During a heated debate in the Rajya Sabha in March 2015, socialist leader Sharad Yadav made controversial remarks about the complexion of women from a particular region of the country. When Smriti Irani, the then Human Resource Development minister, objected, Yadav told her nonchalantly: “I know what you are.”
The House was stunned. Few had expected a senior parliamentarian to utter such words. Yadav apologised, but cussedly after his old friend Arun Jaitley, the leader of the House, intervened. After the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Irani has ensured nobody would ever tell her “I know what you are”. She defeated Congress President Rahul Gandhi by over 55,000 votes in his pocket borough of Amethi.
To put Irani’s achievement in context, the last time a Nehru-Gandhi family MP lost an election from a family stronghold was in 1977 when socialist leader Raj Narain defeated Indira Gandhi from Rae Bareli by over 50,000 votes.
Irani debuted in electoral politics
in 2004. Barely 28 at the time, Irani was a household name after her role of an ideal daughter-in-law in the popular television series, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.
At her public meetings then, Irani would try to reprise her television persona. It brought people to her meeting but did not get her votes. She lost to Congress’s Kapil Sibal by over 70,000 votes in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk.
Missteps followed. She threatened to sit on a hunger strike if Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat, did not quit. She retracted after the BJP leadership conveyed she could face disciplinary action. For the next seven years, Irani continued with her television career and climbed the organisational hierarchy of the BJP. She was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat in 2011. Modi was still the CM then.
In 2014, Irani contested against Rahul Gandhi from Amethi. It was a memorable campaign for her and there was a time when it had seemed the Congress leader might lose, but he received the support of the Samajwadi Party at a crucial juncture and won by over 100,000 votes.
In the Narendra Modi cabinet that took oath on May 26, 2014, Irani was appointed the HRD minister. Her tenure was tumultuous. Academicians complained they felt insulted. There were several controversies during her time, including the one around the suicide committed by Hyderabad Central University student Rohith Vemula.
Irani, however, was no longer the demure bahu of 2004. She was now a combative woman and fought the only way she knew how to, with aggression, and not just with her political rivals but also within her party.
In March 2015, Irani was dropped from the BJP’s reconstituted national
executive by its President Amit Shah.
In July 2016, Irani was transferred from the HRD ministry to textiles. Apart from several controversies that had plagued her tenure as HRD minister, Irani’s educational qualifications were under a cloud, particularly her claim that she was a graduate. In her affidavit to the Election Commission for the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Irani has said she is Class XII-pass, and not a graduate.
Her year-long stint at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (additional charge) was also controversy ridden. In both HRD and I&B ministries, Irani had minders from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh who would persuade her to take several of the decisions but had no accountability, and she suffered the consequences.
However, Irani stamped her personality as the minister of textiles. It was one tenure of hers away from controversies, gave her time to devote to Amethi and she gave a push to Indian traditional saris. It is not uncommon for buyers to be told at some of New Delhi’s state government-run emporiums how a particular sari design was Irani’s idea.
Irani has also consolidated her network in the film industry and among the media. She has also mellowed in her treatment of bureaucrats. Irani is one of the best orators in the BJP, and now its leading woman leader after defeating Rahul.