Q Does the resistance to your decisions come in largely from the male-centric bureaucracy, politicians?
Smriti Irani: When I was in education, the resistance came from academicians. They said what can this woman do. I actually had one of the top-most scientists of the country say to me that why don’t you lean on my understandings better. Anil Kakodkar said this. They were enraged because they presumed that they knew everything. And how can that chit of a woman tell them that no, there is another perspective or way of getting to a solution? So it’s not about men in power. It is about men with ego.
Q. So that must have been very difficult to deal with?
Smriti Irani: No. Ego isn’t difficult to deal with. Women deal with it every day (laughs).
Q. But wasn’t it upsetting to deal with this kind of behaviour?
Smriti Irani: The hypocrisy of it was amusing. Because one is made to believe that if you are a learned man then you must have shed this disability to be so myopic in how you judge a woman. The hypocrisy of it all—of saying on the outside how much they support women but on the inside, when the chain is being driven by women, they’d be so upset by it.
Q. But did you get the required level of support from your colleagues?
We are deeply grateful to our readers & viewers for their time, trust and subscriptions.
Quality journalism is expensive and needs readers to pay for it. Your support will define our work and ThePrint’s future.
Smriti Irani: I was picked by the prime minister to do my job. If the PM thought that I needed a crutch, then I wouldn’t be given the job.
Q. Does it bother you that when people look back at your time as education minister, they talk about all the controversies instead of the achievements?
Smriti Irani: That’s fine. I take it with a pinch of salt. The men who matter know …
Q. (Before 2019 election) You performed well in both the campaigns that you lost. What did you learn about electoral politics and the demands of it in the election losses?
Smriti Irani: I can only say this that a lamb can only be slaughtered but twice. The sheep shall not meekly go to slaughter anymore.
Q. There is no doubt that you have had a remarkable success and it has been a meteoric rise. Is there anything that you look back on? In the middle of all those successes, do you wish you had done something differently?
Smriti Irani: No. The only regret that I have in my life is that I never wore a uniform. And never served. Because I think that is the greatest act of selfless service and honour. To go to the battlefront without a speck of fear in you. I think that is the greatest kind of service. Now that I am in the textiles ministry, I have found a way to be of service to the armed forces. Most of our armed forces personnel were buying uniforms and other items of need from outside the country. In my three years in as textile minister, that changed and now 80 per cent of the needs of the armed forces are met domestically. So that is my tribute to the Indian armed forces. But that’s still different from wearing a uniform and standing on that border.
Q. You married into a Parsi family. Your kids are raised as Parsis. Did it upset you when people were questioning your religion by asking you things like ‘what’s your gotra?’
Smriti Irani: No. When you are a public person, you can’t be mollycoddled into comfort. You can’t sanitize the questions that are thrown at you. If you are so fragile, you have no business in being a public personality.
Q. What about being part of a party that speaks about Hindutva so much, about religions that have originated in India? How do you reconcile that with this? Do you find people treating you differently?
Smriti Irani: Why?! I feel you presume too much for my party. What matters for my party is nation-building. Not what my name or surname is. This is a party that elected Dr Kalam as President of India. Need I say more?
Q. Would you say that BJP is a large coalition and the things that hold the coalition together is the understanding of development and the idea that the nation comes first? Within that you can have different points of view—it could be people from different religions or perspectives—is that the glue that holds the party together?
Smriti Irani: Yes. The fulcrum is the group is bigger than the individual, and the nation is bigger than the group. Which means that your country’s needs are supreme. So you are absolutely right. Nothing matters other than India’s interest. You don’t matter. Your politics doesn’t matter. Your ideology doesn’t matter. What matters for a BJP person is only and only India.
Q. India faces a huge challenge reforming its education system. You have spoken about the work that you’ve done to be able to provide quality education to the children of this country. A lot of intellectuals and people in politics have said that the government is trying to have more focus on India and Indian culture, push for an education that is more rooted in India’s culture …
Smriti Irani: I think education is so politically looked at that it falls in fragments and gets lost in the gaps of conversations which are ideologically loaded. If you look at Manjul Bhargava who received the Fields Medal of Honour in Mathematics. Manjul learned mathematics through Sanskrit and poetry from his grandfather in the city of Jaipur and today he teaches Mathematics for non-mathematicians at Princeton using those same instruments that he used as a child. As a minister, my ardent desire was to see how do I aid a student in need? If the student desires a degree, how do I make it administratively a fruitful journey? If a student desires knowledge then how do I give that student a plethora of divergent means to get knowledge? Because knowledge is best served by a curious child. That child might ask questions that are contradictory to the very basis of the knowledge, to the very basic systems that they getting it from.
And I think India has thrived so well because we have always taught our students to question everything that has been given to them. And what I saw as minister was, that the rote system is killing that curiosity. But can you deny the parents the opportunity who want to stick to that rote system? You can’t. So you have to serve those varied interests and desires as minister. That whatever you desire—free education, fine! If your desire is scientific education, fine! If your desire is Indian knowledge, fine! We are here to serve that every need and every desire.
Q. If tomorrow you were to retire, what would you like to be remembered for?
Smriti Irani: For being audacious. If I ever have a grave, that is what it should read. And little earthling saying, ‘Thank god, she is dead. Now she is someone else’s headache.’
This excerpt from India Tomorrow: Conversations with the Next-Generation Political Leaders by Pradeep Chhibber and Harsh Shah has been published with permission from Oxford University Press.
News media is in a crisis & only you can fix it
You are reading this because you value good, intelligent and objective journalism. We thank you for your time and your trust.
You also know that the news media is facing an unprecedented crisis. It is likely that you are also hearing of the brutal layoffs and pay-cuts hitting the industry. There are many reasons why the media’s economics is broken. But a big one is that good people are not yet paying enough for good journalism.
We have a newsroom filled with talented young reporters. We also have the country’s most robust editing and fact-checking team, finest news photographers and video professionals. We are building India’s most ambitious and energetic news platform. And we aren’t even three yet.
At ThePrint, we invest in quality journalists. We pay them fairly and on time even in this difficult period. As you may have noticed, we do not flinch from spending whatever it takes to make sure our reporters reach where the story is. Our stellar coronavirus coverage is a good example. You can check some of it here.
This comes with a sizable cost. For us to continue bringing quality journalism, we need readers like you to pay for it. Because the advertising market is broken too.
If you think we deserve your support, do join us in this endeavour to strengthen fair, free, courageous, and questioning journalism, please click on the link below. Your support will define our journalism, and ThePrint’s future. It will take just a few seconds of your time.