Smriti Irani’s rise as a case study of patriarchy and sexism in the BJP

30 April 2019
Party leaders saw Irani as competition for the similarly articulate and multilingual Sushma Swaraj (left), an Advani loyalist who was known to be openly critical of Modi.
SUSHIL KUMAR/HINDUSTAN TIMES/GETTY IMAGES
Party leaders saw Irani as competition for the similarly articulate and multilingual Sushma Swaraj (left), an Advani loyalist who was known to be openly critical of Modi.
SUSHIL KUMAR/HINDUSTAN TIMES/GETTY IMAGES

In the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party committed to reserve 33 percent seats in the parliament and the state assemblies for women. As of 22 April, the party had given tickets to 432 candidates for the Lok Sabha elections, out of which just 52 were women. Currently, among the BJP’s 342 parliamentarians, only 41 are women.

One of them is Smriti Irani, its member in the Rajya Sabha, who rose through the ranks of the party to become a cabinet minister. Her success in the BJP was met with suspicion and malicious rumours, and her journey exemplified the patriarchal undercurrents prevalent in Indian politics, which pit women against each other. In the following extract from “Role of a Lifetime,” the cover story of The Caravan’s November 2016 issue, the journalist Rohini Mohan looks at the sexism that women politicians must confront to establish a career in Indian politics, and in the BJP, in particular.

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.

Rohini Mohan is a journalist based in Bengaluru, and the writer of the book The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War.

Keywords: Bharatiya Janata Party sexism patriarchy
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