Boxing with Shadows
Despite her volatile relationship with the media, Smriti Irani is here to stay – guided by her unquestionable merit and relentless hard work, discusses M Chowdhury
In politics, as in every profession, the glass ceiling still remains very much in place, try to break it and you and are bound to get hurt, as Smriti Irani, Minister of Textiles and former I&B and HRD Minister, may have discovered to her cost.
By all accounts, she is quite soft-spoken and sweet-natured, compared to many of her more tougher female colleagues, when you meet her personally, and an extremely dedicated and efficient worker. Her abrasive personality seems to be the point the media loves to focus on whenever she becomes embroiled in some new controversy either by design or accident, though certainly, most of the dramas do not seem to be of her own choosing.
Some believe she is a deliberate target because she has the blessings of the Prime Minister, and this naturally causes jealousy within the establishment and outside. For many career women, the narrative is familiar – the office gossip about most successful women is, you could never have risen so fast through the ranks through mere talent or hard work.
But, both in the HRD Ministry and in the I&B Ministry, as well as in Textiles, which she still heads, she does have a long list of achievements to her credit. It is believed that the Prime Minister demands a regular report card from all his cabinet colleagues and, by any stretch of the imagination, he is a hard man to bluff, so it seems difficult to believe she could sweet talk her way repeatedly out of a litany of failures and mistakes, as neither the Prime Minister nor her cabinet colleagues would let her live it down.
There are many successes she has to her credit in the various ministries she has headed – she believes she took some brave, transformative decisions which were not only important for the national consciousness but also significant in the country's history. The previous UPA government had signed a MoU with the Government of Germany to ascribe the German language as a compulsory third-language across schools in India. Irani firmly opposed this decision and as the HRD Minister, she reversed this order, which was ultimately endorsed by the Supreme Court too. She asserted her position with clarity – German can be taught as a foreign language but not as a compulsory third language.
It was during her tenure that a national ranking framework was introduced for the very first time. She introduced SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds) – a revolutionary policy that changed the face of education in the country. Her new educational policy connected 2,25,000 village educational councils, bringing them under a single unifying platform of teaching and learning, keeping to the highest standards of school education.
Irani, through her performance over the years, has displayed a single-minded ambition to be recognised as a decisive and hardworking individual, who has always maintained her loyalty but balanced it with untiring efficiency.
As Textiles Minister, she launched a social media movement #IWearHandloom to popularise India's indigenous weaving techniques and interpret their relevance to modern times. She also organised the biggest textile show in the country, where 1200 major players – both national and international — were brought under one roof. Along with the display of vibrant textiles, the event showcased the entire value chain of the handloom process. India's made-ups items, including items of traditional textiles, now stand as the most exported section of the textile industry – a testimony to Irani's relentless efforts in popularising indigenous creations. She also initiated the launch of a Handloom Trade Facilitation Centre, in the Prime Minister's constituency, Varanasi.
When Smriti Irani was given the additional portfolio of Information & Broadcasting Minister, she brought a breath of fresh air to the Ministry. The Film Censor Board had created unfortunate headlines for the government by appointing the controversial Pahlaj Nihalani as its head. Given the controversial nature of the decision — the question of credibility was quickly dismissed. Irani took it upon herself to undo this move and soon replaced him with the better-suited and more amiable Prasoon Joshi. She also appointed stalwarts such as filmmaker Shekhar Kapur and a refurbished jury with regional legends such as Imtiaz Hussain, lyricist Mehboob, and P Sheshadri, among others. The recently concluded 65th National Film Award prize for Best Feature Film was awarded to the critically acclaimed Village Rockstars, a story scripted in Assamese. Her emphasis across her different ministries has been on realising the inherent value hidden in our indigenous creations. The Film Award was another way to realise this commitment.
Irani also initiated the task of merging several departments within the I&B Ministry. Among them, DAVP was renamed as the Bureau or Outreach and Communication. Additionally, several Indian information service officers, who had been stationed at the headquarters for over 25-30 years of their service period, were transferred to various regional offices to utilise their experience in accentuating the growth of these local spaces. The expenditures of Prasar Bharati, which runs Doordarshan and All India Radio, after receiving an annual subsidy to the tune of Rs 2800 crore, also came under her scrutiny. Her actions faced stiff resistance, some of it from her own party loyalists. During her stint as I&B Minister, the widely popular IPL matches were also telecast for the first time on Doordarshan.
Her problem, in fact, may not be in doing too little, but too much, a problem of overzealousness. Like many women trying to make their mark in a man's world, they want to prove themselves by going the extra mile – trying to do more and better than their male colleagues. Her critics may have seen it as an intent to show up others or getting ahead of herself and her brief. But she has always been guided by the belief that her actions are a reflection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision for India. She has always expressed this view with confidence, which may have been used to her disadvantage. Interestingly, in her Udyog Bhawan chambers, other than a dignified, lone portrait of Narendra Modi, only the images of Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Sarada Devi adorn the whitewashed walls. Smriti Irani has a Bengali lineage from her mother's side. To her confidantes, she has confided how these three spiritual leaders constantly inspire her to deliver her best.
Some may believe that her removal from the I&B Ministry means that her star is on the wane. But in spite of her personable demeanour, one detects a vein of iron running underneath. She may be biding her time and will come back fighting when the time is right. Smriti Irani remains confident, that despite the many criticisms coming her way, she is here to stay, and her role in India's political decision-making will only be enhanced over time – a result, in part, of women's increasing relevance in the BJP and the country's public sphere. In the future too, she will not step back from taking tough decisions, however unpopular they may seem, if they benefit her country and her party.
Fake news is the new buzzword these days, with even media giants like Facebook grappling with the controversy, as to what should or should not be designated as fake news. But, when Smriti Irani tried to take steps to rein in this phenomenon, the media was up in arms. Her oversight may have been that she did not take the media into confidence in assuring them that they would have control of the narrative, and not her ministry, or the BJP or the PMO. This gave her detractors both in her party and in the media another big stick to beat her with. Among her sins of omission and commission is the fact that she has never reached out to build alliances with powerful colleagues in her government or with media pundits or press barons, as she may have believed that her work should speak for itself and her loyalty has always been, and should always remain, with the Prime Minister alone.
She may have even been gullible enough to believe that the media may actually have welcomed such a revolutionary step, as the entire world was working out ways and means to contain the fake news menace. But, even today, both politics and the media are a man's world, and it would be wise to play by the rules of their game. She could have learnt from some of her powerful colleagues on how to hold the media in the palm of your hand and dictate about who and when stories should or should not be published. Needless to say, if you can't beat them, you join them, or at least pretend to.
But Smriti Irani still seems a bit puzzled why, over the years, she has shared such a love-hate relationship with the media. She may have felt she is boxing with shadows for the adversary was never visible. For various unexplained reasons, a section of the media has relentlessly attempted to find fault in Irani's actions – however, on the flipside, many also believe that there was a deliberate and mischievous attempt to cast a shadow over her performance — some of it may have been inspired by a powerful lobby insecure of its influence amidst Irani's rise to prominence, and her devil-may-care attitude that her work need be her only trump card.
She does not seem as well versed as many of the tough and wily old men in her party with the Machiavellian principles of exerting and retaining power in the face of strong opposition. One of them is, 'Anticipate the worst and take action. Risk can never be eliminated, but it can be contained by those who plan ahead and take appropriate action.' The others are, 'Reliable allies are those who benefit from our successes,' and, 'Trust enemies above friends for frankness.'
But you live and learn. And this principle might bring her some comfort, 'The hard road to the top is often the best.' Associated with the BJP for the last 16 years, Smriti Irani has come a long way in politics. But she still has miles to go before she sleeps and believes she must stay true to herself along the way. She has never believed in being an imposter. Rather, from stardom to politics, she made a successful evolution with all her faults and virtues intact. As the BJP government completes four years in power, she believes her report card speaks for itself and will still be her greatest ally in the days to come.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)