In the two years of this government’s reign, no minister has made as much news as her. Ultimately, that may have proved Smriti Irani’s undoing.
So it was that five months after the greenhorn minister stunned the Opposition and, admittedly, even her own party by putting up a spirited defence on the floor of Parliament in the wake of the Rohith Vemula episode, it was time for Irani to be stunned.
And yet, party sources say, there had been signals.
Sources close to her told The Sunday Express that during her last two weeks at the HRD Ministry, Irani was aware her future there was uncertain. “She made casual remarks about not knowing if she would be around for long. When party colleagues and RSS workers called seeking small favours, she told them to wait till the first week of July,” says a source.
Irani also announced several new initiatives over the last two months which officials claim, in hindsight, also reflected her jitteriness about retaining the HRD portfolio.
Almost all are agreed though that the realisation may have come too late, with the 40-year-old minister, the youngest in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, stepping on just too many toes in her brisk climb to the top.
Still, the memory of Irani’s February 24 Parliament appearance is still fresh for anyone who saw it. In a masterful mix of English and Hindi, she named names, wagged her finger, waved documents, thumped her chest, banged her desk, brushed away tears, and didn’t spare anyone — from Congress leaders to BSP chief Mayawati, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao to Pappu Yadav, a Kashmiri student who had approached her for help to AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi — as she launched a verbal assault against those “who lay siege upon my integrity” and seek to “hang me”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had lost no time tweeting the link to Irani’s speech, adding ‘Satyamev Jayate’. BJP president Amit Shah, known to have had his disagreements with her even then, had acknowledged to friends, “Faido thayo (it has helped).”
Irani had by that time left campuses from JNU in Delhi to Hyderabad Central University in ferment, but her handling of the controversies had appeared then to have the full endorsement of the treasury benches.
However, say party sources, unease brew, particularly at how Irani had played loose and fast with some facts and at how she had treated Mayawati, many years her senior. Not exactly known for her restraint, the BSP chief had emerged from that episode with honour.
A Dalit MP told The Sunday Express Irani had made things “worse” for the BJP in UP, with the BSP’s district units circulating the video of Irani challenging Mayawati. “She has no idea what damage it can create for us in the state,” he said. But the BJP did.
As the dust settled over the Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar episodes, there was also rethink in the BJP over Irani’s treatment of the two incidents.
“She singlehandedly brought back the Dalit student issue which the party had managed to put behind it, by focusing on nationalism,” a BJP MP told The Sunday Express at the time.
Added another, “The party wanted it to be a nationalist vs anti-nationalist debate. Her reference to Rohith and Mahishasur united the Opposition in both the Houses.”
The fact that she became the face of the government for the angry students showed that much of their ire was directed at her.
Around the time of the Parliament speech, news reports regarding a meeting Irani had had with Central university heads in Surajkund, Haryana, also emerged, talking about how she had scolded and played headmistress to senior academics.
“She admonished us like school-going children and told us we should do our jobs well or we could be fired. At one point, she got pretty annoyed when she noticed a few people nodding off during a session. She even ordered one university official to leave the meeting because he tried to take a picture on his phone,” a vice-chancellor recounts.
AMU V-C Lt Gen (retd) Zameer Uddin Shah told The Indian Express of similar discourtesy, including Irani denying him an appointment for almost an year, till the PM intervened.
Irani’s behaviour was blamed for the resignation of Professor R K Shevgaonkar as IIT Delhi director, and scientist Anil Kakodkar as chairman of IIT Bombay, while she became the first education minister under whom two Central university vice-chancellors were sacked for irregularities.
While the protests of a few student leaders could be dismissed as Opposition politics, the BJP realised it couldn’t afford to be seen as antagonising academics across the board.
The decision to install the Tricolour at all government-funded universities “prominently and proudly” arose from that same V-C meet. It was later extended to Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas, but if Irani thought the Sangh would be pleased, it didn’t prove enough.
Irani’s tendency to not mince words and say things to people’s face had already ensured that she had few supporters in the government. Many in the party call her “Amethiwali Rani”, for her “imperious” ways.
Questions had been raised about the April 4, 2015, Fab India incident in Goa, where she said she had discovered a CCTV camera looking into a women’s changing room. Many felt she had blown the issue out of proportion at a time when the party’s National Executive meeting was on in Bangalore, taking media attention away from it. Just a month earlier, Shah had dropped Irani from the revamped National Executive.
In the run-up to her transfer to the Textiles Ministry, there was talk of her entering into scraps with several senior ministers.
In this, Irani appears to have overplayed her hand. The BJP is not a party where either cadre or party veterans can be ignored, and Irani wasn’t a Modi to get away with it.
Partymen talked about the disproportionate media coverage Irani drew because of her statements and actions, despite “remaining”, as they noted, a political lightweight.
Her recent spat with Bihar minister Ashok Choudhary for addressing her as “dear Smriti Iraniji” and with Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi, in which Irani insinuated something sinister in the Congress leader’s “interest in her security”, were seen by the party leadership as “unnecessary”, and part of the same story.
“Her failure to work as a team in the ministry and government came up for discussion whenever there was a reference to the performance of the Modi government. Her aggression was good to some extent, but too much aggression from a senior minister was becoming too costly for the government as well as the organisation,” says a party leader.
The proverbial last nail in the coffin was Irani ruffling feathers in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Over the last one year, the HRD Ministry under her resisted several changes, inputs and suggestions made by the PMO with regard to some key HRD projects.
The former HRD minister, sources said, would in private often hold a senior PMO officer responsible for nixing her efforts to take action against ex-Delhi University vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh.
On October 8 evening, just a few weeks before Singh’s term was to end, the HRD Ministry despatched a file to the President, urging that the V-C be put on “compulsory wait”. The ministry said Singh had nominated an honorary professor of the university to the search-cum-selection panel to find the next head of the institution, while rules forbid members of the panel from any association with the institution.
The file was called back the same evening and the move reversed within hours, at the PMO’s behest, sources said. The PMO felt the ministry did not have a strong case against Singh and it did not behove the government to embarrass a V-C just weeks before his tenure was to end.
Sources also talk of the HRD Ministry’s reluctance to grant Chinmaya Mission’s proposed institution, Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth, the status of a deemed university despite constant urging by the PMO.
The silent tussle between the HRD Ministry and PMO over the degree of autonomy to be given to IIMs and world-class institutions and the setting up of a Vedic Education Board as proposed by Baba Ramdev only strengthened the perception within Modi’s office that Irani’s ministry was resisting suggestions made by bureaucrats working closely with the PM.
The PMO asserted itself by virtually blocking Cabinet approval for the IIM Bill as the HRD Ministry did not accept two suggestions proposed by it.
Although Irani has never commented on her differences with the PMO, she is learnt to feel they were largely responsible for her transfer to the Textiles Ministry. The morning after the new portfolios were announced, she apparently made a light-hearted reference to this in her brief meeting with a group of HRD officers who had come to meet her.
Her relationship with the officers under her was also much talked about, though this had been on the mend over the last one year.
Her first year in HRD had been tumultuous, witnessing an exodus of bureaucrats amid speculation that they were unhappy with her “abrasive attitude”. Her personal secretary, Binita Thakur, had moved out in June 2015, becoming the seventh officer to leave before completing his or her stint.
Irani antagonised a few other officers by giving them abysmal ratings in annual performance appraisals, like a joint secretary-level officer, who moved out of the ministry last year. “His ACR was so bad it could have practically finished his career. She rated him less than five on a 10-point scale. So he escalated his grievance to then finance secretary R P Wattal,” says a source in the Finance Ministry.
Another joint secretary, who continues to serve in the ministry, is said to have applied for a review and for a Vigilance posting outside the ministry. “No good can come from ruining an officer’s ACR. It only damages your perception in the Cabinet Secretariat,” says a source in the HRD Ministry.
Irani also pulled up officers on the suspicion of leaking “negative stories” to the press, including once her private secretary for meeting a journalist.
Lately though, Irani and her officers had settled into a comfortable working relationship. She would consult Additional Secretary Rina Ray quite frequently, apparently impressed with how she had completed the target of constructing school toilets. This had earned Irani praise from the PM. The minister is learnt to have gifted the officer a handbag to thank her.
Outside the ministry, Irani had an uneasy relationship with NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant. During a presentation by the Aayog on education in March this year, Irani had countered Kant on many suggestions, in Modi’s presence, leading to an awkward situation. She had also snubbed him once for calling a meeting of HRD officers allegedly without her knowledge.
Lately, there was a persistent rumour that Irani was being considered to lead the party’s campaign in UP. Amid the swirl of reasons for the change in Irani’s portfolio doing the rounds of BJP office corridors, one of them is this. Amit Shah is personally supervising the election for the BJP and, sources say, the party leadership was not pleased at such talk. People close to Irani were said to be the source of these rumours and these, in fact, followed her into the Textiles Ministry.
Asked about this the day she took charge at her new office, Irani fell back on a line from a famous Bollywood song, “Kuchch to log kahenge, logon ka kaam he kehna”.
This presumption that UP was hers for the asking was seen in line with Irani’s habit of often highlighting her proximity to party bigwigs.
Recalling an incident in which Irani came out to instruct some women MPs who were waiting in the Lok Sabha lobby for orders from the party leadership, one leader says, “When an MP asked her whose orders she was delivering, she said, ‘When I gave it, whose direction could it be?’. She was quite candid about her proximity with the leadership and flaunted it.”
Mahila Morcha leaders say she gave the impression of having a direct line with the top leadership.
In reality, the lack of a caste base or a real electoral one makes Irani’s position vulnerable and dependent on party generosity. One Amethi contest doesn’t a career make, party leaders note.
In essence, the change of Irani’s portfolio is also the clearest signal that Modi could give to partymen, down the line, that no one is above scrutiny or indispensable. “Too many controversies shifted the focus away from the HRD Ministry and sometimes from the government itself. Our Prime Minister’s nature is not that he will let such things happen repeatedly,” says a BJP general secretary.
At the same time, even her rivals agree that Irani can’t be written off just yet. While unexpected, the allocation of HRD portfolio to her in 2014 was an acknowledgement of her hard work, dedication and capability.
As minister, Irani delivered many of the promises made by the PM and her party. The launch of the Global Initiative of Academic Network or GIAN, under which eminent scholars from abroad were recruited to teach students in higher education, and the indigenous ranking framework for universities and educational institutes were two such promises.
The ministry managed to clear pending appointments, including of eight vice-chancellors and heads of the AICTE, NCERT and Indian Council of Philosophical Research, and focused most of its resources on facilitating consultations for the new education policy.
The Irani-led ministry also completed the Swachh Vidyalaya target, building over four lakh toilets in government schools across the country.
Even the vice-chancellor who talked about how Irani had pulled them up at the Surajkund meeting admits, “She is bright and grasps finer details of any issue very quickly. But the minister is impulsive and her reactions can be a bit extreme sometimes. This comes across as immature.”
Irani’s supporters in IIMs and IITs say “she knows what she talks about”. One of her critics turned supporter working at an IIM says, “At the back of her mind she knew she didn’t have the scholarly credentials to do what she was doing. Smartly she played the ‘victim’ card, while making participants believe her memory power and firmness to take decisions were great enough to run the ministry. She wanted us to substitute modern ideas and deep vision with smart projects and achievable targets.”
A senior IIM director would get calls from Irani frequently, seeking advice, and remarks at how vigorously she pursued a matter she was interested in. “She was doing more good than bad, but the fear of her party’s Hindutva agenda vitiated our judgment of her,” he says.
An HRD Ministry official points out that the fact that Irani held firm to the ministry’s stand on several recent issues despite pressure from the PMO could be read two ways. “You could call her confrontational, or appreciate that she stood by the advice of her officers and did not relent under any external pressure.”
Says a Left MP, “Irani is one of the performing ministers. If you approach her with a request, she will go out of her way to get it done. But she does not know how to behave. Sometimes I feel she takes all these things (the ministership, power) for granted.”
That’s what she should guard against, a party leader agrees. “If Irani takes the Textiles Ministry as an opportunity, mends her ways and works hard — which she is good at — she could take off again. She has the calibre and acumen to do it.”
To the small group of mediapersons who went to meet her on her first day in her new office, Irani said she considered the textile portfolio as another opportunity from the PM.
But even Irani must realise that the bounce-back has to swift. Some BJP leaders are already talking about how while Irani was brought in as a counter to Sushma Swaraj, the newly appointed Kurmi leader from UP and Apna Dal leader Anupriya Patel could rise like Irani.
“Patel is educated, articulate like Irani and her caste also will play to her favour,” a leader says.
However, Patel has a long, hard way ahead.
And it would do her good to listen to a party leader’s summation of Irani: “Smriti is more than the sum total of her known achievements, and much less than what she actually tries to portray.”
Outside Parliament, Irani is known to be a very strict mother. She has said she does not allow her two young children to use cellphones, watch TV or use the laptop. According to sources, she had complained to the principal of her children’s school after coming to know one of their friends used her mobile phone past midnight.
Irani often brings up her own mixed-religion marriage to counter charges of intolerance. In Parliament, she described herself as “married to a micro minority”.
Her selection for HRD portfolio after the massive 2014 win came as a surprise. Insiders say while the RSS was not pleased about the ministry in which it had much stake going to the newcomer, Modi and Shah picked her as they wanted a spunky woman leader to prop up against Swaraj, who had opposed Modi’s candidature as PM.
It was felt that being rather new to Delhi, Irani would be amiable to “control”, while given her screen exposure, she would be able to easily engage with the relentless media.
Perhaps both Irani and the Modi-Shah combine appreciate the irony of that now.