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.