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Women are not pleading, they’re leading: Smriti Irani

New Delhi: On the eve of the International Women’s Day, union minister for women and child development Smriti Irani spoke to HT on the challenges and opportunities the women have in the country, her role as a minister and the BJP’s battle axe against the Congress
By Vinod Sharma
PUBLISHED ON MAR 07, 2021 10:57 PM IST

New Delhi: On the eve of the International Women’s Day, union minister for women and child development Smriti Irani spoke to HT on the challenges and opportunities the women have in the country, her role as a minister and the BJP’s battle axe against the Congress. Edited excerpts:

We’re talking on the eve of the International Women’s Day. What’s your objective take on the status of women in our society?

We’re at a point in our history where we’ve recognized that women not only have to be empowered but they, as citizens, must lead the change. For too long the empowerment narrative gave the impression that we were the weaker lot who needed additional support. More and more women--be they the younger age-bracket or those who have seen struggle--now know that all they needed was equal opportunity to compete, equal access to resources and credit and an acknowledgement of their achievement. When the Prime Minister speaks of women-led development, it’s a tectonic shift in narrative terms. Women are not pleading; they’re leading in all spheres of life.

You may be right up to an extent. There are aberrations galore…

I don’t say that there aren’t any challenges. The challenges have been aplenty before but today there’s an affirmation that irrespective of the challenges we can move towards change on the socio-political and economic front.

Public outreach has to be there to sensitize the other gender. We’ve seen so many incidents (of violence against women)….

Our country has had an equal number of men who stood up for (gender) equality, who recognized the need to correct past wrongs. To paint all Indian men with one brush will be a disservice not only to the male gender but also to the female. Till such time that there’s recognition that both genders, for that matter all genders, need to work towards emancipation, I don’t think we’ll have a balanced outreach. Yes, there have been men who objectified women, who dissuaded women from reaching their full potential, who consistently broken the law, who ensured that women were kept away from resources and denied credit and respect. That said, there also have been men who stood shoulder to shoulder with their daughters, their wives. It’s a day also to acknowledge those men. You cannot look at all men in an inimical fashion.

Nobody looks at them inimically. There’s a need to co-opt the other gender to empower our womenfolk.

One of our achievements as a society has been that the gender narrative has acquired centrality. It’s not dismissed to the shadows, to just one day of celebration of international women’s day. There’s an affirmation: why only one day; why not apply yourself to solutions for women everyday; why not consistently celebrate the female potential?

Your averments prompt the question: Women’s empowerment which is a much discussed issue in metropolitan India gets diluted as we move to million plus cities and the countryside.

If you look at the political demography--- the voter turnout from 1962 to 2019--- it’s a matter of joy that the female participation has increased by 25-27 percent as compared to male voter turnout that’s up just about 7-8 percent. That predominantly has happened in rural areas. The trend shows an engaged voter consciousness among women. Many surveys and analysis brought to the fore that women have started voting on issues of development, infrastructure, security and the promises kept. What researchers call the sticky-ness factor showed that women stood steadfast with political organisations/representatives who delivered on issues of governance and development. It shows the maturity of the understanding women have of policies.

Why’s it that stringent penal provisions against rape and other forms of violence against women, haven’t been a good enough deterrent….

Deterrence comes from firm application of the law; by ensuring that investigation is speeded up. It comes with access to evidence-based justice, not justice which dis-balances (sic) the scale just because a decision has to be given in favour of a woman. There has been legislation which made the law more stringent; there’s effort as much to recognize that investigative and judicial processes need equal strengthening. Under the Nirbhaya fund we pronounced establishment of over one thousand fast-track courts especially in districts where the volume of crime against women and POCSO related cases was going up. That was a targeted intervention to support judicial processes additionally with funds. Looking at data from states, we’ve supported with funds police stations that do not have a women’s help desk. There’s a follow up by the MHA on these aspects. For the first time, we took steps to ensure that there’s an anti-human trafficking unit in each district of the country. The PM was insistent on ensuring that there’s a one-stop crisis centre in every district. West Bengal made the exception of not coming along on that process. But we today have 700 functional one-stop crisis centers that provide under one roof, medico-legal and police help to women victims. There’s a national emergency number (112). Its response time is less than 15 minutes. The emergency network replied to crores of calls in collaboration with state governments.

Laws come into play after the incidents. Isn’t prevention the key?

The national education policy which came to fruition after three decades has, for the first time, a gender-inclusion fund. It empowers the states fiscally by ensuring that there is money behind including gender not only up to grade VIII of education but also in enhancing the gender component in higher education. When we talk about societal change, we also have to focus on empowerment through STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Six years ago when I began the conversation about women in science, particularly STEM, the first steps I took (as education minister), with the PM’s blessings, was to have a woman lead the IIT council. Till 2014, we had never had a female lead the council! I remember walking into a room full of men and look at some of the most celebrated scientific minds and IIT leaders. I asked why there wasn’t woman in the room. They looked at me and said: don’t you suffice? I said I’m not the scientist or the technical mind. To that, a very celebrated scientist replied: well, we don’t have many women. Thereafter, I remember walking out of that room and calling Tessy Thomas, the lady who was with Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, working on the missile programme. I told her: Tessy, would you accept my invite to lead the IIT council? She obviously accepted because she’s a very conscientious woman in science. When I met her, she said: Smriti, nobody ever thought of me before. So it’s not that women do not exist in terms of competencies, it’s just that they don’t get recognized. That’s particularly challenging for women who don’t come from a pedigreed position.

That makes all the more important the need for the promised (33 per cent) quota for women in Parliament and state assemblies. Your party now has the legislative strength to make it a happen.

I was in the Rajya Sabha when it passed the women’s reservation bill (in 2008). The UPA (then in power) was in disarray on the issue. There was absolutely no support the Congress party had on it. Our leadership stood up and said they’d support the passage of the Bill-- and we did! Apart from the fact that the BJP is steadfast in its commitment for passing the Bill, what fascinates me--- when I speak of pedigreed women--- that there’s that nuance and bias even in politics. We have today 1.3 million women serving in our panchayats. It seems we never consider them politically potent enough to be mentioned. There’s a report that comes out every year on gender inequality index. When I took position as WCD minister, asked: do they consider these women at the panchayat level when they describe the process of political empowerment, when they speak (on international platforms) about women in positions of power? It was saddening to find that they weren’t recognised. When we talk of women in politics, one of the toughest jobs is to lead the panchayat, to be the sarpanch or the zilla panchayat head. We do a great disservice to women’s political talent when we don’t recognize that. It’s time that we gave equal importance to the prowess of women in panchayats. When the WCD ministry team sat down with the 15th finance commission, I told Mr N K Singh that we never had devolution of funds with a gender lens. They put it up in their suggestions to the government. I’m happy that for the first time, multi-sectoral/ multi-agency fiscal transfers will have gender as a consistent facet. It has never happened in any other country; it has happened for the first time in India. That too ought to be recognized and celebrated.

You didn’t address the core of my question— the likelihood of women’s reservation bill getting passed.

Has the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi ever shied away from its pronouncements in the manifesto? Aren’t Article 370 and Ram Janmabhoomi evidence enough? My party is resolute in its support of the bill. On the International Women’s Day, let’s also celebrate the potential of that woman who steps out of her home to take poll position as a sarpanch. They also need your attention.

Yours has been a long journey to politics from issue-based television and the entertaining industry. Has that helped?

I don’t why but I’m the only female politician who’s also recognized by her former vocation. It never happened to any other woman who possibly was a professional in another sphere and had come into politics. I recognize the bias in that. When you say oh, she used to be an actor you indicate that she possibly is not very serious on issues of policy and administration. It becomes that inflection point that helps to dismiss her capacities, her potential….. It becomes interesting when you look at the fact that as education minister, I made the first ever national ranking framework. Is there any recognition accorded to me for it? I conducted the largest ever consultation on education policy in our democracy. Would I get any kind of acceptance for that? On the PM’s direction, I created a network that had some of the best academicians from the world over, coming to India and teaching in government institutions. Under the PM’s leadership, we started a project called Imprint that brought together all research bodies, dedicating research to what India needs in the next decade and a half. It was dedicated to the country by then President Pranab Mukherjee. So it’s easier to dismiss the administrative capacity of Smriti Irani if you refer to her as former actor; to dismiss maybe what happened in I&B (ministry) where I processed the amalgamation of institutions working in silos. In the textile ministry we not only made India self reliant in PPE manufacturing but became the second largest exporter in the world in just three months? Absolutely it’s easy to dismiss Smriti Irani because you can just tag her as a former actress and not look at her administrative potential or contribution. There’s an incessant need (sic) to tag my previous vocation with my current avatar as a politician because otherwise, how can you reduce my capacities?

Your past is remembered because you were as a popular television person. Didn’t Sachin Tendulkar remain the champion cricketer and Lata Mangeshkar the legendary singer, as members of the Rajya Sabha?

They never did policy….none of them did policy

You’re the BJP’s battle axe against the Congress and the Gandhis. There’s story recounted in a book on the Amethi election you won. It says, you turned away a local politician who at a meeting with you, used low-brow language for Priyanka Vadra. Is that true? When does the woman in you take over from the politician?

The presumption is wrong if you think that they are in any way separate. I’ve never been afforded the same courtesy, be it Ms Vadra or her immediate friends circle or Mr (Rahul) Gandhi (and) his political positioning and support to men who sexually objectified me, mocked me or made explicit comments about me. I have not been afforded that compliment, that particular respect by the (Gandhi) siblings. That’s what makes me different from them. My value system is such that irrespective of the muck that they’ve thrown my way; irrespective of the explicit trolling, which was sexually very, very loaded, that their echo system unleashed against me, when it came to be measured it seems that I was a better woman.

So, the incident happened…

I will not comment because I’ve not read the book….I don’t understand why my politics has to be tugged to a star that’s drowning. My politics is much beyond the rambling siblings. I’ve spent a few years as an Opposition member as well. On the POCSO legislation I spoke on behalf of the entire Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. In 2013, I was a prominent speaker on the sexual harassment at workplace bill, not only from the Opposition but also the middle benches. When Meira Kumar was Speaker, I represented the Asia-Pacific region on the Syrian crisis in the International Parliamentary Union. I’m saying this today because, like I said, if a woman does not come from a pedigreed position, she’d be denied public recognition of her achievements. There wasn’t even a murmur when the world economic forum announced me as a young global leader in 2015. If some twiddling siblings were recognized with even a normal domestic award, there would’ve been much hoopla about it. As a minister I’ve spoken on issues which a BJP member wouldn’t conventionally be outspoken about. I stood up for women irrespective of ideologies and politics. I’m grateful that my party never admonished me for standing up for the value system that I hold dear.

Mamata Banerjee made the grade without being pedigreed. But you’d be campaigning against her as WCD minister in the upcoming Bengal polls.

Do you see the bias in your question? Would you ask a man to show deference to another man against whom he’s competing?

I’m asking because she’s the only sitting woman CM in our country…

That’s where the bias is. Why would you presume that a woman would not live up to the expectations of her organization or her politics by competing fairly? Why am I supposed to defer to a woman from another political ideology-- just because I’m a woman-- and do disservice to my ideology and my party?

Isn’t there something that you admire in Mamata Banerjee as a fellow politician and a woman?

I’m mindful of you seeking compliments (for Mamata) to bring a new twist to the campaign. But I will desist and tell you why. If she wants to use the women’s card, then why does she refuse to implement the one-stop crisis center that’ll help in every district the women who are victims of violence? Why’s she not implementing processes which will help better nutritional facilities for women and children? If she wants to use the gender card, she must do it holistically and answer why women (and children) in West Bengal will be denied protection, nutrition or administrative services that women across the country have been given.

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