Irani, known for her high handedness, frequent run-ins with bureaucrats & the media had become a ‘political liability’ for the party, especially with Lok Sabha elections due in 2019.
New Delhi: A day before the fate of his party in the crucial Karnataka polls was to be decided, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did some political damage control and removed Smriti Irani — one of the most controversial ministers in his government — from the key information and broadcasting ministry.
Irani has been replaced by her deputy Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, who will hold independent charge of the I&B ministry.
Besides Rathore, the party also expressed faith in another young gun — railways minister Piyush Goyal, giving him temporary charge of the finance ministry until senior leader Arun Jaitley recovers from a kidney transplant.
Irani a ‘political liability’
Top sources in the BJP say Irani, known for her high-handedness, frequent run-ins with bureaucrats and media as well as impulsive decisions, had become a “political liability” for the party, especially in a year that will witness key state assembly polls as well as the Lok Sabha election due next year.
According to sources, it was the public humiliation for the President’s office over the National Film Awards ceremony caused by the Irani-led I&B ministry’s mismanagement that was the “last straw”. The decision to remove her was taken right then, but the party wanted to wrap up the Karnataka election before announcing a reshuffle.
This isn’t the first time Irani has been divested of a high-profile portfolio. After her controversial stint in the human resource development ministry, fraught with several instances of mismanagement that caused much embarrassment to the government, she was divested of the portfolio in mid-2016. As HRD minister too, Irani had several spats with the bureaucracy, academia and media, which brought the government negative publicity for months.
Irani, who was known to enjoy PM Modi’s confidence earlier, was then rehabilitated and given the I&B ministry in mid 2017. Sources say the BJP top brass, however, feels despite being given a second chance, Irani “did not mend her ways”.
She began her stint on a contentious note with her decision to initiate massive transfers of Indian Information Service officers across the country, only one of the many steps in this less than a year stint that left the government red-faced for its arbitrariness and overpowered any actual work done by the ministry.
Most importantly, however, it was her confrontational approach with the media that is said to have irked the party high command the most. Irani had issued a press statement indicating stringent penalties for journalists —including permanent cancellation of their press accreditation cards — for publishing “fake news”, but was forced to withdraw it after a rebuff from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Sources claim she had taken the decision suo motu and the high-handedness of it, as well as the backlash it brought, had angered the PM.
The decision to remove Irani was also driven by the party leadership’s exasperation over her having greatly antagonised the media in a tough election year.
The leadership also believes her moves give unnecessary ammunition to the opposition, a situation the party would want to avoid this year when the opposition would anyway be on an overdrive to attack the government.
Irani, who started off as a Modi baiter but soon turned into a supporter, had her biggest moment under the sun when she was picked to contest against then Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in the high-profile battle for Amethi, where she put up a spirited fight.
Now while she will focus on fighting the Lok Sabha election against Rahul next year, her political position too has been greatly undermined after her removal from important portfolios, a clear indication that she no longer enjoys the Modi-Shah combine’s confidence.
Elevation of Goyal and Rathore
The fact that Goyal was picked to head the finance ministry despite recent allegations of impropriety and conflict of interest with regard to his businesses clearly shows he has the BJP leadership’s complete backing and is in for a long haul.
Goyal is articulate and suave, with a solid understanding of finance and policy. Sources say he is an asset, being seen as a “progressive face of the party” and can traverse the media well — qualities which, in fact, Jaitley has been known for.
Rathore, meanwhile, is clearly being groomed for a bigger role in Rajasthan, where the party is in a way facing a leadership crisis. Chief minister Vasundhara Raje is on a downward slide, facing massive unpopularity. The party looks at Rathore, who is from Rajasthan, as someone who can fill in that gap after the forthcoming assembly election, and take over the reins from Raje.
In addition, Rathore fits all the important bills for the party — he was in the Army, perfect for a party that likes to play on the patriotic connect. His background in sports and the fact that he is an Olympic medalist also gives him good ground to appeal to the youth — another constituency the BJP wants to nurture.