Known for her fiery temper, the human resource development minister lived up to her reputation as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s angry young woman on Wednesday.
Irani began the day with a furious war of words with Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati in the Rajya Sabha and ended with an aggressive performance in the Lok Sabha that could best be described as pure theatrics.
Seeming to draw on her experience as an actor in television soap operas, Irani alternated between thundering at her political rivals who targeted her for the suicide of the Hyderabad University research scholar Rohith Vemula in January and turning on the waterworks as she absolved herself of any mishandling in this particular case. Even the lines of her speech appeared to have been pinched from a Bollywood potboiler.
“My name is Smriti Irani. I challenge you to ask me my caste,” the minister declaimed as she hit out at the opposition of accusing her of driving the Dalit student to suicide. “ Nobody can raise a finger against me. I am taking it personally. The boy was used for politics.”
Having been at the receiving end for her handling of the Vemula suicide case, Irani was clearly itching for a fight. Her ugly confrontation with Maywati in the morning proved to be a trailer for the show in the Lok Sabha later in the evening. It all began when the BSP chief demanded that the official committee investigating Vemula’s death should include a Dalit. She also demanded the resignation of Union ministers Bandaru Dattatrey and Irani who, she charged, were primarily responsible for driving the student to commit suicide.
Spat with Mayawati
An angry Irani was quick to hit out.”Mayawatiji, you and your BSP leaders and workers, hear this out for once and all," she said. "I will cut off my head and present it at your feet if you are not satisfied with my reply.”
Not be cowed down, Mayawati responded “You are not letting anyone speak," the BSP leader said. "And you are an anti-Dalit. I am just asking, what was the problem with including a Dalit in the probe committee?”
But Irani was equally persistent. “There were Dalits in the probe committee," she retorted. You didn’t accept their judgement. The probe committee included a Dalit professor, the warden is a Dalit. Do you want to say that a citizen becomes a Dalit only when Mayawati certifies him to be so?”
For somebody who is constantly picking fights with political opponents, bureaucrats, academics, journalists and party workers, Irani’s twin performances in Parliament on Wednesday were much along expected lines.
Her temper and arrogant attitude have ensured that she has remained in the thick of controversy ever since she bested her rivals to become the country’s human resource development minister two years ago. Irani is not known for her moderation or an appetite for civil debate. She is perennially on edge, always battle-ready even when it is not required. Having acquired an aggressive persona as the BJP’s spokesperson when the party was in the opposition, she has persisted with it even after it formed the government.
Beginning with her contradictory affidavits on her educational qualifications and her assertions that she had a degree from the prestigious Yale University, Irani has constantly been in the eye of a storm. She hit the headlines with her peremptory decision to stop teaching German language in Kendriya Vidyalya schools and was in the news when she directed all schools to celebrate former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birthday on December 25 as Good Governance day and insisted that students forgo their Christmas vacations to participate in an essay contest on the occasion.
Irani’s abrasive manner has ensured a high turnover of bureaucrats in her ministry during her two-year tenure while her spats with academics have also kept her in the news. The minister had a run-in with the well-known nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar resulting in his resignation in March as chairperson of board of directors, IIT Mumbai. Similarly, IIT Delhi director R Shevgaonkar quit in December 2014 following differences with Irani. Earlier this fortnight, she berated vice-chancellors for nodding off during a conference and threatened them to follow her diktat or else they would be given marching orders. Her spats with journalists are all too well known.
However, nobody quite knows why Irani is constantly on the warpath. After all, she has had a dream run ever since she joined the BJP in 2003. Her rise in the party has been meteoric even though she is a political lightweight with no mass base and has lost two Lok Sabha elections. She first lost to Kapil Sibal from the Congress in the 2004 general election from the Chandni Chowk constituency and then to Rahul Gandhi in Amethi in 2014. But her proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah ensured her a plum post in the Union Cabinet , eliciting an angry response from a party rival: “ You are ignored if you defeat a senior Congress leader but you get rewarded if you lose to Rahul Gandhi.”