When Smriti Irani, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s recently appointed vice president, was still a schoolgirl in Delhi, her parents invited an astrologer to predict their three daughters’ futures. He declared that while her two younger sisters would do all right, “badi ladki ka kuchh nahin hoga.” Stung, Smriti told him, “Check on me ten years later!”
Her parents — her half-Punjabi half-Maharashtrian father and Bengali-Assamese mother — had no big dreams for her either; they just wanted her to get married to a good boy.
But Smriti had other ideas. Growing up in Delhi, the self-confessed quiet bookworm wanted to become a civil servant or a journalist. Her father thought that neither profession would suit her. So she did the next best thing she could think of. She packed her bags and left for Mumbai, because it was, she says, “the city of possibilities.” Then adds, with a laugh, “But the day I left, the only thing certain was my failure.”
And it certainly did seem like that. Smriti decided to enter the Miss India contest (“I thought free mein grooming bhi ho jayega!”), where nobody thought she would win (she didn’t).
But even there, she says she told the other contestants, “In the years to come, you will talk about me, not the winner!” No one knows what that year’s beauty queen, Lymaraina D’Souza, is upto these days, but you can hardly say the same for Smriti.
Back then, though, nothing seemed to go right for her. She would turn up for TV auditions (someone at the Miss India contest had told her she was a natural in front of the camera) and keep getting rejected. Meanwhile, she had a loan — she had borrowed money from her father — to pay off.
She took the first job she could find — clearing tables and cleaning the floor at a new McDonald’s in Bandra. “All I wanted at that point was to graduate to the next level where I would be the one standing and welcoming guests to McDonald’s. That meant more money.”
Her first TV break came when she got a call from the producer of a show called Bakeman’s Ooh La La. “The regular anchor, Neelam, had fallen ill, so I was asked to fill in,” she recalls. That’s where TV producer Shobha Kapoor (Ekta Kapoor’s mother) spotted her.
One thing led to another and Smriti was signed on to play the lead role of Tulsi in the Hindi serial, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. But the director and crew took one look at her and decided she must have come to audition for the role of a bai or some other inconsequential character. “‘You can’t possibly be playing Tulsi!’ they told me,” says Smriti.
Kyunki… ran for eight years and Smriti became India’s most famous television actress even as her character, Tulsi, became India’s most loved bahu. She says she never saw even a single episode of the serial though: “I was working 20-hour shifts! Where was the time?”
Shailaja Kejriwal, then the executive producer on the show, explains the Tulsi phenomenon. “Tulsi became the emerging middle class Indian woman, the kind of person who was “safely pretty” (pleasant but not desirable by others), who was a good but not docile bahu, and someone who would rather save a domestic situation than think of herself. Everyone wanted Tulsi to be their daughter or sister or daughter-in-law.”
Tulsi was a role tailormade made for an aspiring woman politician’s fast-track entry into politics.
In 2003 (Kyunki… was still at its peak), Smriti joined the BJP, which was then in the process of inducting high-profile showbiz stars into its fold. Why did she choose the BJP though? “I come from a family of swayamsevaks,” reveals Smriti, “though that’s probably a bad name in your paper!
My maternal grandfather was a swayamsevak. My mother was a karyakarta and had an association with the Jan Sangh. It’s just that no one from my family had been office bearers or got into electoral politics. But I thought that if one wanted to bring about genuine change, this was the way to go.”
Her rise in the party has been steady and swift. In 2004, she was made the vice president of the Maharashtra Youth Wing. In 2010, she became the all-India president of the BJP Mahila Morcha. And in 2011, she became a Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat.
But Smriti faced what was probably her biggest political challenge within just a year of joining the party: the BJP fielded her against the Congress’s Kapil Sibal in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections in Chandni Chowk. She lost. But Smriti claims that that one election was worth ten years of political experience.
"Many people wrote me off after that," she says. "But I thought differently. I was not going to get disheartened by one initial hiccup. I think this attitude of mine comes from Rudyard Kipling, an influence right from childhood."
Would she contest the seat again in the next election? In fact, it is being said that with her star on the ascendant, she could even be a future ministerial candidate. Smriti moves smoothly into formal partyspeak: "I’m already a Rajya Sabha member. What the future holds for me depends on what the party wants me to do.
Speculation is part of political life, especially given the expanse of the media today. But the idea is not to fuel speculation for personal gain. The idea is to project your party. I have never used the media to propagate anything about my political future. I have kept a low profile for a decade!"That is certainly not true any longer.
For the last year or so, Smriti has been one of the BJP's most visible faces in media interactions, holding her own forcefully in noisy TV political debates, always with her bindi, sindoor and sari — or some would say, Bharatiya nari image — intact.
Her most infamous encounter was with the Congress’ Sanjay Nirupam on ABP News where the latter remarked, ‘Aap to TV pe thumke lagati thi, aaj chunavi vishleshak ban gayeen.’ Smriti, in turn, accused Sanjay Nirupam of having a ‘sadak ka goonda’ attitude.
ABP News anchor Kishore Ajwani who moderated that particular debate, says of her television style: "She makes good use of TV and I think she realizes that it can be an impact multiplier for a politician. Politicians try to use the limitation of time on TV to their advantage by outshouting the other side and she has been quick to learn that too." In her defence, Smriti points out, "I am naturally argumentative!"
GROWING IN THE PARTY
These days of course, she is known as one of Narendra Modi's most ardent supporters on TV debates. She’s one among a clutch of women politicians batting for Modi on TV, sometimes derisively dubbed the Gujarat leader’s Charlie’s Angels. Smriti is not amused. "It’s a very sexist jibe. How many men would be called something like that?" she asks frostily
But ask her why she thinks Modi is the best choice for Prime Minister and once again, she responds with bland formality, "Our Prime Ministerial candidate will be decided by the Parliamentary Board, but yes, I can talk about Modi as a leader. What strikes me about him is his ability to give talent an opportunity."
This is a long way from her stance in 2004 when she attacked him, and demanded his resignation over the Gujarat riots. Political analysts say those were still her greenhorn days. Facing disciplinary action from the party, Smriti withdrew her statement within hours. And now an impenetrable curtain has fallen over that chapter.
Today she does all the right things in the BJP. She’s available for party work at all times. (Even years ago, when she was still shooting for Kyunki… but was required to campaign for Vasundhara Raje Scindia in Rajasthan, she would feed her baby — she is married to a Parsi, Zubin Irani, and has two children — catch a flight to Rajasthan, do the campaigning, take a flight back, attend to her baby and then shoot at night for the serial.)
She is in demand for rallies and campaigning as she is fluent in Hindi, English, Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali. She is very much part of the BJP's new generation of ambitious, aggressive women leaders. Given the average age of Indian politicians, she’s almost an infant - just 37. So yes, the future does look bright.
The astrologer who predicted that Smriti would never make anything of her life clearly wasn’t very good at his job.