only Union ministers to speak up against her party colleague M.J. Akbar. “Women don’t go to work to be harassed. They go to work to live their dreams and earn a respectable living,” she had said.

If online trolling is a ubiquitous problem for women in public life — an issue her new ministry has been grappling with — Irani knows it all too well. Yet, she has said that the outrage for online trolling for women is selective.

“I get attacked not only by trolls – which I brush away every day. I get attacked by journalists and the senior leadership,” she had said in 2016 in an interview to NDTV. “Not on the content of policy or a programme but on the fact that I am a woman and how I have come so far.”

Also read: Smriti Irani’s makeover: From being most disliked Modi minister to dynasty slayer in Amethi

A controversial minister

A former Miss India contestant and a television superstar in the country, Irani joined the BJP in 2003 and went on to contest the Lok Sabha election in 2014 against Rahul Gandhi.

While she lost the election by a smaller than anticipated margin, she was rewarded by being chosen as the country’s education minister.

However, widely criticised by the media as well as her bureaucrats as being high-handed, and landing the HRD ministry into one controversy after another, she was divested of the portfolio in mid-2016.

In 2017, she was appointed the minister for Information and Broadcasting — where she carved an image of herself as someone averse to a free press.

When she was at the helm of the I&B Ministry, a press release was issued threatening the cancellation of government accreditation for journalists spreading ‘fake news’ — something the PMO had to hurriedly revoke after widespread condemnation.

By 2018, she was out of the I&B ministry as well, and given the far less important textiles ministry — a charge she will continue to hold alongside WCD in the new government.

Despite these snubs from the party high command, Irani has continued to display utmost loyalty to Modi — often making statements such as she would leave politics the day he decides to hang up his boots.

While Irani has often been dismissed as a non-performing minister by her critics, with her in-charge of WCD, the ministry is certain to remain in the news.

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