On May 26, after the grand swearing-in ceremony of the Narendra Modi government, the most beaming face in the BJP was that of Smriti Irani. At 38, she had been made a cabinet minister and was being projected as the new woman face of the party. With her trademark sindoor and flashing eyes, the actress-politician accepted congratulations as if it was her due. Commentators on TV debates waxed eloquent about how this bright young woman, who had fought a gritty battle against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, now represented the future of the BJP. She epitomised Indian womanhood, it was said. She smiled and accepted many congratulations before the cameras.
But less than a year into office as Union HRD minister, the script for Tulsi, the legendary part Smriti Irani played in the country’s most famous saas-bahu TV serial, is going wrong. From queen bee, she is now in danger of becoming queen-been. She has already been dropped from the party’s national executive set up by party president Amit Shah. And the buzz in BJP circles is that she is likely to “be cut to size”. The possible scenarios being discussed are as follows: that she may lose the HRD portfolio and be shifted to a less significant ministry; that she may be altogether dropped from the cabinet and put to party work; that even if she somehow survives in HRD (she is naturally resisting an ouster and is doing her own counter-lobbying in the party and Sangh parivar), her wings would still be clipped and powerful advisors or an MoS will be brought in.
Smriti’s downgrading is a significant event—for during the run-up to the 2014 campaign she was the most visible spokesperson for Modi. She entered the Rajya Sabha in 2011 from Gujarat where Modi was the CM. As prime ministerial candidate, he went to campaign for her in Amethi where he told people that “I have sent my behen (sister) to you”. Even if Smriti was dropped from the 111-member national executive, around 300 people had gathered at the Bangalore do last weekend and she could have been included as a special invitee. She was not, an exclusion that could not have happened without a nod from Modi himself.
The basic problem, say sources in the BJP, is this. She has overplayed her hand in trying to position herself as someone who is close to and favoured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Simultaneously, she has also thrown her weight around in the party, with even colleagues in the government, as also bureaucrats. Complaints of rudeness, arrogance and temper have been carried to Shah, every inch Modi’s man.
Flaunting proximity and then being discourteous to others is what has been her undoing. There are numerous stories doing the rounds in the BJP that reveal the unattractive and arrogant side of Shrimati Smriti. For one, well-placed sources reveal that she wouldn’t stand up to greet BJP veteran (and the very polite) Union home minister Rajnath Singh; she would keep sitting in her chair.
There is also the story of a verbal cat fight inside the national headquarters of the BJP with another woman leader and an older account of Smriti pushing out a woman who had come to a Mahila Morcha meeting when she was in charge. An important BJP member also tells a more recent tale of writing to two ministries on a matter involving women. There was no reply from the HRD ministry though the home ministry sent a prompt letter.
Colleagues complain that Smriti does not respond to their requests for appointments. Says a BJP insider, “If she thinks someone may not be important in the larger scheme of things she will not give time. If she imagines someone is against her, she will sometimes not greet him or her. But till now in internal meetings or public rallies where the prime minister was present, she would carry herself like the queen bee of the proceedings. That is why people are quite pleased that Amitbhai has kicked her out of the national executive.”
Kicked out or kept out, it certainly was a loss of face for Smriti.
And it is now publicly known that while the executive met in Bangalore last week to discuss the land acquisition logjam among other issues, Smriti was in Goa and while there went shopping for some clothes. Till this point it’s all pretty regular stuff. But then the nation (or those who watch TV news) came to know that she was shopping when she made a public scene at an outlet of the Fabindia chain in Goa, where she claimed that the security camera was aimed at those who were trying out clothes in the trial rooms; she suggested that ‘peeping toms’ were violating privacy; the store claims the camera was directed at the door of the trial rooms to detect shoplifting. It’s now a police case and so the last word on ‘Smriti in Fabindia’ has not been heard.
But lots was said on the issue from within the BJP. MP Meenakshi Lekhi tweeted: “Do I smell a rat to obfuscate the BJP national executive meeting? Attempts being made not to cover NE meeting, instead cover some inane issues.” With peeping toms and rats in it, the story was certainly compelling. A member of the NE told Outlook, “Many people at the meeting wondered if Smriti had just had a tantrum and taken her temper out on Fabindia since she can’t shout at Amit Shah and throw files at him.” There have been remarks about Smriti imagining she is the “Jhansi ki Rani about to lop off four heads with her sword”. The punchline of this joke is that this rani may only injure her own head.
A senior BJP leader puts it quite bluntly, “She is very charismatic, bright and hard-working. But she seems to love a fight and that is something that is not required in peacetime. She seems to like controversy as it keeps her in the news. But her PR is so bad. Instead of charming people who come to meet her, she makes them uncomfortable. She is talented, so we are hoping to get her to change her ways.”
Part of the problem could be the huge chip she carries on her shoulder about her educational qualifications or the lack thereof. When she became HRD minister, her education became a matter of legitimate public interest. She had after all made contradictory claims in election affidavits about being a college graduate with a bachelor of arts degree. There is evidence of her having attended high school but the controversy over the college degree has never been settled. Then to add insult to her own injured pride, she declared rather foolishly at a meeting in Delhi that she also had a degree from Yale University in the US. It turned out that she was part of a group of MPs who went for a six-day crash course at Yale on leadership qualities. And so the ‘Yale graduate’ became the butt of jokes.
A group from IIT which went to meet her in the avatar of HRD minister had this to tell: the minister declared at least “seven times” that she was not illiterate. She was somewhat offensive, said one of the members, as she had perhaps decided that offence was the best form of defence. For if Smriti has had to cover a thin skin behind a thick hide, so to speak, she has done a commendable job of it. She has developed a persona of being aloof and indifferent. Says a woman leader from the BJP, “Smriti has also been the butt of sexist barbs and comments in Parliament and under normal circumstances we should all have been rallying around her. But the problem is that she does not seem to like most of us, so some of us would not dare to commiserate with her.” Still, to Smriti’s credit, she has endured those controversies involving sexist remarks well, eventually giving it back in a dignified manner. For instance, when Sanjay Nirupam of the Congress called her a ‘thumkewali’, she just took him to court.
“The problem in Smriti’s approach to politics,” says a BJP insider, “for which she has the talent and the ambition, is that she has found it necessary to seek godfathers, and if they don’t exist, to invent an imaginary closeness to powerful male figures.” Her first patron in politics when Smriti joined the BJP in 2003 was the late Pramod Mahajan. Just a year into the party, she made it known that she wanted to contest a high-profile election from Mumbai or Delhi.
Mahajan, then a key figure in the Atal Behari Vajpayee PMO, was able to ensure that she got to stand against Kapil Sibal in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. (Delhi’s Vijay Goel was miffed but he never said no to Mahajan). Smriti lost, but not before making a splash. It was during this era that she also made strong statements against Modi (Vajpayee and Mahajan were both ranged against the then Gujarat CM). It was only after Mahajan was shot dead in 2006 that Smriti very consciously worked to get herself into the good books of the most powerful chief minister in the BJP, a man who seemed poised for bigger things.
According to sources in the BJP, Anandiben Patel, now CM of Gujarat, was actually the individual who softened Modi’s attitude to Smriti. As a BJP leader quips, “There is one woman in the BJP to whom Smriti has been close and that is Anandiben and her daughter Anar, so actually that makes it two women friends in the BJP at the leadership level.”
Women in politics often run the risk of being objectified, particularly if they are not part of the bahu-beti brigade, that is women who are token representatives of men or come from a political dynasty. Smriti has made it to the top of the party on her own steam. As a former actress, she would inevitably have had to face pretty crude sexism from those who would resent the rise of a powerful woman.
And there’s no doubt that women can at times be as bad as men in spreading gossip, innuendo and resenting the rise of a rival. It’s human nature really, and the BJP has always been a party of great rivalries and competing ambition.
Ever since she entered politics as India’s favourite bahu (she’s never lost the look she was given in the Ekta Kapoor-produced serial), Smriti has been a star act in the BJP. She has also turned out to be much smarter and quicker on the uptake than other star acts in the BJP, most notably the beautiful and charming Hema Malini, who really does not contribute much beyond her presence. As a politician, Smriti is undoubtedly of a different calibre: she thrives in the cut and thrust of debate, in taking on challengers in the electoral battlefield, in giving smart replies to pesky reporters. She may not have degrees but it’s hard to doubt that she is a smart and savvy woman. Even her enemies do not doubt that she has proved her credentials as a campaigner and a spokesperson for the party.
The problem lies not in her ability as a political trooper or fighter (of that there is no doubt and what a good show she put up against Rahul in Amethi in 2014!). The problem it seems is in her temperament, a word presumably drawn from temper. Almost as dramatically as characters do in a TV soap, she loses her cool far too often when in politics people mostly keep up civilities even if they may stab each other in the backs. There are no drama queens or kings unless they are actually the charismatic leader around whom the party is constructed. Smriti certainly has attitude way beyond her stature in the BJP. She has just put off so many people that from heroine she is now being painted as the villain.