Smriti Irani or Tulsi Virani: Will the real HRD minister please stand up

  • Jyoti Sharma Bawa, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 22, 2016 21:30 IST
Union HRD minister Smriti Irani meeting students at Tika Ram Degree College during its 150th anniversary celebrations in Aligarh on Thursday. (PTI)

In the narrow bylanes of Chandni Chowk, TV’s favourite bahu Tulsi Virani was working hard to reinvent herself. The year of 2004 and India was in the throes of a general election.

A sizable chunk of Bollywood and TV celebs were contesting but even then, Irani stood out. The straight talking TV bahu from Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi -- who gunned down her own son on the show after he raped a woman -- was in character on the campaign trail.

Tulsi Virani stood for family values and greater good. She did not mind going against her own for what she considered was right and she was never afraid to speak her mind.

Hair neatly combed back, saree tied up with a lotus-shaped pin and bowing to elders with a smile – Irani adopted the look of TV’s adarsh bahu and her blunt approach. While the rest of the star campaigners were only leveraging their screen persona, she adopted the fiery nature of her character.

But whether cameras were on or off, Irani could effortlessly switch on the political talk. She had what other stars lacked, a political acumen and bullheaded approach of jumping headlong into debates and fights. She never shied from a good fight and didn’t know how to step back.

For her, attack was the best form of defence and that was a game she knew well. She lost those elections but won the fight.

Read: Smriti Irani orders judicial inquiry into Dalit scholar’s suicide

Now, 13 years later, the bahu persona has not slipped. But instead of being her strength, the same attitude may have become an impediment for her and her party. A number of controversies are a dead giveaway: the resignation of bureaucrats and director of II-Delhi, German-Sanskrit row, II-Mumbai chairman’s resignation and so many more. Oh, she almost became the Grinch who stole the Christmas and then blithely denied it.

She is still a part of a big parivaar, and was famously introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as his “chhoti behen” in Amethi. However, going by all the controversies she has courted during her sojourn at the HRD ministry, may soon get the reputation of a prodigal.

Watch: Behind Rohith Vemula suicide

The latest in the list is the Rohith Vemula suicide. The 26-year-old PhD scholar’s suicide landed her in a massive political controversy with critics alleging that the HRD ministry pushed for the Dalit students to be punished by sending five reminders to the university’s vice-chancellor after labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya complained to Irani’s department.

Vemula had been on suspension since September. Days after his death, the HRD minister intervened ostensibly to assuage the feelings at the Hyderabad University. She ended up doing the exact opposite but something very typical of her: Attack.

Read: 10 controversies surrounding Smriti Irani

“A group of students allegedly attacked another student; we have ascertained that this is not a Dalit vs non-Dalit confrontation,” she said. “The students challenged the order of suspension from hostel, HC refused to put a stay on the order,” she raged. The fire which might have been extinguished with the right approach was now raging.

Ten professors, all belonging to SC/ST communities, quit in a show of solidarity with students the next day and also alleged Irani’s statements were fabricated. Opposition also ramped up their protests and demanded her resignation.

Irani is a fighter, a lone wolf who made her own career. A sometime-McDonald server, a beauty queen, a TV star and a political leader – this is not an arc we see often in India, especially not when there is no mentor in the shadows.

She may still surprise the naysayers. But for that the bahu needs to exit from the camera and let the politician take the stage.

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