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

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
30 April, 2019

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.

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 cut-throat 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.”

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.

This is an extract from our November 2016 cover story, “Role of a Lifetime.” It has been edited and condensed.