When Prime Minister Narendra Modi revealed his shuffled pack of ministers on Tuesday, he laid to rest some viral rumours. But the biggest surprise wasn’t even guessable.
Modi demoted Smriti Irani — one of his most high-profile ministers — from a position from where she gleefully hogged headlines, too often for the wrong reasons. There’s little doubt that it’s a steep fall for Irani from the human resources portfolio to the unglamorous textiles ministry.
Irani was widely regarded as one of Modi’s favourites. Not quite, it turns out. Her controversial but hands-on involvement in the education sector was frequently tom-tommed as a sign of performance. She has often been accused by the Left of ‘Hinduizing’ India’s school and college curricula.
Irani must have been naïve to think she had been impressing Modi with her repeated run-ins with university chairs in implementing the so-called right-wing agenda. The former soap opera star made a phenomenal entry into the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2003, after becoming a household name.
In the TV series ‘Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi’, she played the role of a gritty daughter-in-law who upstages her in-laws — a role model for young women. To be sure, Irani broke many glass ceilings. When she decided to contest against Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in the 2014 polls, she wasn’t expected to win. But she pulled a heavyweight scion out of the comfort zone of a family pocket borough.
The first controversy struck when detractors accused her of never attending college. She responded by saying she went to Yale. When it turned out she had attended a week-long workshop at Yale, she was widely lampooned.
The crisis set off by the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s student union, almost went out of hand. Many believed Irani had shown — over the course of two controversial speeches — she could be Modi government’s ‘destroyer’ inside Parliament.
To give her what is due, she can indeed take the fight to the enemy’ s camp. Her abrasive speeches scuppered the Opposition’ s plans of punching the Modi government in the face on the issues of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide.
Irani has had blistering Twitter spats too. She recently slammed a Bihar minister for addressing her as ‘Dear’. Detractors have called her a “drama queen” for her tantrums.
Her hardline nationalism has earned her the tag of “aunty national”. Her political career has often had a fairy-tale quality about it, but this is not the happy ending she’d have imagined.