Cut down to size or cut from a different cloth?

  • Ayaz Memon, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jul 08, 2016 00:07 IST
Smriti Irani (Hindustan Times)

The media speculated on a “reshuffle”, the official BJP party line was that it would be an “expansion”, but when the revised cabinet was made public on Tuesday night, it was both of these and more.

It is hardly unusual for governments to rejig the cabinet after some time in power (in this case two years), but the significance is not only on who is moved where and who has been included, but also why.

Apart from all else, in my opinion, the reshuffle/expansion/reconstruction played out shows a carefully deliberated approach towards improving the government’s equity with the people that had been steadily declining.

This comes through clearly in the shifts made in the human resource development, information and broadcasting and external affairs ministries. Apart from finance and defence these demand constant interaction with the media and shape public opinion about the government.

The constant strife between creative people – writers, film producers and directors, the FTII etc – has seen a major change in the I&B ministry. And the external affairs minister, who has been largely preoccupied with rescuing stranded Indians -- now has a junior minister to offset the regular foot-in-mouth problem of the other junior minister.

However, former HRD minister Smriti Irani is reckoned to have taken the biggest blow. She is of special interest to this column not only because she looked the safest, but also because in many ways she is a product of this city.

She comes from Delhi, has fought elections from the capital but Smriti found livelihood and fame in Mumbai. This is the city which shaped her worldview substantially one would assume. Not adhering to such congenial worldview was arguably also her letdown.

Whether she has been demoted is contentious. As textile minister, she will be integral to the government’s Make In India thrust, more so with the anticipated new policy. A package of Rs 6,000 crore to achieve this is not an assignment to be sniffed at.

However, this is certainly not a promotion. At best, it can be seen as a lateral transfer. But this comes without the lustre and profile of her earlier portfolio. In that sense, her power has been whittled down substantially.

The disenchantment with the first-time minister is not sudden, but has been gradual. When she was included in the cabinet there was widespread disbelief. She was a political lightweight the skeptics argued. Handling the HRD ministry was an onerous task where several more accomplished had fumbled.

But there were some things going for Smriti. She was young, glamorous and a fresh political face. She was feisty, glib, unwavering in her loyalty and ever willing to take the battle into the rival camp. She seemed worth a punt.

Unfortunately, it backfired. While she was all fire and brimstone – and frequently melodramatic – over a period of time came across as constantly combative, needlessly confrontationist, and incapable of understanding or tackling complex issues with finesse.

The spat with Anil Kakodkar – who resigned as chairman of board of governors of IIT-Bombay because of her excessive meddling early last year – was among the first of many that were to dot her two-year stint.

In Mumbai, the turmoil also grew in TISS over the HRD ministry’s ad hocism. Over time this snowballed into conflagrations in universities across the country, most damagingly Hyderabad and JNU.

Smriti was seen at loggerheads with both students and teachers. This became alarming from the government’s point of view. While it has been overtly disdainful of “intellectuals”, the NDA was still consciously striving for thought leaders in academia.

More damagingly, students who had voted in huge numbers for Modi as Prime Minister were getting distraught. Even in largely apolitical colleges and campuses in Mumbai this was becoming evident.

With controversies mounting, Smriti became even more recalcitrant, the lack of experience coming through. Her tribulations are best explained by William Safire’s superb imagery in his New Political Dictionary, “In boxing, a lightweight can be an excellent fighter. In the political arena, weight categories do not exist to protect the light from the heavy, and the fastest lightweight is easily taken by the slowest heavyweight.’’

Whether this experience will help add heft to Smriti’s career or stymie it will be among the more interesting stories in Indian politics going ahead.

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