Defeating one of the Gandhis in their family stronghold is no mean feat and Smriti Irani has perhaps ensured that her unpleasant stint during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first tenure is overshadowed by Thursday’s electoral punch.
For now, at least, Smriti Irani, the soon-to-be Amethi MP, has put her naysayers on the backfoot. But most importantly, she has made it difficult for Modi and BJP president Amit Shah to ignore her, may have even made it incumbent on them to reward her with a plum post after Modi next takes the oath as the prime minister and picks his ministry.
For someone who spent a rather inglorious five years as a Union minister, twice getting shunted out of high-profile ministries, Smriti Irani’s victory was justifiably the biggest upset of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. So even as Thursday’s verdict remained all about Modi’s spectacular show, Smriti Irani managed to create a space for herself by achieving what she did defeating Congress president Rahul Gandhi in his bastion Amethi by a neat margin of 55,000 votes.
Of course, Rahul Gandhi’s deep unpopularity went a long way in aiding the feisty leader’s win. Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall, choosing to also contest from Wayanad in Kerala as a back-up. And if he did indeed, then part of that writing may have already been written in the previous Lok Sabha elections, when Smriti Irani’s spirited fight against the Nehru-Gandhi scion had brought his margin of victory down from well over three lakh votes in 2009 to a little over one lakh in 2014.
Still, a victory was considered highly unlikely and one that many had thought was simply impossible. And so, maybe just for that, Smriti Irani’s dizzying moment in 2019 is an emphatic repudiation of her image of a political oddity who defeated all the odds on her path to victory.
The early years, the rise
Smriti Irani, a former Miss India contestant and a superstar in her own right on Indian television, joined the BJP in 2003. Her political career didn’t start off on a pleasant note, bringing defeat from Chandni Chowk against Congress leader Kapil Sibal in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
That was only the beginning as Smriti Irani would go on to become a public baiter of Narendra Modi, giving remarks in the media against him over the 2002 post-Godhra riots and holding him responsible for the BJP’s defeat in the elections. If that wasn’t enough, Smriti Irani would even threaten to sit on a fast unto death later that year with the sole demand that Narendra Modi resign from his post of chief minister in Gujarat.
But politics, as they say, is as unpredictable as it can be. Equations changed and within a few years, Smriti Irani emerged as one of Modi’s trusted lieutenants. Rising up the ranks — from taking the national president’s role of the BJP’s women wing to becoming a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat — it was a steep climb for her.
The turning point, however, was the 2014 Lok Sabha election, when Smriti Irani showed the grit to take on the giant Gandhi in his stronghold. Although she lost, her fight was rewarded handsomely by getting her the plum post of human resource development minister once the Modi government took charge.
The fall, the controversies
Just like her rise, Smriti Irani’s decline was equally sudden. Her five years in the Union minister’s role can at best be described as chequered and tumultuous.
She may have been given the very crucial HRD ministry, but in no time did she manage to emerge as among the most controversial, disliked and difficult ministers in recent times. Be it her lack of competence in the role, the furore surrounding her fake degree, her flippant ‘I went to Yale‘ comment, or her sheer high-handedness as the minister, nothing worked in her favour.
Smriti Irani ensured the HRD ministry was dragged into the front pages of newspapers more frequently than ever before — not because of policy decisions, but controversies. From making Sanskrit compulsory as the third language in Kendriya Vidyalayas and ordering schools to observe 25 December as ‘Good Governance Day’ to her handling of the Rohit Vemula controversy and top academicians leaving their posts citing her as the cause — the mercurial minister rubbed many in the government and bureaucracy the wrong way.
It was a controversial stint, to say the least, and murmurs of her throwing files at senior civil servants besides asking the junior ones to keep an eye on journalists entering the ministry in Shastri Bhavan, began doing the rounds. Many questioned her habit of taking decisions without consulting officials, or for relying only on her coterie (which included an Officer on Special Duty Sanjay Kachroo, whose appointment had never, in fact, been cleared by the Appointment Committee of the Cabinet).
IAS officers, mediapersons and even her own party members had a litany of complaints against her decisions and ‘imperious’ behaviour. The bad press forced the BJP’s top brass to reconsider its decision and Smriti Irani was divested of the portfolio in mid-2016 and given the far less important textiles ministry instead.
A year later, in the middle of 2017, Smriti Irani was rehabilitated and nobody quite knows why. She was given the important information and broadcasting ministry but soon enough, troubles began to surface there as well. A series of unsavoury events followed but it was the public humiliation for the President’s office over the National Film Awards ceremony caused by her ministry’s mismanagement that compelled PM Modi to drop her within a year, getting her deputy minister Rajyavardhan Rathore to replace her instead. Two key portfolios snatched away within four years was seen as a public acknowledgement by Smriti Irani’s party of a lack of faith in her.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to say Smriti Irani became the most talked-about and written-about minister during the first term of the Modi regime.
The electoral punch
Irani had her eyes set on Amethi ever since 2014 and had visited the constituency as many as 38 times in five years — a glaring contrast from Rahul Gandhi’s rare and fleeting appearances.
She nurtured the seat and fought a combative battle, eventually managing the big upset in 2019 elections.
But while Smriti Irani may have managed to push Modi and Amit Shah to do a rethink on her, the trick, however, would lie in how she traverses through the next five years and whether she can really leave her prone-to-controversy side behind.