Smriti Irani, the human resources development minister, had been losing ground in the last few months. Universities were up in arms and syllabi had become a source of angst. Her replies to issues of education did not gel and seemed almost illiterate next to comments of academics like Amartya Sen and Romila Thapar. Education was one turf where the Bharatiya Janata Party was getting a battering from its critics. Ms Irani looked cornered, amateurish, somehow playing a role that did not quite suit her.
The last few weeks saw her makeover. Ms Irani was firm in the way she handled questions at a seminar organised by an English daily on education. But her cameo performance erupted into a leading role when she decided to respond to all her critics in the Lok Sabha. There was already a sense of anticipation and a feeling of expectation that she had to perform — whether as an actor or as a minister was irrelevant. Media wanted a performance and it got one.
One could see that her two great symbolic roles had to be combined. TV’s darling bahu and the BJP’s young minister had to hybridise for the message to strike. Her choice of dress was immaculate. Her sari added both colour and gravitas. Her script was measured but with allowances for eruptions of anger. Ms Irani had to convey hurt, defiance, anger, seethe at the misunderstanding around her and, yet, convey that she was back in control. As a set of arguments, her speech might be flawed but as a rhetorical performance, a piece of drama, Ms Irani was perfect. If one invented a fiction called the “Parliamentary Oscar for the Legislative Speech of The Year”, Ms Irani will be the leading contender. One has to remember the wisdom of a great moviegoer who claimed that it is the B-grade movie one always remembers.
Her choice of emotion and script was immaculate. Ms Irani decided to play the dutiful minister as a misunderstood victim, a functionary whose competence and diligence had not received its rightful due. Between documentary argument and emotional anger, her delivery was flawless. Smriti Irani of political folklore was back.
She took on Rohith Vemula’s suicide, responding that her heart went out to the dalit student. She challenged the canard that it was the BJP government at the Centre that harassed him. She read out letter after letter written by politicians from other parties. She emphasised that it was Congress politicians and other stalwarts like Asaduddin Owaisi who demanded an inquiry into what was happening at the University of Hyderabad.
The inquiry, she repeatedly emphasised, was not instigated by the BJP’s allegedly anti-dalit stand but by Congress politicians. Ms Irani claimed that she was only the diligent minister forwarding these letters to the right department. What she claimed was not so much truth but correctness. She emphasised that she did the right thing procedurally.
She added as a constant dictum that her plea to the Opposition was to refrain from turning education into a political battlefield. This was precisely what happened at the University of Hyderabad. Then her script moved an octave higher and she shifted gears to make a counter charge. Ms Irani claimed that she rang up the minister concerned worried that the suicide would lead to a law and order problem. She offered all help possible. She then claimed that political activists created a cordon around Rohith, ensuring that no doctor could examine or revive him.
A personal act of suicide, where Rohith’s letter blamed no one, had now become a football for controversy. Rohith’s mother, listening to the speech, struck back calling Ms Irani a liar. But Ms Irani was relentless. This was her hour and she almost doggedly insistent that she, not Rohith, was the real victim. It was a stunning performance. Shatrughan Sinha or any of the old doms arguing a finale in court would have been jealous.
She tossed few documents behind her and resumed like a marathon runner sure about her pace. She switched to Jawaharlal Nehru University and enacted the argument that anti-national forces had taken over JNU. It is not a political charge she made, but a bureaucratic indictment. Flourishing a stack of official letters from JNU security guards and from the academic inquiry committee, she claimed that the JNU students had violated basic rules to obtain permission for a protest. They had lied about the protest while stating their intention was a performance. Ms Irani hinted again that neither the security nor the academic committee were the BJP’s academic appointees. It was an act of ritual exoneration — “the BJP is cleaner than you think” — articulated in holier-than-thou terms. The scapegoat had been transformed into a lioness.
Ms Irani then picked up a pamphlet and read out an indictment of Durga Puja: “…a racist festival where a fair skinned Durga is depicted as brutally killing a dark-skinned Mahishasur.” A storm erupted around her. As long as she quoted clinical letters she was on firm ground, but the minute she moved to myth, she bit off more than she could chew. The BJP came out as replete with tribal stereotype.
Ms Irani’s piece was a performance, a comeback cameo that neither the Congress nor the Communist Party of India (Marxist) could match or anticipate.
As a performance, it had a political quality. One wondered whether the BJP itself was using students as political football. Shaking and controlling events seemed to be more important than people’s emotions. This was the worrying note — that Ms Irani, in defending herself, did not see the pain of other victims.
As a cameo it was impressive but as an articulation of the HRD minister explaining unrest, Ms Irani seemed irrelevant. It was almost as if the party came before university and this for the HRD minister is problematic. The real luck was that the Opposition let her off the hook. Like most Indians, it seemed to prefer a performance to the sanity of argument. Whoever wins, it is clear that education is the perpetual victim of this government’s politics. The sadness begins there.