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Smriti Irani's Modi Mistake

August 21, 2023 09:24 IST
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It sent shock waves in the party -- a political greenhorn had taken on Modi in his home turf of Gujarat.
Smriti had clearly tried to choose sides, in this case Vajpayee's camp.
Many felt that this would end Irani's career.
A revealing excerpt from Nidhi Sharma's new book She, The Leader: Women in Indian Politics.

IMAGE: Union Minister Smriti Irani speaks in the Lok Sabha during the Monsoon session of Parliament, August 9, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo/Sansad TV

Smriti was expecting her daughter Zoish and wanted to complete shooting for as many episodes of Kyunki (Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, the Star Plus soap opera which made Smriti Irani a star) before she took some time off.

She invited her cast and crew to her husband's farmhouse in Dahanu outside Mumbai so she could wrap up her schedule.

Word travelled fast across Dahanu, and soon, excited residents gathered to watch the shoot. Among those who dropped by at the mansion was Manisha Chaudhari, a member of the BJP's Maharashtra wing and currently the MLA from Dahisar.

Recounting the 2003 shoot in Dahanu, Chaudhari said, '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 Atalji (Atal Bihari Vajpayee).'

She joined the BJP in 2003 in the presence of Pramod Mahajan, Gopinath Munde, and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.

Almost two decades later, Smriti would replace Naqvi as minority affairs minister in Modi's second Cabinet in 2022.

When Smriti joined the BJP, the party was in power at the Centre and was eyeing to wrest power from the Congress in several states.

Her first big assignment was the Rajasthan assembly elections.

In the run-up to the 2003 assembly elections, the BJP had decided to bring Vasundhara Raje into state politics and make her the state unit chief.

IMAGE: Smriti Irani and (to her right) husband Zubin Irani with other dignitaries at the Red Fort on Independence Day 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

Mahajan had foreseen a rebellion within the state unit and flew down about hundred young BJP activists from his home state Maharashtra to micromanage Raje's campaign and election. Smriti was one of these activists.

Mahajan was hesitant in drafting in Smriti as her daughter Zoish was just two months old.

But an eager Smriti decided to work for the party. She was still an actor and actively shooting for her serials.

'I would shoot through the night. Come home in the early hours of morning, feed my baby, align everything at home and be at the airport by 8.30 am to take the plane assigned by the party and then campaign the whole day. I would return at 6-6.30 pm, bathe and feed my little one, and go back to my shoots,' she says remembering how she got into the habit of catching up on her sleep on flights -- something she still does.

Did she ever feel stressed? Smriti says, 'Life does not give everyone opportunities. It was giving me opportunities. How could I have refused or complained?'

This balancing act caught the eye of the BJP seniors. Within a year she was made vice-president of the BJP's Maharashtra youth wing.

IMAGE: Smriti Irani greets Prime Minister Narendra D Modi at Rashtrapati Bhavan, May 2014, before she was sworn in as a minister in the first Modi government. Photograph: R Raveendran/ANI Photo

In December 2004, Smriti took a political misstep. In Surat to inaugurate a jewellery store, she linked the party's Lok Sabha defeat to the 2002 Gujarat riots and said, 'If Narendra Bhai gives up the post of the chief minister of Gujarat, it would prove that the BJP is a party with a difference.'

She went on to announce a fast unto death on Vajpayee's birthday if Modi did not step down.

It sent shock waves in the party -- a political greenhorn had taken on Modi in his home turf of Gujarat.

Smriti had clearly tried to choose sides, in this case Vajpayee's camp.

However, by later that evening Smriti had to retract her statement.

Two months later, L K Advani hosted a screening of a documentary at his home and Smriti bent down to touch Modi's feet, who accepted the gesture and blessed her by calling her 'Gujarat ki beti'.

Many felt that this would end Irani's career, some said that she was made to give that statement, others said she clearly tried to choose a camp.

IMAGE: Smriti Irani garlanded by Bharatiya Janata Party supporters at a meeting in New Delhi. Photograph: ANI Photo

In a 2016 interview with the well-known television journalist Barkha Dutt, Smriti cleared the air, 'At that time, I was just a young kid,' she said, while Mr Modi was 'a star of the BJP'.

'He could very well have told the organisation that this upstart of a girl has said something, kindly have her sacked, or kindly put her in a place from where she never politically rises,' she said.

Instead, Irani recalled, 'He sat down with me, he said, "Tell me how you reached this conclusion".'

When she replied that she had been influenced by what was reported in the media, she says Mr Modi replied, "Don't judge me by editorials" and then advised her, "You ensure you see me by the programs that I roll out, see me by the effectiveness, or if there is a gap, tell me what the gap in that program is, help me work so that I can deliver on the promise of development."'

Irani said that the PM advised her, 'I am not looking for apologies, explanations. If you can apply yourself to any one program and help me make it a success, that is something you should do for the party.'

IMAGE: Smriti Irani with author Nidhi Sharma at the book launch of She, The Leader in New Delhi, August 11, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

Within eight years of joining the party, she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat in 2011.

The nomination had Modi's blessings -- he was present when Smriti filed her nomination papers.

Her spectacular rise through the echelons of the saffron party, which is perceived as patriarchal, started rumours objectifying Smriti as yet another actor charming her way into power.

She had attracted the ire of the entrenched old guard.

There were ludicrous claims of a tunnel running between Smriti's and a senior leader's home in New Delhi. But Smriti is never known to have bothered.

'The problem is that when a woman gets attacked, she gets attacked for her character but never for her policymaking. Have you ever seen any criticism of a woman in politics about her policies?' she asks.

IMAGE: Smriti Irani and BJP MP Manoj Tiwari campaign in Amethi for the Uttar Pradesh assembly election. Photograph: R Raveendran/ANI Photo

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, Smriti was pitted against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi.

With barely twenty days to plan her entire campaign, Smriti managed to narrow Rahul's victory margin and polled over 3 lakh votes -- the highest a BJP candidate had ever got in Amethi.

Smriti vividly remembers how she was told that she could be shot during the campaign. 'I never conveyed it to the party but Zubin knew,' she says.

Zubin charted out an elaborate plan in consultation with doctors at Gurugram's Medanta hospital on how to get Smriti to a hospital in case she was shot at.

It involved finding the shortest route from Amethi to Lucknow airport and then flying out to Gurugram.

Smriti says she was shocked when she saw the state of the parliamentary constituency of the Gandhis.

'There is a halo around the family which is absolutely unnecessary. I was shocked to see how the family has not worked for the constituency they represent,' she says.

Though she lost, Smriti did not give up on Amethi.

'I had promised the people of Amethi that I will return and work for their constituency no matter I win or lose. They told me to my face that nobody returns after losing an election. I did not know whether the party would field me in 2019 but I had given my word and my word should mean something,' says Smriti.

From Smritiji she gradually became Amethi's didi.

Excerpted from She, The Leader: Women in Indian Politics by Nidhi Sharma with the kind permission of the publishers, Aleph Book Company.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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