Ten years ago, on December 12, actress and BJP worker Smriti Irani made a scathing attack on then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, demanding his resignation over his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Having lost the election from the Chandni Chowk seat in Delhi, Smriti, who made her debut in politics that year, claimed that Modi had embarrassed party stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his legacy by not following "rajdharm".
Speaking to the media in Surat, Smriti announced that she would fast unto death and her agitation would begin on 25th December, the birthday of Vajpayee, in an attempt to redeem his name and his honour. She had to retract her statement that very evening over mounting pressure from the BJP leadership.
A decade later, Smriti Irani, at 38, is the country's youngest HRD minister. For Vajpayee's birthday this year, she wanted a series of events organized at educational institutions as part of "Good Governance Day", first spoken of by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The opposition's combined attack in part forced Smriti's rushed defence that schools could choose to participate in the celebrations, but were not obliged to.
I have always considered Smriti Irani to be among the more sensible spokespersons and young leaders in the Indian polity, something I concluded on the basis of her arguments on TV debates and personal conversations I had with this affable and talented actress from Indian television.
Three years ago, while writing an edit on the banning of a 60-year-old cartoon on Ambedkar from textbooks, I spoke to an agitated Irani who was concerned over the impact such cartoons would have on the impressionable minds of her school-going kids. The forceful arguments she made and her strong rhetoric on news channels seems hollow now when placed in the context of decisions by her Ministry.
The HRD ministry is responsible for shaping the thoughts and views of young generations, but Smriti's dilemma in balancing what has been suggested are her own liberal views and the Sangh's diktat has created a mess. One could have forgiven the minister for a few misgivings, but Smriti has her platter full. From giving an audience right after taking office to Dinanath Batra and offering to look into his charter of demands, to seeking Sanskrit be compulsory as third language, her education agenda seems to be far from liberal and evolved.
Sample some of the gaffes and controversies she has triggered in the last six months.
On being appointed as HRD minister, questions about Smriti's own educational qualifications were raised because of differing accounts in affidavits. Rather than being upfront about her ability to hold an office of great responsibility, she spoke of having a degree from Yale.
She was soon forced to clarify that the degree was actually for a six-day event at Yale which honoured achievers from all fields. Smriti was an accomplished actress, she did qualify as an achiever. Whether her stint there paralleled a degree in education, Smriti, as HRD minister, should have known better.
When Dinanath Batra (the same man who wants us to return to Vedic times) asked her to completely overhaul the system as President of NCERT and work on a CBSE syllabus on the lines of the RSS agenda and its idea of history, Smriti promised to give it a look. One would have expected her to have known that these gestures would send out confusing signals.
Her idea of modernizing education was questioned when she asked Kendriya Vidyalayas to stop teaching German and introduce Sanskrit as a compulsory third language. Smriti should have known that in the last decade, Aspiring India, a term given by her Prime Minister, had seen a rise of 114 percent in the number of students going to Germany for education, with the country being the most sought after by Indian students of college-going age. Sanskrit, which is a part of our cultural heritage, needed to be given importance, but giving students the liberty to choose between Sanskrit and German would not have affected its glorious legacy.
Recently, Aligarh was used as a ground to create controversy, first over allowing girl students to attend the Central library and later over the decision by Sangh affiliates to celebrate the birth anniversary of Jat king Raja Mahendra Pratap for political purposes. Once again, Irani's naivette was on display with her knee-jerk decision of cutting funds to the university without having ascertained the true facts which later came to light. Her naivette transformed into silence over the BJP's decision to use the AMU ground for a political fight.
Her list of questionable achievements is expanding. The National Research Professorship scheme honours and recognizes distinguished and renowned academics from all over the country to honour their contribution to the field of education. Last week the HRD ministry considered three RSS sympathizers. According to a media report, the three names suggested were: Prof S L Bhyrappa whose novels project Tipu Sultan as a religious fanatic; Dr Ashok Gajanan Modak, lecturer and BJP Member of the Legislative Council in Maharashtra; and Surya Kant Bali, a journalist and RSS sympathiser whose book was recently released by RSS Joint General Secretary Dr Krishna Gopal, coincidentally in the presence of Irani.
When Smriti Irani assumed power, the young leader promised the country of a reformed approach to education and an increase in spending on the sector along with higher educational reforms. One could see great promise from her assertive rhetoric and it was felt that she would take over from Murli Manohar Joshi, her predecessor from the NDA government in 2004.
It would be pertinent to remember that Joshi, one of the most high profile Sangh men who held the reins to the HRD a decade ago, had asked the UGC to issue a notification to varisities across the country to submit proposals on a course in a rather regressive science of Jyotir Vigyan or Vedic astrology. A decade later, little seems to have changed, not just with the BJP-led HRD but also with Smriti Irani's politics.
What is the point of a 38-year-old minister whose thoughts and agenda seem no different from those that belong to relics?
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