Author of Modi, Muslims & Media, well-known academic and senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Madhu Purnima Kishwar had cried foul at the induction of Smriti Irani as Union HRD minister in May last year. A self-confessed fan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she speaks of her disappointment with the PM’s choice in a candid conversation with Uttam Sengupta.
You had described Smriti Irani’s appointment as Union HRD minister as disastrous. Ten months later, have you revised your opinion?
Not just me; most people have come round to the view I held. Even those who were inclined to give her a chance, people who felt I was being unfair etc, have now come round to believe that her performance has actually been far worse than what they had expected.
Have you ever met her in person? What was your first impression?
I met her only once and that too some 15 years ago. She was anchoring a programme on TV and I was an invitee. I do remember exclaiming to my friends later at how glib she was. She could talk in both English and Hindi without conveying anything at all. She did have that gift.
So, you are not really surprised at how she has performed?
Well, I did not expect her to be as flamboyant. I, of course, knew that she would be making a fool of herself. Look, she is not even a serious housewife, because who in their senses would have advocated for schools to serve lassi in the midday meal? Even adults think twice before having lassi in the bazaar and here the minister was waxing eloquent about it—this was one of her first statements as minister that I read in newspapers.
Still, how would you assess her performance as minister?
Can anyone showcase one great initiative taken by her to change the course of education? One positive? On the other hand, it is shameful the way she is hounding the Delhi University vice-chancellor. Whatever little autonomy that IITs and IIMs enjoy is being trampled upon; at least 10 IAS officers to the best of my knowledge have opted to quit the ministry. VCs, IIT directors complain of interference, key bodies remain headless....
The prime minister, you had said, had the knack of picking up the right person for the right job. Why then did he choose her?
Find one person in the BJP who can find an answer. It is because nobody can find an answer that all kinds of rumours have been doing the rounds. It does no good to the PM and certainly not to her. It is a free-for-all out there.
Surely the PM would’ve had a good reason?
Her appointment unfortunately showed a deep disdain for education. We must acknowledge that there is a deep crisis in education. Even some of the interns at CSDS, each of whom has a PhD degree, cannot write four straight sentences. Even countries like Thailand have moved far ahead of us. We desperately need a course correction but that will require vision, capability, leadership, which she does not have. She cannot win elections on her own, she does not have a constituency, any organised group or votebank.
Isn’t is safer to assume that it is the prime minister who is the de facto HRD minister?
No, it is not; simply because he must be far too busy. How many ministries can he micro-manage? That can work in states but not at the Centre.
So you believe she needs to be dropped or given a less important portfolio?
Let us face it. She is a bad administrator. I will not trust her with even the jam and pickle ministry. And HRD, I believe, is far more important than even defence or finance. Not just because future generations of doctors, engineers, teachers and other professionals are being shaped by its policies and functioning but also because the HRD ministry helps create the ‘software of politics’. The unbridled hostility that the BJP faces from intellectuals, often unjustified, is because of what Congress governments and HRD ministers like Nurul Hasan did. But Smriti Irani does not even understand the challenges. It will be like making me the finance minister when I can’t even understand the break-up of my salary.
You have been the founder-editor of Manushi. What’s your reaction to the controversy about the CCTV camera in Goa?
She could have handled it better and been more discreet rather than create a scene. There is a BJP government in the state and they could have discreetly taken action without the attendant publicity, which has done no good to her. On the contrary, it lowered her esteem in the eyes of others. When Sharad Yadav told her in the Rajya Sabha that he knew what she was, did you see a single BJP MP come to her rescue? Did one of them walk out? Instead, they were all smirking. That is the kind of respect she enjoys even among BJP MPs.
What kind of reactions do you get to your criticism of her?
Every time I tweet about her ‘incompetence’, not one person comes forward to defend her record. (There are) those who do ask whether she is my ‘soutan’, “itna jalte kyun hain” etc. Shows the level of support she has.