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[00:00:00] Snigdha Sharma: Welcome to another episode of express conversations, a podcast where eminent voices from the world of politics, sports business, and the arts talk to us about their life and work, and issues that really matter. In this episode, union minister for women and child development Smriti Irani was in conversation with the executive director of The Indian Express Group, Anant Goenka and the national opinion editor Vandita Mishra.
Changing roles have marked Smriti Irani's career. From the lead character in a prime time television series, two looks about candidate who arrested the Gandhi family, bastion of Amethi in the 2019 elections to a member of the cabinet where she most recently piloted the prohibition of child marriage amendment, bill of 2021 which seeks to raise the legal age for marriage, for women from 18 to 21.
Irani is now an author too. As five states go to the polls next month, Smriti Irani will be among the star campaigners for her party. Fluent in several languages. Irani has emerged as one of the BJP's most significant voices, both inside and outside the parliament. As the women and child development minister who earlier held the HRD and the IB portfolios, she has introduced seven landmark bills in the parliament . Her ministryalso amended the juvenile justice act was a long way to trafficking in persons prevention, care and rehabilitation. Bill of 2021 is to be introduced in the parliament sooner. This conversation with her ranges from the upcoming elections education women's issues, and a lot more.
[00:01:39] Anant Goenka: Let's start with UP because that's always the hot state and the hot topic of conversation, even now, you know, you've had an incredible experience and as has been said, many times you've done something quite audacious, quite commendable as an outsider to watch your own experience in UP how did that happen and where do you see the situation politically?
[00:01:58] Smriti Irani: I think those who are in the know of the politics and the mechanisms of how socially UP has evolved through the years can ascertain for you a BJP victory in the forthcoming assembly elections. From my personal experience, my own grandfather, my mother is from Uttar Pradesh, Muradabad . So my memories from the state are plenty.
However, my political memories are also this. I've had the greatest privilege of serving the constituency Lok Sabha Amethi, which is quite interesting demographically also because one Vidhan Sabha Amethi lies in Janpad Raibareily. So it's not as if Amethi is too far from the political precipice of Raibareily.
We find that it's intertwined between these two districts and a smattering of a few villages from Sultanpur so if you look at the positioning of Amethi today, it has a female MP, but then there is one I've had the privilege of, uh, congesting from a meeting. They are 2014 and I had just 20 to 25 days of contests then.
And BJP had never clocked more than 30,000 votes but in that 20 to twenty-five days, our transition was from 30,000 votes to three lac votes and that in itself was significant for me personally, for me, it meant as though there were people waiting for change, there were people waiting for an option, and I knew the social circumstances of those who voted against the Gandhis.
ostracized for years, many war brought too many illegal methodologies of pressurizing them to walk thestraight Gandhie family line. I knew how difficult and what a challenge it was those voters to come out. And it was a promise for me that I will stay with them for the next five years. I still need people noticed a new candidate.
I kept saying that I do not know who the candidate will be, but I asserted that where it be BJP will win this. It sounds audacious at that time, it sounded as an impossibility, but my belief stemmed from the people's sparks patient that I saw. I'm Rachel that nobody considered me. And again, this can read from a meaty and we could bring victory to the baggage of the body there.
I would not make disparaging comments about the citizens of Vici. There have been more than one. They've been more than kind, and it's been an absolute privilege to see.
[00:04:24] Vandita Mishra: Ma'am uh, you were defeated once and yet you came back and the new one, such a famous victory in Amethi you defeated a Gandhi in the Gandhi bastian you are also one of the BJP star.
not just in UPU would be a star campaigner, wherever election state. But particularly in, you've been given your connection now, are you also varied at the kind of campaigning that we are seeing already that has begun? Like, you know, the latest we heard was that, uh, the chief minister said that it would be a contest between 80% and 20%.
So are you worried that there is an escalating polarization that has begun.
[00:05:03] Smriti Irani: I don't know why you do not see polarization when the is where the party leader speaks about seeing Lord Krishna and his. I don't know why you don't see polarization when you have Mrs. Badra go and pay respects at a mosque. I don't see why you don't see polarization where Mr.
why the torrent of polarization or the question does posed only with regards or in reflection of a BGP that Mr. Yogi has embraced the Hindu for way of life is not unknown to anybody. And it is, is, uh, position irrespective of his politics. But I think that the fundamental basic foundation on which the elections are being fought are on the issues of development
not one cannot deny the number of interventions that have become a part and parcel of everyday life and UV, which oscillates from let's say construction of homes for the poor. In fact, my district was positioned number one in the entire country under the . And then many such accolades that have been not to the ups administration, but one must recognize that we've had five years in governance and in NCBA.
And we have tried to bring these fruits of development to an area where issues of development were not political or electoral significance. So I'm grateful that today in the electoral battlefield depredation issues of devlopment have become significant. The fact like I'll be hit mistakenly, a report signifies that they are trying to polarize the lecture.
I wonder why that resection is not. These
[00:06:41] Vandita Mishra: include the Rahul gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav what they see I'm seeing in the bigger picture. When you look at UP do you worry that these voices that increase polarization will round out the other issues there
[00:06:55] Smriti Irani: I don't think that, development. Any issue will deflect from the issue of development
I think as a part of the conversation, if you have a question, postal political leader and a response. Possibly introspected upon or for that matter dissected, you may find some midlines in it. However, if you've seen most of the conversations of the chief minister with the physician, for that matter, the BJP leadership, they have stem permissions of deadlock.
And I reiterate, like I said, that this entire election will be formed on the issue of. So when I speak about how the issue of Deb, not for the center to do duplication politics or the governance model of the , I must remind you that recently the chief minister was in my constituency and we spoke about infrastructure, which has never built a constituency with saw the Gandhi family for 50.
Uh, family that had, we send it every political organization in this data with the Finnish samajwadi party and VSP were extremely close and Gandhi family, and they were apart of the coalition government. However, he gave the fruits of development. The ways of people given their political partnerships is something matter of conversation amongst citizens amongst water.
So I don't think you can deny that this election is as much about devlopment as much. It is about. Bandings your governance with regards to somebody's wedding party or the Congress Party
[00:08:21] Anant Goenka: and Smriti Ji
but the, the idea of women as a vote bank, is this something that we're seeing this, something becoming more and more in your face across the country,
[00:08:32] Smriti Irani: the bank has been considered only by those discovered the fact that yes, we would have been more than aggressive.
About their political opinions or for that matter, they books. But when the prime minister came to office in the year 2014, building toilets was not a part of a political manifesto. It was a way of life that needed to be addressed in terms of challenges that. Yeah, or face now they are certain political voices who say toilet, but not, I believe one search interview has just been given on India today.
And I think those who have the comfort of having a promote every morning, waiting for them, we'll never understand the struggles of poor women and their family. So for me, what has been exchanged. I think Hawk said, and hopefully as a female politician, a politician per se, from a family who should not come from very strong economic means it is heartening to see a prime minister, the women's agenda at the top of his priorities in terms of governance now recognize that this happened in 2014.
So it was not an election plan. It was not an election promise and there was no need for him to Indian for a particular segment of society in the year, 2014. If you remember, when the prime minister came to office, we only had 28% women who had a bank account savings bank account. Now that was not a priority.
I'm grateful that the prime minister prioritize that to ensure that there is financial independence that is afforded to them. And these are women who also were never allowed access to a small enterprise. The resounding success of how Woodrow was accessed by women in this country, especially those who operate small businesses is a matter for celebration for everybody.
And like I said, let me do it today. Let me remind you. These were initiatives that the prime minister undertook when he just came into. Right. I believe this as a walk back he did. So because he believed the women of our country deserve better and that they are equal partners and participants in the development of our country.
[00:10:32] Anant Goenka: Absolutely. I think my question is more, the fact that people are discovering this now, other political parties didn't look at that in 2014. Is there a change you think, or was it always the case? Like, were women always voting independently, you know, independent of how the families. Or is that something which is now new and even which is now more pronounced than it was before?
[00:10:52] Smriti Irani: One cannot disregard that they have been segments in our community where women have been compelled to vote in a particular way. But I think that this new India is about women understanding their rights, choose on political parties on the basis of issues of them not. And I'm grateful that, that this.
That when you go to gold, you do so on the least funny was first introduced an Indian polity, beheading Welch Moby has built so wonderfully on that negative as a matter of rejoice.
[00:11:24] Anant Goenka: But how do you think that this changes, how politics and how politicians kind of campaign in India? I mean, especially in P and we hire, you know, there's a basic tasks and ethic that everybody kind of talks about and we can't deny that.
Do you think that this new environment, like you calling it the new India where women are going to, is that going to question the old ways that we kind of thought about.
[00:11:44] Smriti Irani: I think it was a distinct privilege to introduce the amendment of the prohibition of child marriage act. When I spoke about the need for women to have an equal right, to enter into much money at age 21, there was support from across the nation, from the women across all communities and all religions, the only naysayers or the men were in that house meeting that.
And I think what is a matter of great satisfaction for me, particularly as a political representative of my party is that we spoke in one voice about the need for women to have that right across all religions. And I think that when it comes to such issue, we have seen women congregate and forcibly. So because they recognize that there is a need for these kinds of interventions, from a governance and policy point, as far as the politics goes, I think political parties have just broken up to the part of the average Indian woman.
Well, I will only say. That you do. So from a desire to save your own political estate, the fact that not enter will be this. So because he believes that women are equal beneficiaries in the rise of the new India is what makes him a different leader.
Ma'am you spoke
[00:12:56] Vandita Mishra: about the bill in which the manageable age has been raised from 18 to 21.
The bill is well intentioned. I think everybody agrees on that, but there has been conversation. There have been questions raised about some of the unintended consequences that could be for instance, that are already many, many marriages that would now be criminalized.
[00:13:18] Smriti Irani: That is one of the greatest rumors that is being spread and it would do society a great harm if we propagate that goes to disenfranchise women with regards to the right to equality, and those who are getting this false word Mandarin, what is our, that this kind of criminalization would disproportionately criminals, equal rights for men, those managers that will now those managers.
It is prohibited to Marion. Secondly, like I said, this, that managers will be criminalized is a false phone. So my requests, these are, you can not propagate fake news.
[00:13:59] Vandita Mishra: What about the fact that, I mean, the criticism that more power is being given to families. Vis-a-vis the woman is given to the women at 18.
[00:14:11] Smriti Irani: A woman is an adult and should she not have the right to decide when she went to the one, not have a right to it, all religions and communities not have that. Right? The question is, why should she not have that right at 18? I don't guarantee when you look at all the numbers of the national family health survey, you find that.
Close to 7% goes between the age of 15 and 18 already pregnant. When the survey looked at women at the age of 24, they found those two 23% of them were married under the age of 18. The fact that 75 years in a country of independence, women and men did not intend to match at the same time. It's a matter of deep regret.
And that is why when I went to the house to introduce that I did so believing and I do so again, today pronounced the, it is the right quality that manifests itself through the amendment to say a woman does not have equal rights to that of a man is something that I can not to say that if I empower legislation a woman's equal, right.
Winter matrimony, is that. It's my right. And I take my constitutional responsible.
[00:15:22] Vandita Mishra: What has also been said, ma'am is that, uh, there isn't clearly, there is no clear link between age of marriage and empowerment of women at the moment, but there is a very clear link between education and delayed marriage. So why would the government not focus its energies on.
[00:15:38] Smriti Irani: The national education policy after three decades, which was overhauled and presented to the country, I again was privileged that I was part of the first draft of the national education policy. And if you look at the national education policy for the first time in the history of our country, we have agenda, which ensures that there is capital expenditure with support.
The grandchild and education for young women in higher education institution. Hence the charge that we are not as a government focusing on education of women, especially young girls, the charge, which is, I think one of the datas issues, which was before 2014, considered by many organizations, social sector was the fact that girls would drop out of the standard age because of the lack of toilets.
And I'm again, like I said, finish that as minister education. Then in 2014, within one year across government schools in the country at the Clarion call of the honorable prime minister. So to say that the government has not been totality service, the cause of young girls and women is again, like I said, I would remind you bait the gender inclusion fund under the national education.
Building separate infrastructure and poet in support of cultural thing back in school and reducing dropout, be it ensuring vocational training, or even for that matter, since we digitally do this, let me say the prime minister pronounced the digital India program. I remember there were many us niggers in the opposition, but today I am happy to report.
The Dover to crawl women, especially from rural India. Now I've been made digitally literate under the shop.
[00:17:20] Anant Goenka: I think if I can just maybe again, go back to the larger picture here about the role of women in India, because you're sitting on a ministry, which is clearly a subject area where the prime minister spent a lot of time and effort on your vantage point as somebody who was in desperate.
And played that role. And now you're in this position in government. What are the few things that you think that you would like to urgently focus on in regards to the role that women play in society? That the role that women play in families in India today? How much has that improved from what you think should have in the past?
And where do you see.
[00:17:51] Smriti Irani: Three things Anant that I'm, firstly, you should ever ask a politician, what families should be doing. I think our democracy ensure that we in government look at governance issues and families are left to function in a free democratic country. As long as no family member breaks the law. I think that there is also a great disservice to the prime minister's governance agenda.
If we think that he's myopic enough only to look at the women and child development ministry as a ministry in service of women and children of the car. What has been extremely gracious is to see the entire government across all departments. Look at the female. So as was pronouncing the last budget agenda budgeting, I think is of each ministry is under evaluation.
And our report is to be given to the finance ministry, which means that when a road is bitch, what are the number of toilets made available to women? So that journey is a matter of consideration for governments at the center. When we talk about let's say medical education or for that matter, even the health systems of our country today, there was a pronouncement falsely mean that maybe that his agenda divided how the vaccine is being made available, which was done to the in-app civil fonts.
So I think that when you look at the government in totality, what brings me great satisfaction is the fact that governance. And Sakara is how do I personally see women's rules evolve? I think that there are three areas which need consideration. And I had done this on a personal level. I asked a lot of women who have corporate jobs, some who are not CEOs, whether they are in control of them.
And many said that they make financial decisions only after a certain amount in their own personal lives, but leave the rest for others. Which means that when it comes to decisions and voices on the table, yes, we have now more and more women becoming part of the decision-making. But for me to empowered is about how much control you have of your own capital for that matter.
How many let's say assets do you want and how much it is your decision to have that ownership? So for me, when the prime minister announced his housing policy, What made me extremely Juliet was assigned that he insisted that the right of ownership be given to women as well. And that has been, if you look at his governance journey from Fujairah, that has been as policy, even when he was chief minister.
And if you look at even the cross enrollment ratio for youngers, that has gone up, but if you look at women and their administrative positions today, though gender in diocese disregard the participation of women at the ground. For us to be now a part of a government, which has the highest contingent of female ministers and a party, which has the highest model, female and peas in polymer.
Yes. We've taken significant steps, but I also agree that we all want to be a part of a process. When we say more and more defined for women,
Ma'am since we
[00:20:47] Vandita Mishra: are on the subject of women, there is a question which has to do about a story that is playing out right now over the last few days or not in our newspaper pages, the daily police has arrested, made an arrest of a 25 year old graduate from indoors.
Four days ago, two engineering students and a daily university student was also arrested. So they are being arrested in the case of an app, which was a doctored. Muslim women and put them up for some kind of an auction. Are you worried as the minister for women and somebody who's also so articulate on women's issues of the kind of radicalization into hate?
That seems to be many of our young seem to be falling prey to, because these are young people they're receiving by no less than the Badra.
[00:21:34] Smriti Irani: No such a politically at the receiving end of it.
success. I had the opportunity of pronouncing that the ministry of home affairs, and I'm grateful to the home minister who ensured that those who are. Uh, judged criminals in cases of sexual assault of children. In fact, are brought together as a part of one component where there is tracking system for such criminals.
I believe that the ministry of home affairs has seven lacks, such individuals who have been accused of sexual assault. So that when I dive in, again, being that if you are hiring somebody in an educational institution, if you're out hiring people where women and children around, please do police verification, it stems from this particular mechanical, which is available with the whole ministry to do a cross match of individuals so that people who have been charged with such crimes do not find employment around the vulnerable segments of our society.
When I, as minister in the Modi government part, one came into office. We knew that the notepad find was not utilized at all by the Australian government since 2014, till this day, as we speak over 9,000 crores worth of projects have been evaluated. And money's been given to states since known as escape.
We, and I'm grateful to my colleagues in ministry. We set up over 1063 fast-track goats under which we've made sure that one and a half that cases, but bending. We had a resolution the past one and a half years, the school was 60,000. That was the last time I checked the data. The current data will be available with the law and justice ministry.
I must see here that if you today, and I've had this active engagement with the ministry of ID and dental comments, well that women, irrespective of their religion have been denied that dignity on social media plans. And I'm grateful that the police is investigating this issue. I am absolutely confident that those who are guilty will be punished my desires.
Also this I had the privilege of engaging with the Supreme court justices is to ensure that the expedite case. The law provides that an expeditious, I think pronouncement, but there has been a laxity given the burden on the courts in our country, but I'm hopeful that between the police systems and the judiciary more and more cases that women receive justice are brought to light.
But I also need to use this platform to tell people that this is an issue on which irrespective of politics we need to come together. I had spoken when the nitpick. Issue had come to fore in the nations. And at that time, if you remember, there was a conversation around what impact is created on the minds of the young, when they had access to pornography material.
That time, there were a few people who booed the idea and said not much, but women knew. I think it's time to revisit that conversation. But do women get explicitly objectified only to one app? No, as we, I like him to this conversation. I had a world champion. His name was demeaned for a political position.
No less by a so-called popular actor. A man would have known better. So I think we need to look at the issue. Holistically that are only men who are caught. The ones that we need to be concerned about are those who deny the right to speak. Like the Ms. Neval had a point of view, but she was demeaned and objectified should such men then be brought to justice.
[00:25:08] Vandita Mishra: Well, you've been at the receiving end of misogyny. So my question is that from the time that you entered politics to now, have you seen this change? Have you seen anything that gives you more of the things are changing for the better in terms of the misogyny in politics today?
[00:25:24] Smriti Irani: I think that when you only limit misogyny to politics, tackle the issue in a very limited fashion.
Misogyny is something that is. No woman in any walk of life is really what brings me great hope is the fact that we are open enough to converse about it. What brings me a little bit of satisfaction is that when such issues come to the fore, women are no longer completely. So this is for all individuals and stand up for women, irrespective of their politics or their ideology for everyone's right.
To speak up, speak out. But I also hope that women, like I said, it is not a left wing right. Wing matter, but I hope that there is enough. When women, irrespective of their political use and religion are given that same amount of protection are given that same amount of consideration that you give today to let's say, as a part of this particular question
[00:26:19] Anant Goenka: so much about, you know, just misogyny and just, I guess, societal misogyny and just not, you know, I want to just bring you back.
You know, we had a conversation with you under the screen banners nine years ago, I was in the audience. Then I won't waste time queuing up the video, figure out new short of time. But, you know, you said selling very interesting that that kind of struck me then. And I want to bring that up and kind of connect that to this foundation.
You said then that you found it in. To be a television actor more than in cinema. That being an actor in TV was more empowering than sort of, and I was really surprised to hear that because my impression of winning television was that, you know, it's largely quite regressive, especially when it comes to.
So we have women are portrayed in media, has always been like that. And I always thought that it was actually cinema that was actually pushing the envelope. But you said it the other way. I would like to ask you your view on that and your view on the evolution of women in media, especially now in the OTT world,
[00:27:13] Smriti Irani: my position still stands because in television, at least when I operated in television, we received a paycheck on the basis of what we brought commercially to the.
Just because we had a man at the table with us that did not mean that we did not negotiate as hard, probably in many times harder than men of the day. I remember when I started my work, I had to spend 2000 rupees and the male actor was paid five times the amount. And when I asked the question why I was told, well, you don't have credentials now.
So we will look at a payback advice only after you gain some merits on. And I remember going back to the drawing board and negotiate a year later. And I said, well, I think I'm doing better than the man. And by the time I was done with television, I had absolutely no shame in saying that I was not the highest paid actors, but actors in television.
I think that's what television brought to us. The fact that we could negotiate and the fact that we could not have burden of mincing. The fact that we knew irrespective of the programs that we were doing, that we were carrying it on our shoulders. That is what made us feel very empowered, intelligent. We knew that women in films at that time had to play, let's say second Siddle.
And not only as actors, but even as producers, a lot of friends who are producing in the film business. As they are now, they are known, have it easy now as well. It is extremely difficult, but I think that the fact that we could afford that Udacity is what I meant then. And I stand by it even today, women who can succeed can't afford to build issues in the media.
This. That's irrespective of whether you are writing or whether you
[00:29:02] Anant Goenka: bring up the book.
[00:29:05] Vandita Mishra: The book is a very racy. I can put it down once I started, you know, it's written in very clear and it's prose that moves constantly moves you from one scene to the other. It's almost cinematic in the imagery that you use. I think it would make a film script one day. But there's a question.
There has been a shift from the time that when one saying talked about next realism as, uh, the greatest or the greatest internal security threat to the Modi government, where there has been a sort of a shift to. to what the coinage has been the urban Nexon. And in your book, there is for all the twists and turns and the surprises, there is a clear hero and there is a clear village.
The clear hero is of course the SP become seen who's the policemen and the villain is this Delhi university, academic who, uh, I think his name was . So the gosh, but the is this fictional character, who's a university professor, much awarded rights for international journals, writes antiestablishment pieces also, and is accused in the book off being a funder and a coordinator and a recruiter.
So when you were writing in this fictional place of Ambu job, that you were taking a lot from this political shift in focus, that game underway in the Modi government, in the tenure.
[00:30:29] Smriti Irani: I didn't look at the books for political prisons at all. And especially not with regards to the transition that you so prescribed today between Ms.
I think that the book and I've said this openly has stem from our political television. A decade ago when one of the panelists was very off-hand douchey about how this book about paramilitary forces who met a gruesome death during a Nat Naxal attack. For me, the rage stemmed from the nonchalance. The lives of our paramilitary forces were spoken off.
Now, when you talk about the way you pronounced the village to be his time is not writing journals. His crime is not writing a piece or an article. His crime is actively recruiting people and arming them against the Indian state.
[00:31:19] Vandita Mishra: You bring them together.
[00:31:20] Smriti Irani: It is not, I think tad will accept. To romanticize and reduce the seriousness of those who recruit youngsters, who take up arms against the Indian state or bring to death paramilitary forces.
So I think one needs to register the seriousness with which certain characters being hedged. If you try to find a consonance with them with real life characters, I will just say. This is a fiction. The fact that you look for facts in it, I think gives me a modicum of successes that I, the fact that I compel you to find real life examples about characters that have fictionally written about for me, it gives me great satisfaction as a writer.
The fact that. Who is as celebrated as you as a journalist will do. So again, for me, it's a feather in our cap, which is still not publicly visible.
[00:32:13] Vandita Mishra: You've spoken. Even now you spoke of the rage that you felt. So has this been a cathartic exercise for you getting the novel out? Do you feel less angry?
[00:32:22] Smriti Irani: It is because I know when you lose a loved one who, sorry, who, like I said, the nonchalance is what enraged.
I lost somebody that I looked up personally recently, who served in the armed forces. And I have looked at those families in their eyes and I see that emptiness that lost. Who have nothing less for granted. Good for them, for me, it would be an abomination. And that is why the rage, when I would write loans now, but this is not a position that I have limited to what I see for men and women in the armed forces or for that matter.
Is it beliefs that have held for decades known as to be the conscience of dogs to have a part of it manifest? Is I think that happenstance, especially with an editor who has been more than kind to ensure that my words are not covered in any fashion whatsoever.
[00:33:17] Vandita Mishra: Just one more question on the book, if a book of fiction is not just to give answers, but also to raise questions.
So you, what is the puzzle that you were left with as a writer? What is the question that you would want your reader to be left with when they read the book?
[00:33:33] Smriti Irani: No. I want them to find the answer. The book may begin with questions, but there is an answer somewhere there for people who have the, the base of picking it up and flipping through the page.
So do all those given the time. You have my gratitude because it not only stems from rage, it brings a modicum of solace that it is a story that needed to be taught, especially of officers who have within the ends of law. Given much to our country. Many of them are unheard of the sacrifices unspoken. And I think it's a tribute to them, to everybody who picks up the book and joins me in that tribute, like I said, has migraine.