The big makeover Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave to his Cabinet made much news. And yet, what went relatively less talked-about was a pertinent development — the snatching away of one portfolio from Smriti Irani. It is pertinent because it is Irani’s trajectory in the government that indicates precisely what is wrong with Modi’s human resource management skill.
The Member of Parliament from Amethi, who earlier held both the textiles and women and child development ministries, now retains only the latter. A surprising decision, given that Irani delivered the big Amethi win to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and was expected to be rewarded with ‘plum’ portfolios. Only her dismal run as minister in the first Modi government could possibly explain her current portfolios — considered ‘less meaty’ in power corridors.
But having kept her head low in the current tenure and not invited any controversies, Smriti Irani did not quite deserve to be divested of a portfolio, if not a promotion. Sure, Irani may not have done any path-breaking work in the last two years, but neither have several ministers in this government.
When Irani was an amateur administrator and had no real political success behind her, she was trusted with the prestigious Ministry of Human Resource Development (now Ministry of Education), and later the tricky Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. But now, when the 45-year-old has gained some political heft and governance experience, she seems to have been given a raw deal.
Her graph doesn’t quite add up, or reflect any astuteness on the power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) high command in terms of HR planning.
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The rise before the steep fall
When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he had some seasoned hands like Nitin Gadkari, Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley to fill up important positions in his Cabinet. But Modi also had a lot of rawness, with faces that did not have much administrative experience. The HR crisis in his government, in fact, has been often talked about.
Smriti Irani belonged to the latter category and Modi sprung a big surprise by handing her the education ministry. The rest, as they say, is history. Irani stumbled from one controversy to another, and single-handedly brought bad press to the government ever-so-often.
From the ‘fake degree’ row to her Yale remark, from making Sanskrit compulsory as the third language in Kendriya Vidyalayas and directing schools to observe 25 December as ‘Good Governance Day’ to the Rohith Vemula incident — Irani was in news for all the wrong reasons.
What showed was how not ready Smriti Irani was to shoulder such delicate responsibilities, which require fine-balancing. Her high-handedness with senior bureaucrats and the media was a classic case of being given too much, too soon.
Irani’s rise had been sharp — from being a public baiter of Narendra Modi, giving remarks in the media against him over the 2002 Gujarat riots, to becoming national president of the BJP’s women wing, a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat and then a Union minister. Her fall, however, was as steep.
She was divested of the HRD portfolio in the middle of 2016, rehabilitated with the I&B ministry in mid-2017, and then dropped from that portfolio after another string of bloopers.
It was evident Modi had erred in giving the go-getter leader huge responsibilities, so early on.
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The second coming
Irani was all but written off by the time the BJP started preparing for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. After all, she hadn’t won an election (even though she had put up spirited fights in Chandni Chowk and Amethi) and had proved to be a liability in the government.
The 2019 election, however, changed it all. With that one win in Amethi against Rahul Gandhi, Irani became the giant-slayer, the fiery asset the BJP needed. The win meant the actor-turned-politician had established her importance, and going forward, Modi and Amit Shah would find it difficult to ignore her. The BJP, in fact, is quick to brandish her when it needs to launch an attack against Rahul Gandhi.
In Modi 2.0, therefore, Irani was expected to be rewarded with what are seen as more crucial portfolios. All ministries are, of course, important and it’s unfair to label some as not. But there is little denying that some portfolios carry more prestige than others and are associated with ‘promotions’.
Smriti Irani has pretty much stuck to the script the past two years. She delivered a big win, almost a medal that BJP can display for decades to come, has worked quietly and prudently, not inviting controversies or unnecessary attention. Significant when a lot of Modi’s ministers have found themselves in rows — from Nirmala Sitharaman’s tepid handling of the economy and her flippant ‘I don’t eat onions’ remarks to Anurag Thakur’s condemnable ‘goli maaro saalon ko‘ sloganeering, to Ravi Shankar Prasad’s Twitter war and more. While some of them have been shown the door, others stand rewarded, Thakur being a case in point.
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The raw deal
In all of this, Irani being divested of one portfolio seems jarring. Especially when the BJP is tom-tomming about a total of 11 women ministers in the new council – highest in 17 years. But except finance, women being deprived of key portfolios tells us something, and Smriti Irani’s case tells us even more.
What are her qualifications, some ask. Well, Harsh Vardhan is a doctor, and his handling of the health ministry and the pandemic tells us enough about why qualifications don’t exactly translate into good governance.
Yes, Irani has been included in the important Cabinet committee on political affairs. But is that enough for a minister who is now 7-years-old in the government, has delivered a massive political win, and is among your most popular women faces?
Politics is about rewarding what someone brings to your table. Jyotiraditya Scindia, although a Congress import, has been given the key civil aviation ministry at a time when the issue of Air India disinvestment is government’s priority, because he won you an entire state back. By that logic, Irani also delivered a never-before win with Amethi. Smriti Irani may have spelt trouble in Modi’s first term, but if the PM could show faith in Scindia — whose administrative capabilities we know only through his earlier stints as a Minister of State in the UPA government — then surely, the Amethi MP deserved another chance.
The BJP leadership entrusted Irani with far more responsibilities than she could cope with in 2014, almost setting her up for failure. And now, when she had a fair shot at turning things around by being in key positions, she is being kept at the periphery.
Smriti Irani’s graph has been all wrong, inverted even. She should have been slowly eased into the unfamiliar governance terrain, and then allowed to earn promotions. This shows exactly why Narendra Modi Cabinet’s poor bench strength and mediocre performance has perhaps as much to do with the PM’s planning, as the abilities of his soldiers.
Views are personal.