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Smriti Irani’s rise from soap star to union minister

Role Of A Lifetime

By ROHINI MOHAN | 

SMRITI IRANI STEPPED IN FRONT of a swarm of cameras and microphones. It was the second week of December 2004, and the fledgling politician and television star, a lead actor in one of the most watched soap operas in Indian history, had just inaugurated a jewellery store in the city of Surat, in Gujarat. Reporters, most of them from entertainment channels, had gathered for the occasion, hoping for a sound bite or scoop about an upcoming episode of the show, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, in which, they had learnt, Irani’s character would aim a pistol at her wayward son. What she gave them was something else entirely.

Irani launched a scathing attack on Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, seen as one of the most promising leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which Irani had joined just the previous year. The BJP had lost the parliamentary election six months earlier, and the former prime minister and party senior Atal Bihari Vajpayee had linked the defeat to the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which, according to official figures, 254 Hindus and 790 Muslims were killed. Speaking in English, Irani tore into Modi for damaging the image of the party and of Gujarat, as well as for weakening Vajpayee’s credibility. She described Modi’s decision to hold on to his position as chief minister after the riots as “extremely shocking and appalling,” and said, “If Narendra-bhai gives up the post of the chief minister of Gujarat, it would prove that BJP is a party with a difference.” Then, Irani announced a high-stakes political gamble. If Modi did not step down, she said, “on 25 December, which is Atal-ji’s birthday, I would like to go unto a fast till he gives up the post, a fast unto death.”

The BJP was at the time known to be riven into two factions: one under Vajpayee and Pramod Mahajan, Irani’s mentor; the other a growing group under LK Advani, who was the party’s president, and Modi, who had become Gujarat’s chief minister in 2001. In a press conference with Modi in Gujarat, shortly before the 2004 election, Vajpayee had advised him to adhere to his “raj dharma”—his duty as a ruler—and declared that “kings and rulers cannot discriminate based on birth, caste or religion.” This remark was widely interpreted as a criticism of the Modi administration’s handling of the violence. Later that year, after the BJP’s electoral loss, Vajpayee suggested to the press that Modi might still be removed.

Irani’s gamble in Surat seemed calculated to win favour with Vajpayee, the man she perhaps thought had the greatest clout in the BJP. “It was one thing for Atal-ji to say it, but for a newcomer like Smriti, it was not done,” a senior leader in the Gujarat unit of the BJP told me in July. “We were shocked.” He added that no leaders had ever openly criticised Modi in the state. “Whether it was her conscience talking or her shrewdness, I was impressed by how much she was willing to risk.”

But Irani had miscalculated. The BJP was in no mood to tolerate such loud dissent against Modi, especially not from a new entrant. According to Outlook magazine, the party “made it clear that she either retract her statement or face disciplinary action.” The same evening, Irani backtracked. “This afternoon, I had gone to Surat where I made a statement relating to Gujarat chief minister,” she said in a terse statement issued late that night. “I realised later that as a responsible member of the party I should not have done this. I therefore unconditionally withdraw my statement.” The senior Gujarat BJP leader remembered thinking that day, “Yes, that’s it, her political career is done. She was too small to come back from this.”

The leader, like many others, had underestimated Irani. According to a veteran journalist who covers the BJP, Irani flew the same week to Delhi to meet Advani, and apologised to him. Advani then brokered a public truce with Modi two months later, on the evening of 7 February 2005, when several BJP members gathered in the leader’s house for a screening of a documentary on patriotism in Indian cinema, directed by his daughter. At the gathering, in front of television news cameras, Irani bowed to touch Modi’s feet; he, in turn, placed his hand on her head, and called her “Gujarat ki beti”—Gujarat’s daughter.

A person in Gandhinagar who is close to senior BJP leaders told me that the party had also arranged for Modi and Irani to meet in Ahmedabad before their public patch-up. This May, in an interview on NDTV, Irani referred to that meeting. Modi, “a star of the BJP,” she said, could have “very well told the organisation that this upstart of a girl has said something, kindly have her sacked.” Instead, she said, “He sat down with me. He said, ‘Tell me how you reached this conclusion.’” Irani explained that she had been influenced by media reports. Modi apparently replied, “Don’t judge me by editorials. You ensure you see me by the programmes that I roll out.” Modi was not “looking for apologies, explanations,” Irani said. Instead, he advised her to apply herself to any one programme: “Help me make it a success. That is something you should do for the party.” She added: “For me, respect for that gentleman overnight grew.”

This reconciliation allowed Irani to survive an error that could have ended her career. But she didn’t merely survive it: in the decade that followed, she rose steadily up the BJP’s male-dominated ranks to become one of the party’s most prominent leaders. It was a precarious journey. In the Congress, women leaders, such as Jayanthi Natarajan and Ambika Soni, secured their positions over time through unswerving loyalty to the Gandhi family. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Jayalalithaa and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati were chosen protégés of their party founders. In the BJP, it was far less clear how a young entrant should align herself to succeed. Irani negotiated multiple power shifts within the organisation: first from Vajpayee to Advani, and then, in 2014, from Advani to Modi, when the younger leader dethroned his senior, and won the party’s nomination as its prime-ministerial candidate. “Her fate got linked to the ascent of Narendra-bhai,” a Delhi-based BJP member said.

Irani positioned herself deftly over the years, and when Modi came to power in 2014, she emerged as a star of India’s new right-wing regime. She was appointed to head the high-profile, high-pressure human-resource development ministry—a crucial portfolio, especially given the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s interest in infusing the country’s education system with Hindutva ideology. Throughout, Irani’s appetite for political risk remained as strong as it was when she made her Surat statement.

But the same instinct that had helped her remain relevant over the years, and gained her a reputation as a combative politician, was an impediment in running her ministry. Irani regularly stoked the government’s most explosive controversies, and allowed campus disputes to swell into virulent national political battles. The Sangh enjoyed the raised pitch, but ultimately wanted its long-term agenda to be implemented with quieter efficiency, a senior functionary of its student affiliate group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad, told me. Irani paid the price for her performance in a July cabinet reshuffle, when she was shifted to the humbler textiles ministry—a move widely seen as a signal of the prime minister’s diminished confidence in her.

When I met him in June, a senior member of the ABVP in Delhi joked, “She loves social media, so in her language, we can say that the BJP has put her on ‘limited profile.’”

THE GLEE THAT MANY DISPLAYED at Irani’s perceived fall was telling of the complex, and often conflicting, challenges that women politicians face in India. “You need the self-confidence to be a great speaker,” but also to be “submissive among your own party men, even those junior to you,” a frustrated BJP woman leader in the south told me. “The BJP welcomes young women much more openly than the Congress,” she added. “But as you get more successful, it gets harder.”

A senior BJP women’s wing leader and former legislator described the party as “democratic, but less so for women.” The veteran journalist explained that women who were interested in climbing the organisational ladder either had to have considerable social privilege, an existing support base or a powerful mentor. The BJP introduced internal party reservations in 2007, leading to a growth in the number of women in the national executive committee. But they are rarely part of the party’s working groups, where policy decisions are made, such as on issues of economy, security or law. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, a mere 11 percent of BJP ticket holders were women. In 2014, it fielded only 38 women of 428 candidates.

A Delhi-based BJP woman politician’s aide told me that though many women faced “sexual soliciting” in the course of their careers, that wasn’t the aspect of the job her boss found most difficult to deal with—“You learn to draw your boundaries where your conscience allows,” the aide said. Rather, what vexed the politician most was constant underestimation from her male colleagues, and “punishment for ambition.”

Several women leaders across party lines said they admired Irani’s success in navigating this treacherous terrain. But to them she also exemplified cutthroat patriarchal politics that pits women against each other. A Delhi-based woman BJP politician said that, ideally, women leaders should cooperate with each other, but that would be unlikely as long as disproportionate power was concentrated in the hands of a few individuals—almost all of them men. “And that is who everyone, even Smriti, is clamouring to impress,” she said. “It is what it is, but I wish it were different.” A Mumbai-based woman BJP leader said bitterly of Irani’s success, “She has shown that young women can make it in the BJP, but only by sidelining every other woman politician in the party.”

IRANI HAS BEEN IN THE PUBLIC EYE for almost her entire adult life. Those who knew her when she was an actor remember that even as she made her entry into the world of entertainment in her early twenties—she went by the name Smriti Malhotra then—she exuded immense confidence, and was fired up by a desire for recognition. “She wanted to do things faster always,” Apara Mehta, an old friend of Irani’s and a co-actor from Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because the Mother-in-law Was Once a Daughter-in-law) told me in Ahmedabad in June. Kyunki, the show that propelled Irani to stardom, was about her character, Tulsi: the daughter of a priest, who marries into a wealthy Gujarati business family and becomes an ideal daughter-in-law.

Mehta remembered being struck by Irani the first time she passed by her, in the corridor of a Mumbai production house, a “pretty girl” waiting to audition for a role. “She was in a hot pink kurti and jeans, but she was holding a book—that’s not something you see often in television production studios,” Mehta said. When Mehta, who was already a star, emerged later from a meeting, to her surprise, the young woman approached her. “She said she liked my work, and then asked me, ‘I’m being offered a role. I don’t know, should I do it?’” Apart from Irani’s “poise,” Mehta also noted that she had “a face with a lot of character, different from most others.”

A few months later, Mehta, who had been cast as the titular mother-in-law, arrived at the studio whereKyunki was to be shot. “The same girl is sitting on an old trunk and saying, ‘Do you remember me? I’m going to play your bahu,” Mehta recounted.

The choice of a relative newcomer to star in Kyunki surprised her co-stars. “Most of us had far more experience than her at the time, and she was not glamorous or anything,” Amar Upadhyay, who was cast as Tulsi’s husband, Mihir, told me at his home in Mumbai in April. Upadhyay recalled being surprised at the importance that Balaji Telefilms’ Ekta Kapoor, the show’s main producer, accorded Irani from the very beginning. When they met, “I thought she’ll say, ‘Amar, meet this new girl, Smriti,’” he said. “But instead, she looks at Smriti and asks, ‘So? How do you like your Mihir?’”

Mehta and Upadhyay, as well as ten other cast and crew members I spoke to, mentioned that when she wasn’t shooting, Irani would usually be found with a book. In interviews, Irani, too, has often invoked the image of herself with a book on set. “Her language skills suggested she must have been well read, or maybe the book was her prop to tell people she’s a serious actor,” one Kyunki scriptwriter said. “Like, don’t treat me like a dumb bimbo.” Kamlesh Pandey, a screenwriter, who later collaborated with Irani on a film and two soaps, said, “How odd that she was considered too well read for entertainment and too poorly read for politics.”

As the Kyunki crew shot episodes in preparation for the show’s debut in mid 2000, Irani worked to win over her co-actors. Upadhyay remembered her asking him technical questions on shooting scenes out of chronological order. “We were shooting by location, like 12 scenes in a bedroom, then ten in the living room, and she used to get confused about the sequence and link initially,” he said. “I explained it to her. She also insisted we practise together. I liked all this from a newcomer, you know.”

With Mehta, Irani adopted a different approach, striving to match the seasoned actress’s pace. “Smriti and I had a lot of scenes together, and she was always prepared with her lines,” Mehta said. “We aimed for single takes, because we both had photographic memory for dialogue.” She recalled that Irani disarmed her with honesty: “One day she told me very clearly, ‘Apara, you’re my closest friend here, but you’re also my biggest competition.’ Young upstarts gush at me till success turns their head, but this… I don’t know, Smriti knew people.”

For someone who has long lived under intense public scrutiny, the facts of Irani’s personal life are relatively difficult to ascertain. (Irani did not respond to multiple requests for interviews for this story.) Mehta remembers noticing on the set that Irani, who was not shy, “never spoke about her parents or family or siblings. It was a clear subject I didn’t ask her about. I assumed there might have been some unhappiness there that she wanted to move on from.” A Delhi-based journalist who covers the HRD ministry for a daily said that Irani remains protective of her private life, “as celebrities tend to be. But it’s odd for a politician.” After she was sworn in as HRD minister, journalists who were interested in profiling her tried unsuccessfully to meet her parents—Irani, the journalist said, was livid when the media approached her mother. “In the absence of people to talk to, we just have one source, Smriti, telling us everything,” the journalist said. “And that narrative has been all over the place.”

In interviews, Irani has said that her grandfather was a member of the Sangh, that she was “brought up in a Sangh family” and that her mother was a booth worker for the BJP. Shiv Kumar, a family friend and the national secretary of the RSS-affiliated Vidya Bharti, which runs 12,000 schools in the country, offered a less than emphatic response when asked if he knew this grandfather or could confirm the connection. “Her grandfather was in the Sangh, yes,” he said first. “See, if a person attends a shakha once, or an RSS meeting, they can say they are from the Sangh. We are not going to say no, you are not.” He then speculated that Irani’s “paternal grandfather may have been associated” with the RSS in Uttar Pradesh. Another RSS member suggested that, as a Punjabi, he must have joined the organisation in Punjab. Apara Mehta, whose family in Bhavnagar was part of the Janata Party, said she would often share stories from her political upbringing with Irani, but that “she never told me she had a connection too. I learnt about this from her interviews after she joined the BJP.”

Irani was the oldest of three daughters, born to Shibani Bagchi, a Bengali, and Ajay Malhotra, a Punjabi. She has spoken often of humble origins, and said that her father ran a courier company. An estranged friend of hers in Mumbai told me that Irani’s mother was from an affluent family, but that when she married out of her caste, the couple had to “start from scratch, without family help.”

In a November 2015 interview to NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, Irani said that her mother had worked as a housekeeper in the five-star hotel Taj Mansingh in Delhi. “She had to scrub bathrooms and floors,” Irani said. “I remember, the chef was very kind. He would say, ‘I’m making a nice club sandwich, take it back to your kids, I’m sure they’ll love it.’” Irani has said that she, too, before her television career, had done similar work—specifically, serving food and cleaning floors at a McDonald’s in Mumbai. The job taught her the “dignity of labour,” she said, in a 2008 interview to the talk show host Koel Purie. “Like, even if I lose everything, I can go back and do that. I can start cleaning floors.” When she first became a member of parliament, Irani was allotted a house opposite the Taj Mansingh. “I went to the Taj and ordered that club sandwich,” she told Dutt. “I called my mom, told her I paid for it today, but I just can’t get myself to eat the damn thing.”

Irani’s classmates and teachers from the Holy Child Auxilium School in Vasant Vihar in Delhi remember her as a subdued student. Though she is the school’s most famous alumna today, friends and teachers struggled to say more than that she was a “simple girl.” An “average student,” she had “no desire to come first, or even among the top ten,” a retired English teacher of the school told me. “She wasn’t a standout, especially compared to her dominating personality today.”

Irani and four other girls formed a group of friends at the school. “We weren’t the popular type or teachers’ pets, but nerds, awkward, comfortable only with each other,” said Harshali Singh, a writer and artist who knew Irani from her kindergarten days, and was one of the five. Another friend from the group, Parminder Kaur, now a zoology teacher in Khalsa College, told me the girls conversed in Hindi, even though that was forbidden in the school. “Smriti wasn’t very conversant in English then,” Kaur told me.

Singh remembers the group of girls feeling very protective of Irani. “She was not shy, but you know, very eager to please,” she said. “If we wanted to bunk, she’ll say okay. Study? Okay. She wanted to fit in, and that insecurity would be very visible.” Irani was also self-conscious about her appearance, Kaur recalled: “She was tall and slim, but really gawky, and kept saying how ordinary looking she was.” One day in school, Singh recounted, the girls chatted dreamily about what they would want to become when they grew up. One said she would be a teacher, another a musician, another a businesswoman. Singh had expected Irani to say she wanted to be a housewife, and was surprised to hear her say “air hostess” instead.

In the eleventh and twelfth standards, Irani chose to study the humanities, and started to play basketball. Around this time, something changed. “She was quite confident and took part in debates, sports, co-curricular activities,” said Sonali Sharma, an interior decorator, who says she was the person to whom Irani was closest in these high school years. Though Irani’s grades had improved and she was nominated captain of the school’s Peace house, her social awkwardness remained. “She wasn’t very popular among the girls,” Sonali said, adding that “somewhere she was always seeking friendship, scared she’ll be left out. I think that really moulded Smriti as a person.”

Irani was raised in a conservative home and had to break out of it to build her own life. Perhaps the most stark example she has given of this was in response to a question about female foeticide at a school event in Bhopal, during her tenure as HRD minister. “I am sharing it for the first time,” she said, “that when I was born, someone hinted to my mother that ‘beti to bojh hoti hai,’”—a daughter is a burden— “and therefore she should kill me. But my mother was brave and she did not do that, because of which today I am standing here in front of you.” In a 2001 interview with Karan Thapar on BBC, Irani said that the only ambition her family expected her to have was to be “married off to one settled boy in London.” But, she added, “I wanted none of that.” Sonali said that all the girls in their milieu led sheltered lives, but that Irani grew more restless than the others. “But being in a certain kind of middle-class, protective family, you just can’t speak up, so she kept it all locked up,” she said. Irani’s friends said that they never visited her home, or met her parents. “I had no idea about her parents except that they were a little strict, especially her father,” Kaur said.

One family member she was particularly close to was her Nana-ji, or maternal grandfather, with whom she spent her holidays. In a 2014 interview with Rajat Sharma on the show Aap Ki Adalat, Irani said, “Only my Nana-ji had faith, that this girl will become someone big someday.” His death, when Irani was a teen, devastated her and strengthened her resolve to find independence. “I thought I should become someone for his sake, to prove him right to the world,” Irani said.

When she turned 18, Irani decided to leave home, and move to Mumbai. “It was a shocker for my father,” she told Thapar. “But for me it was like, all this stuff I’d suppressed within myself, it was time to let it out. I was meant to lead a special life. I’m supposed to make it big.” Her father, she told Rajat Sharma, believed the media and entertainment industry were for the “uneducated.” But, she felt, “it was the one field in which my parents didn’t know anyone. I wanted to work independently.”

As Irani tells it, in Mumbai, she applied for an air-hostess position at Jet Airways, but was rejected, after which she took up the McDonald’s job. But she soon found herself running out of money, and called home for help. Irani’s father agreed to lend her Rs 2 lakh on the condition that she repay it within a year. She accepted, and resumed her struggle to make her career. On a challenge from a friend, she entered the Miss India Pageant, and was among five finalists, but did not win. She appeared in some small projects, such as a music video by the singer Mika Singh and a sanitary pad commercial, and also did a few small roles on television. Exactly a year from the day she had borrowed money from her father, Balaji Telefilms signed her on for Kyunki.

The show, which aired on Star Plus, was an instant hit, and, within weeks, its lead actors, Irani especially, became stars. Kyunki ran for 1,833 episodes over eight years, making it the longest running Indian soap at the time. At its peak, it achieved double-digit TRP ratings that have still not been bested. It was dubbed in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Bengali for Indian audiences, in Sinhala for Sri Lanka, and in Dari for Afghanistan—where the serial’s many Hindu symbols and idols were blurred out. The programme also gave rise to the derogatory moniker “saas-bahu serial,” now used to describe regressive shows “meant for housewives,” as Shadab Khan, a former Kyunki producer, put it.

Upadhyay and Irani realised very early that Ekta Kapoor intended their characters to echo Hindu mythological figures. Before their first shot together, “Ekta told us Mihir and Tulsi were the perfect couple at the centre of the Virani family, like Ram and Sita in modern times,” Upadhyay said. “Mihir was the ideal husband and ideal son, and Tulsi was Sita—uncomplaining, moral and devoted to her husband.” (Irani had, in fact, played the role of Sita in a short-lived 2001 version of the Ramayana that aired on Zee TV.) Apara Mehta told me that she found this “too disempowering and stuffy,” but that Irani “was very happy about the reference. She said it would connect well with Indians.” She was right: viewers lauded Irani’s character as a personification of Hindu values, and some matrimonials at the time asked for brides like Tulsi. Irani was committed to the show’s traditionalist world view, Mehta said. “She was very clear about things—Mihir and Tulsi rarely even held hands.”

As Kyunki’s success grew, Irani acquired more say over its plot and dialogues—particularly after the show’s third season, which aired in 2002. The story took a 20-year jump into its future then, and the 27-year-old actor played a 55-year-old grandmother, with her hair dyed white. “She made Tulsi more Smriti—the perfect wife, daughter-in-law and mother but never the side character,” Mehta said. Critics called the plot regressive, and claimed that her role promoted patriarchy and orthodoxy, but Irani firmly defended it, arguing in one interview, “Being traditional is not being regressive.”

SMRITI IRANI MARRIED ZUBIN in 2001, less than a year into Kyunki, in a small ceremony that even her co-workers at Balaji did not know about. When she came to the studio to shoot on the day of her wedding, the costume team gave her a white sari to wear—Tulsi’s husband, Mihir, had had a mysterious accident in the previous episode, leaving her widowed. “The problem was, Smriti had bridal mehendi on her hands!” exclaimed Hetal, Amar Upadhyay’s wife, who was on the set because their baby had been cast as Tulsi’s infant son. “The director came storming in and shouted, ‘What is this ya, Smriti?’ That’s when she smiled and told everyone that she had gotten married.” Hetal then played Irani’s hand model for shots where she carried the baby, while “the cameras stuck to Smriti’s crying face.”

This was Zubin’s second marriage (his first wife, Mona, was a model coordinator and a friend of Irani’s) and the media wrote about it like it was a plot twist in a soap. “People wrote gossip about my breaking up the first marriage,” she told Koel Purie. It was the first time Irani had received bad press.

In some interviews, Irani has said she has known Zubin since she was 11 years old. “Zubin was a very dear friend,” a blushing Irani told Karan Thapar. In Mumbai, she said, “throughout my struggle, if anyone turned me down, I’d relate the story to him.” Marriage, she said, “hasn’t ended the conversation in this relationship.” Later in the interview, she added, “Very honestly, I’ve been able to digest success because of him.”

Irani took Zubin’s surname, and the same year, they had a son, whom they named Zohr, after the foundational text of Jewish mysticism. The couple also had a daughter, whom they named Zoish. They decided to raise their children, along with Zubin’s daughter with Mona, Shanelle, to follow the religion of Zubin’s family, Zoroastrianism. But Irani herself dressed like the quintessential married Hindu woman—an off-screen extension of Tulsi.

Journalists and her colleagues told me that Irani was an actively involved parent, and that even when she was away from home, her children had to follow a strict bedtime and follow set limits in their use of the television or computers. Even as HRD minister, she rarely missed parent-teacher meetings, a faculty member of Delhi’s Sardar Patel Vidyalaya told me. “She stands in line, waiting her turn,” she said.

Few of the couple’s friends or Irani’s co-stars could say clearly what Zubin does for a living. “Business,” Upadhyay said. A producer who worked with Irani when she started her own production company ventured, “I think farming or maybe real estate.” Some news articles that appeared at the time of the wedding claimed that Zubin ran a business selling sports and medical equipment. “I think she was the main breadwinner, and earned more than her husband,” Mehta said. “I know it was a struggle for her.”

The couple kept a house in Mumbai, but Zubin also had a farmhouse in Dahanu, a scenic coastal town around 125 kilometres outside the city, where his family also had an ancestral home. On the wooden gate of the farmhouse is a bronze symbol of the Zoroastrian Farvahar—a winged disc—crowning a Hindu Om. After they married, Irani had a bright-orange Durga temple built on the premises.

But it is the Iranis’ ancestral home, a 15-minute drive away, that is their social centre, the place where the large joint family of cousins and other relatives gathers, and where Irani, too, spends considerable time. Today, Zubin’s cousin Rony looks after the family’s pear and chikoo farms, and their sprawling heritage mansion, part of which is run as a hotel and a restaurant. Rony’s wife, Palli, recalled that the family was appalled when Zubin announced that he was remarrying. “I mean, Smriti was a pretty young thing, and a TV star for god’s sake,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh god, what is Zubin doing, has he lost it?’ But in just a few months, she won us all over like that!” she added, snapping her fingers. Palli explained that Irani endeared herself to the family by quickly picking up the traditions they held dear. One Navroz—the Parsi new year—a few years after the wedding, when the entire family had gathered for lunch, “Smriti was setting the table, and when I came to put the food down, I saw that she had arranged it in the absolute Zoroastrian way,” Palli said. “Even I don’t do it so pukka.”

Dahanu was also where Irani took the first step towards politics. In 2003, when she was pregnant with her daughter, and could not travel into Mumbai to shoot, the Kyunki crew brought the set to the family house for a few days. Word travelled fast across Dahanu, and soon, excited residents gathered to watch the shoot. Among those who dropped by the mansion was Manisha Chaudhari, a member of the BJP’s Maharashtra wing and currently the MLA from Dahisar. Chaudhari was in Dahanu to visit a friend “who also happens to be related to Zubin,” she told me.

I met the 54-year-old Chaudhari one evening in April in her apartment in Mumbai’s Borivali West, where she received guest after guest—neighbours saying hello, political networkers, parents anxious about impending school or college admissions, and a couple facing the threat of their home being demolished. Her husband sat on one end of the sofa in their living room, leaving the end closer to the kitchen for Chaudhari. From there, she kept an eye on vadas she was frying for her visitors. She described herself as “just a sevak”—servant—in the exaggerated humility typical of BJP old-timers. But beneath the humility and the personality of the householder is a politician who has been the vice president of the BJP’s Maharashtra Mahila Morcha, or women’s wing; a member of the BJP national executive committee; and a municipal corporator of Dahanu, her husband’s hometown.

Recounting the 2003 shoot in Dahanu, Chaudhuri said, “I was a fan of Kyunki and Tulsi.” She had also heard rumours that someone from the Congress had approached Irani to invite her to join the party—a claim the Congress’s Abhishek Singhvi has also made, but that Irani has never confirmed. “I decided I will go invite her into the BJP,” Chaudhari said. She gathered a group of women, and went to the Irani house. “I just introduced myself and told her about our party. Smriti said she liked the work of Atal-ji.” Ashish Shelar, currently the president of the BJP’s Mumbai unit, confirmed that “Manisha-ji was the one who first introduced Smriti-ji to the BJP. Smriti herself has admitted this in her speeches.”

On her drive back to Mumbai, Chaudhari telephoned the BJP’s former deputy chief minister the late Gopinath Munde and apprised him of her meeting. “He said he would speak to Pramod Mahajan,” a powerful new-age leader of the BJP who was close to Vajpayee. Chaudhari arranged a meeting between Irani, Munde, Mahajan and some other senior party leaders in Mumbai. They met in Worli, at the home of the industrialist Meka Vijay Paparao, who knew Munde and whose wife was Chaudhari’s friend. “The meeting went excellent, and Smriti was wonderful,” Chaudhari said. Later that evening, Mahajan called Chaudhuri. “They had decided to take Smriti, not in Maharashtra, but at the national level.”

The following week, Irani, Zubin and Chaudhari—whom, by now, Irani called Manisha-tai—travelled to Delhi to meet the party’s national executive, which included Mahajan, Munde, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Prime Minister Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani. On 15 November 2003, Irani was inducted as a BJP member at the party office at 11 Ashoka Road. At a press conference on the occasion, Irani proved that she had done her homework on the party’s positions. When a journalist asked for her opinion on the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, Irani, only just having received a membership receipt, replied, “All women should be given respect. But self-respect does not allow us to think of being ruled by a foreign-born woman.” Chaudhari was thrilled. “She was so much smarter, so much more well prepared than they had imagined,” she said.

While this was the account I heard from BJP leaders in Maharashtra of Irani’s acceptance into the party, those in Delhi were more cynical, and credited her recruitment to her closeness with Mahajan, who was keen on bringing celebrities and businesspersons into the party, or enlisting their support during elections. According to one Delhi-based academic who is close to many BJP leaders, (“I’m practically the complaint cell,” the academic joked) the party only intended to employ Irani’s star appeal to draw crowds at election rallies. “But unlike a Hema Malini or Sachin Tendulkar, she had bigger ambitions and made them known very quickly.”

When Irani joined the BJP, it was seeing a wave of success, having won state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. According to Apara Mehta—who has also campaigned for the BJP—Irani chose the organisation because “she probably knew she would have been lost in a dynastic party like the Congress.” Mehta added that Irani “could take the gender space in the BJP, where, unlike in the Congress, there were few serious female mass leaders other than Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti.”

For the next five years, as Irani kept up a manic pace to juggle her acting and political careers, Kyunki’s cast and crew struggled to schedule shoots around her availability. Mehta recalled that after Irani had delivered her first child, a nervous scheduler called to ask her when she would be available to work again. “She scolded them—‘At least ask if my child is a boy or a girl first!’ But then went back to work on the fourth day.”

Upadhyay remembered watching the news on television one day, and seeing the BJP’s youth-wing members protest in Mumbai against the Congress-led government. “Smriti was in the crowd!” he said. “I was shocked. She was shouting, being shoved around, and the police lathi-charged them.” The protestors, including Irani, were arrested.

The producers had to change the shooting programme till Irani was released on bail, as a result of which the entire crew learnt of her participation in the protests. “I thought she would give up after that,” said Shadab Khan, who closely managed Irani’s shoots. “I mean, she is a well-known actor, she can’t deal with this gross politics.” To his surprise, Irani returned to work in a few days, bearing bruises and a triumphant smile. “I wouldn’t be able to deal with being treated like that,” Mehta said. “But Smriti was ready for anything.” As Upadhyay put it, “At some point, I realised that Tulsi was not alongside her politics. Tulsi was politics.” Ashish Shelar, who was a member of the youth wing at the same time as Irani, recalled being relieved to see a celebrity “do real politics on the ground rather than dinner diplomacy.”

In 2004, the party appointed Irani vice president of the Maharashtra Youth Wing, and nominated her as an executive member of the BJP’s central committee. With Mahajan’s backing, she was also given a ticket to contest the 2004 general election from Chandni Chowk in Delhi, against the Congress’s Kapil Sibal. The Delhi-based woman BJP politician told me that Irani had been keen on the constituency, which was then held by the BJP’s Vijay Goel. The party’s president, Venkaiah Naidu, and Mahajan, who was Vajpayee’s political advisor, had granted her request.

“She had nothing to lose, but the party should have thought it through,” a BJP organiser in Chandni Chowk told me. The Delhi unit had expected Goel, or another Mahajan loyalist, the city-based businessman Sudhanshu Mittal, to be assigned the seat. Most party workers felt that Irani did not stand a chance against the heavyweight Sibal. Nevertheless, to capitalise on Irani’s greatest known strength then, the campaign managers came up with a slogan: “Ghar ghar ki rani, Tulsi Virani”—the queen of every home, Tulsi Virani. “We still felt we were playing in a lost match,” the local organiser said. “She might have grown up in Delhi, but people saw her as a Mumbai girl due to her TV career.” A BJP member who helped Irani’s campaign said she was “completely at sea, and inexperienced about electioneering.” Despite this, he added, “what stood out was her hard work. She never tires.”

As she campaigned relentlessly, and continued to act, the Kyunki team marvelled at her multitasking. She would campaign in Delhi in the day, fly to Mumbai in the evening, see her family, shoot for the show at night and go back to Delhi at 6 am. “She told me she catches up on her sleep in cars and flights,” said Sandeep Tripathi, who was Irani’s scheduler then. “She was there in nearly every episode, and she rarely missed a shoot.”

However, as the BJP workers had feared, the result was a disaster—Irani secured just under 48,000 votes, while Sibal won with nearly 130,000. But she was not alone, since the BJP won only 138 of 543 seats in a general election that brought the Congress-led UPA to power. “The election campaign helped showcase her oratory, and the real value of her celebrity status,” Sudhanshu Mittal told me. After the loss, Irani plunged into party work. “She was called to campaign all over the country,” Mittal said. “She headed the Mahila Morcha, led the election in Goa. It takes most others a lifetime to build status like this.”

EVEN AS HER CAREER sped forward in high gear, Irani almost derailed it in 2004 by trying to take on Modi with her declaration to fast till he quit. Her public retraction and meeting with Modi helped the party save face, but it would be many years before Irani could make a full recovery.

Her position was further weakened by the ill fortunes of the leaders she was loyal to. Vajpayee’s failing health forced him to take a back seat, and Mahajan was murdered by his brother in May 2006. For the next few years, she worked in the periphery of the party, still prized for her public-speaking skills, but kept at arm’s length to avoid any gaffes.

Perhaps sensing a fall in her political fortunes, she tried to secure her place in television by setting up a production house named Ugraya Entertainment, with Zubin—even as she continued to shoot forKyunki. But this venture, too, faltered. The company’s shows—Waaris, Virrudh, and Thodi Si Zameen Thoda Aasmaan, of which the latter two starred Irani—were appreciated, but never came close toKyunki’s spectacular success.

The writer Kamlesh Pandey, who co-wrote Virrudh, explained why the venture failed. Irani “was open to ideas and innovations,” he said, and was able to sell the shows to broadcasters such as 9X and Zee TV using her clout. But “the TV industry had changed after a decade of Kyunki,” he said, and “it was obvious” that Irani did not fit in the way she once did. “The TV business is very demanding, and production is a game of strategy,” Pandey said. “You can’t cast yourself as lead in everything.” As an actor, Irani “was still good,” he added, “but had put on weight. I don’t blame her, mind you—balancing politics, three children, a production house, hosting shows, and all that travel doesn’t leave you with much time to sleep or work out. In the end, it is a superficial field, and you lose out if you don’t play by its shallow rules.” Around this time, Irani and Ekta Kapoor had a spat about a show on which they were collaborating—many Balaji employees confirmed this. In 2007 she suffered a traumatic miscarriage, which she has spoken about in an interview with Vir Sanghvi; she quit Kyunki that year.

As her television career waned, Irani seemed to grow increasingly comfortable with politics. She worked to win over Nitin Gadkari, the chief of the BJP’s Maharashtra state unit, a powerful leader with RSS backing. Irani was appointed president of the Maharashtra BJP’s Mahila Morcha. She was not given a seat to contest in the 2009 parliamentary elections, but used her arsenal of languages—Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi and English—to campaign furiously for the party across the country.

The BJP lost again, but Irani’s luck was turning. In 2010, the year after Gadkari became the BJP’s national president, Irani was appointed the all-India president of the Mahila Morcha. “It’s not as if Gadkari alone was making all this happen,” a woman BJP leader in Delhi said. “But having a mentor has a double advantage: real power, in terms of access, and the perception of power, which makes other people stay out of your way.” In 2011, when the Gujarat government prepared to elect leaders to nominate to the Rajya Sabha, Gadkari recommended Irani. “Modi”—who was still the state’s chief minister—“had wanted Nirmala Sitharaman,” the party member close to Modi said. “But finally, he listened to Gadkari.”

As a member of parliament from Gujarat, Irani began to work in the arena of Modi’s power. She made several trips to Ahmedabad, and built links with local leaders. “She used to attend MP meetings in Gujarat in 2012, I remember, and she was always the most prepared person,” said a party member who was on the state finance commission at the time. While other MPs depended on the notes the local leaders gave, “when she made public speeches, she would have done her homework on the district she was travelling to,” he added. She knew a smattering of Gujarati, which improved substantially in these years. Irani also participated in the Sadbhavana Mission—Modi’s bid to amend Gujarat’s communal image after the 2002 riots.

Though Irani now began to support Modi, “not everyone bought this total U-turn as a heartfelt change,” the former finance commission member said. “To put it crudely, someone so ambitious is also very opportunistic. But it was clear Modi was giving her a second chance, so we were careful.” Irani’s repeated visits to Gujarat and growing proximity to Modi prompted whispers of the kind only women—especially rapidly successful ones—are subjected to. One woman BJP politician told me, “Maybe some people are willing to go to extents that not everyone is.” I heard similar insinuations from BJP leaders, both men and women, in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Delhi, as well as from members of other parties and senior journalists in Gandhinagar and Delhi. There is little by way of verifiable evidence for this kind of salacious gossip, but it resurfaces with every favourable opportunity Irani gets. The sexism that Indian politics is steeped in was laid bare in the numerous unverified half-anecdotes that I encountered; each speaker, while acknowledging Irani’s talents and commitment as a politician, insisted that there could be no other explanation for what a senior ABVP member called her “disproportionate rewards.”

The gossip didn’t faze Irani. She became one of the party’s spokespersons, and began to appear on television debates nearly every night, fending off criticism of her party and, especially, of Modi. A senior editor at a Hindi news channel said Irani “was usually well prepared and reasonable.” She took jibes lightly, he added, but argued forcefully, with “razor sharp wit.”

Ahead of the 2014 general election, when Modi was making his bid for prime ministership, the BJP needed to play down his alleged role in the riots. It threatened the Gujarat development story that the BJP was selling in its campaign, and was a source of discomfort even among the party’s old guard. Nearly every time a debate veered to the subject, Irani would be challenged about her 2004 statement. The columnist Aakar Patel recalled one such instance, on the channel Times Now. “I told her that she may be defending Modi now, but how come she had criticised him before?” Patel said. “Immediately, she replied, ‘It is people like you who misled me with your articles.’” With such appearances, Irani became, as a prominent Ahmedabad journalist close to Modi put it, the leader’s “most eloquent defendant.” He described her as “Modi’s fidayeen, throwing herself in front of a bus to protect his reputation.”

The veteran journalist who covers the BJP suggested that promoting Irani was also part of efforts by the new crop of BJP leaders—led by Modi—to undercut the similarly multilingual and articulate Sushma Swaraj, the senior-most woman leader in the party. Swaraj, an Advani loyalist, was known to be openly critical of Modi and the party’s current president, Amit Shah. “The BJP needed Swaraj because she won elections, and was a reliable administrator, but they wanted to sideline her by creating their own version of Sushma,” the journalist said. Any political organisation should be able to accommodate more than one or two powerful women leaders, but it is perhaps a sign of the limited imagination of the party, and Indian politics in general, that Irani and Swaraj were only ever seen as competition for each other. Of course, unlike Swaraj, who had won three assembly and six parliamentary elections, Irani had only fought one, and had been routed in it.

FOR A RAMSHACKLE PLACE that isn’t particularly distinct from hundreds of others in Uttar Pradesh, Amethi receives a disproportionate share of attention. The district has a large population of Dalits and Muslims, and has been the Lok Sabha constituency of choice for several members of the Nehru-Gandhi family—except for the elections of 1977 and 1998, the Congress has been undefeated here. Since 2004, the constituency has been represented by Rahul Gandhi.

The BJP usually puts up only a perfunctory battle in Amethi. “The people and BJP’s workers here thought anyone contesting against the Gandhi family was just a dull filler,” Umashankar Pandey, the BJP’s election agent in Amethi, told me in August. He rattled off a list of “brief visitors” to Amethi. From the Janata Dal, “Rajmohan Gandhi fought against Rajiv Gandhi, lost, and left.” He named others: “Sharad Yadav, Ravindra Pratap, Maneka Gandhi”—from the Janata Dal (United), the Janata Party and the BJP—and even the Dalit icon Kanshi Ram. “They all lost and went away.” He added that in all these years, in terms of development, “Amethi got nothing.”

In the 2014 general election, the BJP chose Irani as its candidate for Amethi. When she came to campaign, Pandey said, BJP workers assumed that she would lose even worse than she had before: “ladengi, haar jayengi, bhaag jayengi”—she’ll fight, lose and run. Several BJP members told me it was Modi’s idea to field Irani against Rahul Gandhi. “Modi and Amit Shah”—who was then in charge of the party’s Uttar Pradesh campaign—“are a team in themselves, and they don’t think any constituency is lost before it’s fought,” said the person in Gandhinagar close to senior BJP leaders. Amethi and neighbouring Rae Bareilly, another Congress bastion, he added, “are difficult to win, so they thought they’d get the most from it.” In Irani, the duo “saw someone who would give a good fight, and whom the media loved to chase.” A fierce campaigner would force Rahul Gandhi to spend more time in Amethi and less in other rallies across the country.

In the general election of 2009, the BJP had won an abysmal 37,570 votes in Amethi. Irani had little to lose: she would gain publicity from the electoral fight, but would not be ridiculed if she were defeated in a Congress stronghold. Unlike in 2004, this time, she had the advantages of both the wave of support that Modi was enjoying, as well as her own electioneering chops.

Gyan Singh, who runs the well-known Alok Dhaba in the town of Gauriganj, in Amethi, had a chance to watch Irani closely when the BJP team worked out of his establishment. The building has six air-conditioned rooms, where Irani’s aides and her public-relations officer stayed. During this time, party workers would mill around in the open restaurant hall, drinking tea and buttermilk as they prepared for a meeting, or resting after a day’s campaigning. The portly Singh, usually seen sporting a blue safari suit and with a red paan-filled mouth, is an old BJP loyalist—“first a bhakt of Kalyan Singh and now of Modi,” he said. BJP members recalled that he had always played a gracious host to them. “I’ve seen so many elections, but 2014 was a different atmosphere,” Singh told me in August. “Smriti-ji wasn’t fighting for its own sake. She was fighting to win, it was obvious.” He described her as an unfussy guest, who was only particular about her chilli paneer and roti.

Whether it was because of her enthusiasm or self-confidence, Irani’s spirited fight charged up browbeaten BJP workers in Amethi. “She invoked faith in us,” Pandey said. She came to be called “didi,” or elder sister, an affectionate moniker she promoted in speeches. (Rahul Gandhi is called “bhaiyya,” or elder brother, in the constituency.) Govind Singh Chauhan, the BJP’s media manager for Amethi, recounted witnessing a flash of her temper when a party worker addressed her as “madam”—he told me she snapped, “Madam is Sonia Gandhi.”

It helped Irani’s campaign immensely that she was perceived to be close to Modi. “We were in the car once and she got a call from someone on her direct mobile,” Chauhan said. “She spoke in a different style, addressing the person as ‘CM saab.’” When Chauhan instructed a loud colleague in the car to quiet down because Irani was speaking to Modi, she turned around and asked how he knew. “You’re a very dangerous man,” he recounted her teasing. “We all knew that Amit Shah, Arun Jaitley and now Smriti Irani were people who had the hotline to Modi,” Chauhan added. “We didn’t have some sacrificial lamb amidst us, we had the inner circle.”

Irani was declared as a candidate in April 2014, with only a month to go until the election. After planning and making arrangements, she effectively had 20 days on the road. The team focused on the message that “the Congress had done nothing in ten years,” Pandey said. They believed this pitch would resonate in the constituency, where over 90 percent of the population didn’t have tapped water and 65 percent did not have an electricity connection. The local BJP lined up meetings for Irani with community leaders who were disgruntled with the Congress, Samajwadi Party and BSP. “She had boundless energy,” said Pandey, with whose family Irani stayed during the campaign. “There wasn’t a day she ate before midnight.”

Irani strove to present the image of a down-to-earth leader, walking into people’s homes and sitting on the ground to talk to villagers. She would insist on seating women in the front rows of her meetings. “Our aim was that she had to feel approachable, unlike Rahul, who is popular but like a prince,” Pandey said. Ram Singh, the owner of a fertiliser shop in Amethi, said he was impressed with Irani’s campaign—particularly the fact that though the BJP’s politics often focussed on identity equations, “Irani always presented herself as a mix of cultures and therefore incapable of division.”

A few days into the campaign, Chauhan began to notice young men in T-shirts, caps and sunglasses, hovering around near campaign meetings, and often speaking to Irani privately in her car. “I started to realise that apart from us, there was a secret team,” he said.

Before launching her Amethi campaign, Irani had no significant connections in Uttar Pradesh. She also didn’t have many friends in the BJP, and depended heavily on the few she did: Modi, Gadkari and the then chief minister of Goa, Manohar Parrikar. A BJP member from Gujarat explained that “it was well known that Amit Shah didn’t like Smriti very much, but knew her political importance.” He added: “She didn’t know how to build bridges with the party leaders.” Seen as the “eyes and ears of the boss,” the veteran journalist said, after she became a Rajya Sabha MP, Irani would “often be sitting totally alone in the central hall of parliament, eating her mutton biryani.”

Perhaps anxious that she wouldn’t have the full backing of the BJP’s local unit, Irani created her own crack election team, comprising fans, social-media experts, IT experts and other volunteers. “I think the average age was 30,” Shilpi Tewari, an architect and social-media junkie who headed the team, told me in August. “Not a single person in this team was from the BJP.” Tewari had met Irani for the first time in 2012, during Modi’s Sadbhavana Mission, and they had stayed in touch after. When Irani invited her to lead the Amethi campaign, “I accepted even though I was heavily pregnant, because ma’am always treated me like a sister,” Tewari said.

This secret team worked out of a newly constructed two-storey house just behind Alok Dhaba. “The primary campaign design came from the BJP,” Tewari said. “We were handling new media, which played a big role that election.” Her team sent out videos and pictures on Whatsapp groups and Facebook, created buzz on Twitter through numerous temporary handles and sent out text messages. They also gathered data on the constituency—including voting patterns, unemployment rates and poverty—and analysed demographics. Irani had a fantastic memory, she said, which “terrified the volunteers.” She was also a “very hands-on” leader, and “even if an SMS was going out, she would get every word right.”

Apart from BJP members and Tewari’s team, Irani cultivated a third group during the Amethi campaign: the ABVP. Most of this crew was handpicked by Alok Kumar Singh, then a 26-year-old ABVP member and doctoral student of life sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in Delhi, where he was already active in student politics. In his first election meeting with Irani, Alok Singh, who grew up in Dalganjan village in Amethi, suggested that she mention the district’s poor roads often, because people were very ashamed of them. “I told her maine suna hai sadak pe gadde hote hain, par Amethi me toh gaddon pe sadak bani hui hai”—I’ve heard there can be potholes on roads, but in Amethi, the road is built on potholes. To his delight, Irani used the line at many rallies, to much applause. Travelling the district on his motorbike, Singh recruited around 25 friends and classmates from across five assembly constituencies, people he called “inspired youth who are smart and angry.”

As the campaign reached a fever pitch, it became apparent that Irani was indeed making inroads into Congress country. Akhilesh Pratap Singh, a senior Congress member who has often accompanied the Gandhis when they visited Amethi, dismissed her efforts as “self publicity.” He suggested that Irani would have gained little ground if not for unprecedented party backing. For the BJP under Modi, he argued, Amethi represented a larger attempt to undermine the Gandhis. “It was not only Smriti Irani who was fighting against Rahul in 2014,” Pratap Singh said. “The entire BJP fought against Rahul.”

The extent of this support was made clear on 5 May 2014, the last day of campaigning across the country, when Narendra Modi chose to visit Amethi. Addressing a huge rally in the town, he praised Irani’s untiring efforts to understand the district, and called her “meri chhoti behen”—my little sister.

Despite her multi-pronged campaign, Irani lost to Rahul Gandhi. But she polled an impressive 300,748 votes, only about a lakh short of Gandhi’s winning tally, and a massive gain from the BJP’s 2009 count. In the interview to Barkha Dutt, Irani said, “I fought the toughest political battle in the country in 2014 and won a moral victory.”

Since then, even as HRD minister, Irani has been returning to the constituency at least once every three months, and, among other projects, has helped start a school and fund an insurance scheme there. “She shows more interest here than our MP Rahul Gandhi,” said Rajesh Kumar, a goldsmith who described himself as a “pukka Congresswallah.” Looking around at his family, he said, “We are still not BJP people, but we are Smriti people.”

Shilpi Tewari, too, remained Irani’s staunch supporter, and wrote articles defending her policies. Tewari has come under fire repeatedly, such as when news reports appeared stating that Irani had bent government rules to offer her a job as a consultant. (Tewari had turned the job down before the reports were published.) Tewari was also implicated in the circulation of a doctored video of JNU students shouting what Irani called anti-national slogans. Tewari denied having anything to do with the video. “I was dragged into these scandals, especially the JNU case, for no other reason than to attack ma’am,” she told me.

The bond Irani forged with the ABVP also remained strong after the 2014 election. Alok Singh returned to Delhi, became the president of the ABVP unit in JNU and led many vicious battles with leftist students and teachers. It was his brother, 18-year-old Amit, and four boys Alok Singh invited into campus (he told me they were “unrecognisable outsiders” and could easily mingle with the crowd) who shot 19 phone videos of left-wing students allegedly shouting seditious slogans. In early February, Alok Singh said, he offered Zee News and ANI “an exclusive,” and handed over the videos to the channels. The ensuing crackdown, with rallying cries from BJP politicians, saw the arrests of several students and brought the university to the brink of closure. It would prove to be among Irani’s most destructive phases as HRD minister.

AS IRANI TELLS IT, she hadn’t expected to be appointed cabinet minister. In May 2014, as the BJP celebrated its colossal win of 282 of 543 Lok Sabha seats, she was in Shimla, nursing her electoral loss and taking a deserved holiday with her husband. She was also shooting a cameo for the film All Is Well, starring Abhishek Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor. But her mind, it seems, was still on Delhi.

Several journalists recall versions of an anecdote Irani loved to narrate, in which she called her colleague Piyush Goyal to ask for an extra pass to the swearing-in ceremony, since her daughter also wanted to attend it. Goyal, the story goes, asked, “Why do you think you will get only one pass?” Irani responded, “Aren’t ministers of state getting only one pass?”—suggesting she had been assured of that rank. “Smriti, I think you’re getting cabinet,” Goyal said. “Better take two passes.”

She gave journalists the impression that being assigned the HRD ministry was an even greater surprise. “The way Smriti says it, it looks like it was beyond belief for her,” a Delhi journalist who covered the swearing-in told me. “She was dying with excitement.” But an overwhelming number of people felt she was wrong for the job.

Education in India has long been in deep crisis. While enrolment in schools is near universal, studies show that more than half the country’s Class 5 students cannot read a Class 2 textbook. Higher education suffers from poor enrolment and access, low pedagogical relevance and a lack of infrastructure, even as a spurt in private institutions has driven commercialisation out of control. There are more than 220 private universities in India, which account for 61 percent of India’s total higher education enrolment, but they do not have to follow governmental norms for faculty salary or recruitment. Scores of technical and professional institutes are mired in intense corruption, which has surfaced in controversies such as the Vyapam scam. Critics felt that Irani, a 38-year-old with no experience in academia, was not qualified to meet these challenges. They attacked her aggressively.

“What a Cabinet of Modi?” Ajay Maken, the Congress’s communication head, tweeted. “HRD Minister (looking after education) Smriti Irani is not even a graduate! Look at her affidavit at the ECI site- page 11!” The activist and academic Madhu Kishwar addressed her tweets to Modi: [email protected] SmritiIrani merely class 12 pass. Went to bcm fashion model on to tv serial bahu. Is this qualification enf 4 India’s Education Minister?” Another tweet from Kishwar revealed a deeper concern: [email protected] HRD crucial ministry deserving heavy weight who can deal with CMs, VCs, research institutions– mostly citadels of left extremism.”

Kishwar was voicing the quiet anxiety in the Sangh and among many BJP supporters that Irani did not have the ability and gravitas to take on the largely left-leaning academic and bureaucratic establishment, and pursue the right wing’s education project.

Just as the controversy was subsiding, Kishwar tweeted about discrepancies in the educational qualifications Irani had claimed in her election affidavits from 2004 and 2014. In 2004, her affidavit read: “BA 1996 Delhi University (School of Correspondence).” In 2014, she wrote: “Bachelor of Commerce Part-1, School of Open Learning (Correspondence), University of Delhi, 1994.” Opposition parties accused Irani of lying to the Election Commission, and claimed that she stood liable to be disqualified. The Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said, in a written statement, that the issue was not about “having or not having educational qualification, whether it is 5th class, 8th class pass, PhD or MA.” Rather, he said, it was about a “distortion in her 2014 affidavit, which is unfortunately a serious criminal offence.”

Soon, a petitioner filed a case in the Delhi High Court demanding that Irani produce proof of graduation or enrolment. (In October, the court dismissed the complaint against Irani.)

The person in Gandhinagar told me Irani had simply been careless in filling the form in 2004, when she “did not have someone to pay close attention.” But he conceded that in the context of a political war, like that between the BJP and Congress, “even technicalities can become arrows to pierce the opponent.”

By most accounts, however, the leak originated from within the party. Many BJP leaders and RSS members told me that it was a rival politician who leaked the information to the public. “It was a lady who was bitter about being left out of the cabinet,” the person in Gandhinagar close to senior BJP leaders, who was party to the BJP’s internal investigation into the matter, told me. A Twitter user with a popular account also told me that the rival had “practically goaded me to put it up on Twitter.”

Television channels discussed the issue relentlessly. Nevertheless, ministry officials said that internally, Irani began her term on a positive note. She first supervised the spring-cleaning of Shastri Bhavan—where the ministry is housed—and the rearrangement of desks and storage. “It was selfless,” said a bureaucrat who has since moved to another ministry. “No one had ever done this for us, and we were really happy.” She also recounted that in the first few weeks, Irani was easily accessible, often walking up to the officers, especially women, to ask a quick question, pay a compliment on a sari or exchange other pleasantries.

But as the attacks over her educational qualifications continued, Irani’s initial friendliness soured. Soon, a clear hierarchy was established in the office. “Only the joint secretary and officers above that could go into her room,” a school education consultant at the ministry told me. “This was not how previous ministers treated us.” She added that Irani seemed to trust no one, and began to try and control every memo, document and decision. The same anxious micro-management that had worked on the campaign trail in Amethi proved counterproductive for Irani here.

Many officials complained that Irani lacked direction and had them hopping from one project to the next. At one meeting for Vidyanjali, a school volunteer programme that she launched in June this year, the consultant remembered the Punjab education minister joking to his neighbour, “Behen-ji har mahine kuch naya launch karti hain”—sister launches something new every month. An officer who worked on implementing the Right To Education Act told me they found her “ill-read” and “averse to briefings,” except when she had to answer parliamentary questions or had a meeting with the prime minister’s office. “She had a great memory, so she could rattle off figures, but I was disappointed when she couldn’t prioritise and lead us,” a former senior bureaucrat in the ministry said.

Under Irani, the HRD ministry became the most attrition-prone of the Modi government. At least five joint-secretary-level officers were moved from the office in two years—in contrast, only two were moved in the full five years of the UPA-II government. Disquiet in the office reached its depths when Irani removed the ministry’s secretary—its highest ranked official—Vrinda Sarup, an experienced bureaucrat who was a mentor to many, and was widely respected by activists and educationists. “She was there for 20 years. She brought institutional continuity that’s crucial for long-term education policies,” the school consultant said. “When she was shifted out, everyone was so upset and we lost respect for Smriti.”

Irani’s performance also suffered because she had a limited network across states. “She is an articulate leader who can be very generous when she wants,” an education secretary from a BJP-ruled state told me. “But she didn’t bother building relations with state education teams.” A June event to launch the Vidyanjali app cost the ministry Rs 1 crore, but only two education ministers—from Punjab, and Jammu and Kashmir—attended it. “It was hard to get education ministers from even BJP-ruled states to take her seriously,” the school consultant, who was also involved in the programme, told me. People’s derision for Irani, some officials sensed, might have sprung from her “intimidating” manner. The bureaucrat now in another ministry said, “On the one hand, she had sycophants. And on the other, people couldn’t take orders from her because she was once an actress.”

Academics had harsh words for Irani. Professors in the IITs, IIMs and universities described her variously as “disrespectful,” “very spiteful” and “arrogant for a person without expertise or experience.” A senior academic at IIT Delhi said her personal staff had instructed him to call her not “Mrs Irani,” but “minister.” At a meeting of vice chancellors in Surajkund, in Haryana, Irani reportedly scolded senior academics for not paying enough attention to the proceedings. One of these academics described her to me as “bossy on top of being dumb.” A senior IIT Delhi professor argued that the UPA-I HRD minister, Arjun Singh, and Murli Manohar Joshi, who headed the ministry under Vajpayee, “were also headstrong, but they had the grace to handle educated people. I didn’t like being bossed around by an arrogant greenhorn without educational qualifications who thought offence was the best defence.”

Nandita Narain, the president of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association, or DUTA, had repeated run-ins with Irani during the minister’s term. But she told me that she didn’t find the minister arrogant or impolite. “Previous ministers were as uninformed about the nuances of education,” she said, but admitted that Irani faced additional barriers of sexism and elitism. Irani’s school friend Parminder Kaur, who teaches at Khalsa College and participated in protests against some of Irani’s plans, said that when women lecturers could be demeaned by male colleagues “quite regularly in subtle ways,” an education minister must face “ten times worse.” But both were clear that this didn’t excuse Irani’s failures. Her failing was to trash “even legitimate criticism as sexism, and tough media reports as elitist attacks” a senior university administrator said.

When it came to formulating and executing policy, Irani floundered. As her first major decision, in June 2014, she rolled back the controversial four-year undergraduate programme, or FYUP, that her predecessor, MM Pallam Raju, had approved for introduction in Delhi University, and which had been opposed by a wide spectrum of student and teacher groups. “We thought we finally had a minister who listened, and I was quite happy it was a woman,” Narain said.

To Narain’s dismay, around a year later, Irani ordered the University Grants Commission, or UGC, to introduce the choice-based credit system, or CBCS, based on principles similar to the FYUP. Student and teacher groups argued that the effect of this change, along with a newly introduced semester system, would be to multiply courses but cause a severe teacher shortage.

Students were also confused about the balance of compulsory and elective subjects required in their curricula. Instead of one annual exam, there were now two. The CBCS system introduced credit transfers and uniform syllabi, but many teachers feared that enforcing uniformity would dilute quality. “Each idea looks fine on page, but they don’t speak to each other. It’s utter chaos,” Abha Dev Habib, a lecturer in physics in Miranda House, told me in June. Narain, who met Irani several times during this period to express teachers’ grievances on issues such as temporary contracts and steep fee hikes, said, “She seemed to have got the worst advice. She was meeting stakeholders as an afterthought, after pushing for damaging changes in universities.”

As Irani implemented more policies, critics sensed that she was moving away from an emphasis on public-funded universities, and towards privatisation. In October 2015, she scrapped non-NET fellowships—a particular category of monthly government stipends for MPhil and PhD scholars. She rolled back the move after fierce opposition from a student-run movement now known as Occupy UGC. She and the NITI Aayog supported allowing foreign universities to set up in India (though pressure against the move from the Sangh dampened Irani’s enthusiasm). In 2016, the government halved the budget of the UGC, forcing many universities to hike their fees. In April, Irani approved a doubling of fees at IITs (though some students, depending on their family income, could avail of fee waivers). Together, these and other developments suggested that Irani backed a model of education where students would have to pay higher fees, and governmental support would be reduced—both changes that would adversely affect poor and marginalised students.

“No one knows what policy is shaping current reforms,” Krishna Kumar, a professor of education, and former director of the National Council of Education Research and Training, or NCERT, wrote in theHindustan Times in 2015. Ruing that “reformers of higher education” were disconnected with ground realities, he wrote that “recycled policies” trivialised academic work and belittled long-term engagement between teacher and student. “All we get is an overarching justification; namely, that in order to get into world rankings, Indian universities must quickly copy the American universities,” he wrote.

That Irani’s HRD ministry lacked a coherent vision became obvious when she did not release the report of a committee making recommendations for a new education policy, or NEP—the first since 1986—which she hoped would be her biggest legacy. As she stalled and ignored pleas from the committee chairman, the former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian, the report was leaked to the public.

Among its many suggestions were the removal of the no-detention policy, the incorporation of spiritual learning into curricula and the use of mother tongues as mediums of education—all RSS preferences. The report also recommended a focus on skill development, uniform university syllabi, a ban on student politics, easier entry for private investment, and ties with foreign universities—known government priorities. The educationist Ambarish Rai from the Right to Education Forum explained that the HRD ministry was ushering in a new model in which “universities earn their own fees by squeezing the student and teacher, but the government will intervene in curriculum and selection procedures.” The overarching direction of this reform has existed before Irani and continues after her term. The damage she did was to conceive of an undemocratic, non-consultative way of pushing policies that would never have passed if debated in parliament.

In meetings with the minister, a specialist from a prominent education NGO realised that Irani “subscribed to the simplistic notion that the solution to the problems of government schools and colleges was to let private players take over.” When the specialist cited the examples “of the wonderful state-sponsored universal education of Finland and UK,” the minister ended the meeting. “All that won’t work here. You’re just afraid we’ll put you NGOs out of business,” she recounted Irani saying.

GIVEN THE RSS’S INFLUENCE over the BJP, there was never any doubt that implementing the organisation’s agenda for education—a process often termed “saffronisation”—would be a major part of Irani’s agenda as HRD minister. The previous NDA HRD minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, had, despite strong resistance from the educational establishment, managed to have some textbooks written to reflect Hindu culture, and also won a Supreme Court judgment that allowed religious values to be taught in schools. Irani, many in the RSS felt, was on an even stronger wicket. “Atal-ji had to convince his coalition partners. This BJP government has a majority, which is a chance to make many changes fast,” Atul Kothari of the RSS affiliate Shiksha Bachao Andolan, convened by Dinanath Batra, told me in August. BJP members and journalists who cover the ministry told me Irani was close to Krishna Gopal, an RSS veteran who helped her predict and meet the requirements of the Sangh.

In her first six months in office, Irani had at least six meetings with RSS leaders. “We can discuss so many things openly with this government,” the RSS communications head, Aniruddha Deshpande, told me in June. “There is acceptance.” Atul Kothari, who also heads the Shiksha Samooh, an RSS grouping of 11 organisations that interact with the government on education policy, admitted that in previous, non-BJP regimes, RSS leaders never got appointments with the HRD ministry. “Finally, we were being heard,” Kothari said.

Though Irani opened her doors to the Sangh, there were signs from early on that the organisation didn’t trust her fully. On 30 October 2014, she held a meeting with Shiksha Samooh representatives that ran for six hours, according to the Indian Express. Less than two weeks later, a former RSS pracharak, Ram Shankar Katheria, was appointed minister of state for HRD. Kothari told me Katheria was appointed “simply to advise Smriti-ji.” But it was one of the first signs that the RSS wanted one of its own in the ministry.

Nevertheless, Irani undertook several measures to win over the Sangh. Prominent among them was her move to reverse the no-detention policy Sibal had introduced. This was a clause in the Right to Education Act of 2009 that ensured that students up to Class 8 would be promoted to the next level even if they failed their exams, and that their progress would be continuously evaluated over the years. Educationists worldwide assert that such a system creates a non-threatening and equitable learning environment, reduces exam trauma and curtails dropout rates. But it has staunch opponents in India, including the RSS, and 18 state governments, all of whom argue for a more conservative fail-and-detain policy. “No-detention punishes faster learners, rewards indiscipline,” Deshpande said. “A student won’t know how to cope in a competitive world.”

According to the school consultant who worked in the HRD ministry, Irani had readied a one-page legal note recommending technical workarounds in the RTE Act to circumvent the policy. Senior bureaucrats in her ministry told me that they were not made privy to any process of consultation leading to her decision. “If Smriti had research and reasons other than politics to back her attempt to remove no-detention, we didn’t hear them,” said the former senior bureaucrat in the ministry. A member of the Central Advisory Board of Education told me, “The basic reasoning seemed to be, undo everything the Congress ministers did, do everything the RSS says.” (Irani’s successor Javadekar has continued efforts to scrap the policy.)

In her ministry’s appointments, too, Irani tried to please the RSS. A participant at a Delhi conclave in September 2015, where BJP ministers conferred with Sangh leaders, told me that the latter explicitly gave Irani and the union minister of state for culture, Mahesh Sharma, the responsibility of removing Western influence at the top levels of eminent institutions, and inculcating “Indian values” in education, art, and historical and scientific research. But the Sangh seemed dissatisfied with Irani in this regard. A senior RSS functionary told me that he “would give Irani 50 percent marks in appointments.” The culture minister, Sharma, on the other hand, had managed a much longer list of Sangh-approved appointees: the functionary told me he would give Sharma a score of “80 percent.” Sharma, notably, still has his job.

Every party in power can be accused of choosing administrators sympathetic to their agenda. But many of Irani’s pro-RSS appointees were also considered poorly qualified. To the position of chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, Irani appointed Y Sudershan Rao, an RSS sympathiser who is known to defend the caste system. As vice chancellor of Banaras Hindu University, Irani chose Girish Chandra Tripathi—an RSS functionary from Uttar Pradesh, and a professor of economics at Allahabad University with no published work to his name. Pravin Sinclair, a left-leaning senior educationist, who headed the NCERT—which sets the curriculum for government schools and publishes textbooks—resigned in October 2014, two years before her term was to end, upset over corruption charges levelled by Irani, which many HRD ministry and NCERT staff told me were fabricated. Irani nominated Chandrakala Padia to chair the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla—Padia has some published works, but this was widely thought to be inadequate for the position. Baldev Sharma, the former editor of the RSS-published magazine Panchjanya, was appointed chairman of the National Book Trust. Deshpande conceded that the RSS “gave a list of our recommended candidates to the government,” but insisted that “the decision is the minister’s.”

The historian Ramachandra Guha, in an interview on NDTV, argued that “the decline of higher education goes back 20-30 years. But Smriti Irani may have intensified it.” However, the political activist Yogendra Yadav, a former member of the UGC, told me that Irani had in fact pushed the RSS agenda less than he expected. “It’s quite routine for secular opponents to sound an alarm every time, but the important thing is how little Smriti Irani has managed to change,” he said. “Sure, some bad appointments made the news, but it’s interesting how they are not able to effect the kind of tilt the RSS wants, even in NCERT textbooks.” He added: “This is not because Smriti is benevolent or balanced, but because the BJP does not have the substantial intellectual backing needed to reform education policy. The Left and Congress had these, and the BJP does not yet.” Under Irani, Yadav did not see the saffronisation of education as much as “degradation.”

AS SHE GREW UNSURE of BJP and RSS backing, Irani increasingly sought organisational support from the ABVP. The association led to bitter conflicts at universities across the country, and propelled student politics onto the national stage.

Just like with her ministry staff, Irani’s early interactions with students were promising. In the first ten days of her term, when hundreds of angry protestors demonstrated outside Shastri Bhavan in Delhi against the FYUP, the minister emerged from her office and walked into the crowd to negotiate. “As soon as she came out, I realised that she is tez”—sharp, Kanhaiya Kumar, the former president of the JNU student union, told me. Though at first she listened to students across the ideological spectrum, it was the Sangh affiliate that Irani cultivated over time. In persistent demonstrations at Jantar Mantar, the ABVP would stand in solidarity with other student groups protesting neoliberal policies such as the FYUP and CBCS, or the scrapping of non-NET fellowships. But Irani met them separately dozens of times. “Left groups only wanted to criticise and abuse Narendra Modi,” Saket Bahuguna, the ABVP’s Delhi state secretary, said. “We wanted to negotiate, have a dialogue, so we can work with Smriti-ji. We spoke as members of the same parivar.”

The links extended beyond Delhi. In Chennai, following an anonymous complaint and an inquiry by the HRD ministry in May 2015, the dean of students at IIT Madras derecognised the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a group primarily comprising Dalit and leftist students. “Our organisation held talks on the evils of casteism and the religious practices that discriminate against Dalits and tribes,” Akhil Bharathan, a coordinator of the APSC, told me in April in Chennai. “By banning us for expressing the views of philosophers like Ambedkar and Periyar, IIT and the ministry just proved what we say about oppression.” (In the face of fierce protests across the country, the institute reinstated the APSC in under a month.)

A professor at IIT Madras told me that upper-caste Hindu individuals and groups—who dominate the institute’s students and faculty—had begun to “have a freer run” with the BJP at the centre. Nalin Pant, a professor at the department of chemistry in IIT Delhi echoed this view. “As technical students, few here have encountered liberal political ideas,” he said. “In their limited exposure, general category students commonly bully those who come on reserved seats.” The problem is exacerbated if “the political establishment gives credence to bullies,” he added. “Instead of dealing with diversity, these kids will use political pull to shut down things that make them uncomfortable.”

Under Irani’s leadership, this occurred with alarming regularity. Barely a month after the IIT Madras issue, the HRD ministry intervened in a conflict between the ABVP and the Ambedkar Students’ Association, or ASA, in the University of Hyderabad. Under pressure from the ministry to show what action he had taken in the dispute, the vice chancellor, Appa Rao Podile, suspended five Dalit students from the hostel and barred them from using the campus’s public spaces. Dalit organisations described the suspensions as caste discrimination. After several weeks of protests, one of the suspended students, Rohith Vemula, hanged himself in a hostel room—an incident that led to heightened conversations on caste prejudice in college campuses, and intensified Dalit movements across the country.

Underplaying this groundswell, Irani said in a Delhi press conference on 20 January that there was a “malicious attempt” to project the Hyderabad issue as “a caste battle.” She argued that it was “not a Dalit versus non-Dalit issue.” Later, she questioned whether Vemula was, in fact, a Dalit. “As soon as she said that, we knew it was straight out of the ABVP playbook,” Dontha Prashanth, one of the suspended students, told me. In October, a report by an investigating committee that Irani formed to look into the suicide claimed that Vemula’s mother had faked her Scheduled Caste certificate. Its findings were heavily criticised, with many arguing, among other things, that the committee had exceeded its remit.

Two weeks after Vemula’s suicide, the ABVP in Delhi’s JNU stirred up a scandal over videos of the student union president and CPI-affiliated All-India Students Federation member Kanhaiya Kumar and others allegedly shouting slogans against India. “The left groups are always up to this stuff, condemning death penalties of terrorists, trashing yoga, mocking our Hindu gods,” Alok Kumar Singh, who was JNU’s ABVP president at the time, told me in June. “This time, we wanted to teach them a lesson in nationalism.” The central government had Kumar and several other JNU students arrested for sedition. Pro-BJP lawyers roughed him up while he was being taken to court, and Sangh leaders stoked demands for shutting down “the anti-India” JNU.

In parliament, Irani defended the actions against students in Hyderabad and Delhi, in a speech animated with nationalistic hurt, questionable claims, sarcasm and white-hot indignation. (Watching the speech on television, Sandeep Tripathi, Irani’s scheduler from Balaji Telefilms, was instantly reminded of her performance in a Kyunki episode where Tulsi kills her son. “It’s the same expressions, the same person,” he said. “Like Mother India.”) When the BSP chief Mayawati asked in parliament if a Dalit would be included in the judicial panel to probe the Rohith Vemula case, Irani launched into a diatribe against her. “A Dalit professor was there whose decision you would not have accepted,” she said. “You want to say, Mayawati-ji, a Dalit is a Dalit only if Mayawati-ji gives a certificate?” An RSS ideologue told me that few in the Sangh would disagree with Irani’s position, but that “she needed to be sidelined because an open feud with Dalit groups and Mayawati is a bad idea when UP elections are coming up.”

The political scientist Ashutosh Varshney told me that Irani’s “interference in student politics really crossed the lakshman rekha of what the HRD ministry can do.” He argued that she “could not cultivate connections, or do consultations with real intellectuals, even on the right. Instead, she cultivated the ABVP, which led her to these conflicts in the universities.” He believed it was Irani’s “arrogance of power” that put “one student in jail and led another to death.” In the NDTV interview, Guha said, “It was not the RSS but the ABVP that was dictating the policy of the HRD minister.” He added: “The ABVP was angry that they didn’t do well in JNU and Hyderabad, and it was their complaints that escalated the whole thing.” Irani’s own caste and religious identity may be fluid, but her choices as a minister revealed a majoritarian, upper-caste approach.

At first, the BJP and RSS lauded her. Sangh members I spoke to acknowledged that she had effectively compressed complex issues of caste, majoritarianism, separatism, secularism and dissent into a single simplified message of patriotism. A senior BJP member in Gujarat shrugged it off as “opportunistic Hindutva,” but added: “Khair, kaam aaya” (nevertheless, it has been useful). But gradually, many in the RSS began to feel that her strident attacks on academic bastions had provoked Left, Dalit and secular civil-society groups to mobilise more strongly. “We would not get anywhere like this,” the Sangh ideologue told me. “A good leader is one that does not fight every battle, but wages the right wars.”

As the Sangh grew wary of Irani’s style of governance, other controversies dogged her. She was blamed for the high-level resignations of RK Shevgaonkar as the director of IIT Delhi and Anil Kakodkar as chairman of IIT Bombay—neither of which the BJP or Sangh intended, a journalist who covers the BJP in Delhi told me. “She did not know how to stick with the programme,” the Sangh ideologue said. “She made loud noises, triggered protests and then undid everything.”

Most damagingly, however, Irani repeatedly asserted positions that countered Modi’s. In October 2015, the prime minister’s office blocked an administrative action she sought to take against Delhi University’s vice chancellor, Dinesh Singh, a few weeks before the end of his term. Several senior bureaucrats in the HRD ministry also told me that despite the PMO’s insistence, Irani refused to grant the Chinmaya Mission’s proposed institution, Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth, the status of a deemed university, or consider the yoga teacher and entrepreneur Baba Ramdev’s suggestion to set up a Vedic Education Board.

Irani also sparred with officials of the PMO over a draft law that would curtail the autonomy of the IIMs—among other measures, the law would have put government nominees on IIM boards, and forced the institutes to seek ministry approval for fee changes. After an expected pushback from the directors of some of the institutes, the Indian Express reported that “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.”

Opposing Modi might have been the last straw for Irani. In July, she was transferred her to the textile ministry, where she has remained free of controversy. Two staff members at the HRD ministry told me that in her farewell speech to her office, Irani hinted that a few bureaucrats in the PMO were behind her demotion.

Irani’s successor, Prakash Javadekar—a non-confrontational politician, but one resolutely in favour of saffronisation and privatisation—has brought the temperature in the ministry down with his muted style of functioning. He has since freed IIMs from HRD monitoring, hinted at setting up a brand new NEP committee and pushed for the no-detention and no-English policies. The RSS educationalist Dinanath Batra told me he was pleased: “Kaam zyaada kare, baat kam kare, bas”—work more, talk less, enough.

Though Sangh and BJP members saw Irani’s transfer as a punishment, the founder of the crafts organisation Dastkar, and handloom proponent, Laila Tyabji wrote in Mint that, after agriculture, the textile sector was the country’s biggest employer. Even though “HRD was about India’s future, textile is a major part of our present,” she wrote. “It’s hardly a comedown for Irani.”

Still, many male experts, politicians and bureaucrats barely concealed their relief. They gloated over Irani’s fate in terms that were unmistakably steeped with sexist condescension. A senior RSS functionary said the “easier job” would allow her to spend more time with her children. “This is the appropriate choice for Smriti-ji,” Irani’s former colleague in the Gujarat BJP said. “She will know about saris—she is always wearing one.” In these sweeping dismissals, many women bureaucrats and politicians heard the familiar sounds of a male-dominated system cutting down to size a woman who had dared to stake a claim to power.

Irani’s determined, if unsteady, rise has exposed much that is ugly about Indian politics today. “Look, I’m also glad she’s been removed from education,” the woman bureaucrat now in another ministry told me. “But the celebration of it made me sick. I still don’t forgive Smriti her mistakes. But I understand her defiance.” http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/role-of-a-lifetime-smriti-irani

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