Smriti Irani (left) and Mayawati
Ancient Hindu philosophy depicts the balance of the universe as dependent on the perfect harmony of the male and female principle. The rise of 38-year-old Union HRD Minister Smriti Zubin Irani symbolises the growing shakti of the female voice in Indian politics. Irrespective of the aggression and strategic nuances of the content of her speeches within and outside Parliament, Irani has set new paradigm of the fiercely uncompromising incarnation of the New Woman Politician. On the face of it, she is just one of the 95 female MPs in Parliament. But ever since she took over as India’s youngest and first woman education minister, she has dominated the academic and political narrative. For the past few months, she has been grabbing headlines and prime time space for her ministerial performance. Never before has an education minister occupied the mind space of opinion-makers for so long. Is it because she is a woman who has successfully stormed a male bastion? Many adore her. Many more abhor her. But there is hardly anyone of relevance who can afford to ignore Smriti Irani. The force of her decisions and assertions, wrong or right, shakes up the most complacent in the establishment. She has admitted to not holding a degree from any glamorous university. Yet a large majority of elitist institutions worldwide are engaged in dissecting and disparaging her personality. Many of her admirers claim that she is a target not because she belongs to the Sangh Parivar, but because she articulates her ideology and beliefs much more convincingly than many of her Ivy League detractors. She has even been mocked as “Aunty National”—a blatantly sexist description by any standards—by a smuttily snooty and nefarious neo-aristocracy. Unfortunately, to the chagrin of many of the exclusive Indo-Anglian club, a girl from a lower middle class locality of New Delhi speaks fluent English and delivers her arguments more vigorously than most of them.
Such vicious personal attacks are reminiscent of the verbal venom spewed at late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Undoubtedly, she was the author of many controversial decisions. The reality, however, was that she took on the male-dominated world of politics and taught many of her seniors lessons in powercraft. When she challenged the Syndicate’s supremacy, they responded by splitting the Congress. Yet, by sheer force of personality and conviction, Mrs Gandhi was able to decimate her opponents within and outside her party in three years. During her 16-year tenure as Prime Minister, with a brief interruption in between, she remained the most preferred target of her political foes until her assassination in October 1984. Today, there are many fearless women of substance who face resolute resistance from their male and even female opponents; for example, take three former and current women chief ministers—Mamata Banerjee, J Jayalalithaa and Mayawati. None of them have been accorded the political respect normally given to male chief ministers. All three remain in the crosshairs of their adversaries. In Delhi, Congress President Sonia Gandhi has always been on top of the list of her political enemies as the target for the choicest of adjectives.
Despite facing continuous antagonism, most women leaders, from Irani to Jayalalithaa, have succeeded in creating popular acceptability and an independent space for themselves. Sonia has broken the record for holding the post of the longest-serving Congress president in the history of the 130-year-old party. It is the example of their patience and prowess that is inspiring more and more women to become lawmakers at the Centre and in the states. The current Parliament has the largest number of women MPs ever. Even in the states, one out of 10 MLAs is a woman.
Irani is the latest icon in the pantheon of India’s powerful female leadership, who is not only dictating the national agenda but is also proving beyond doubt that it is merit that has raised her to the position she holds than anything else. With more and more women participating in debates and dialogues, all political parties are looking for opportunities to replace non-productive male leaders with effective women warriors. As the HRD minister launched her high-powered verbal fusillade against her detractors in the House last week, the Congress couldn’t find an alternative woman leader to counter her with equal, if not more, voltage. Of the 31 women MPs in the Rajya Sabha, the Congress has the largest number—nine. The BJP has just four. But most of the Congress grande dames are too old or ill-equipped to face the feisty minister. MPs like Wansuk Syiem from Meghalaya, Viplava Thakur from Himachal Pradesh and Naznin Faruque from Assam have hardly made any impact in Parliament. Frankly, it was not the Congress but Mayawati who gave Irani a run for her money as a champion of her core constituency. Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma are formidable voices, but they are helpless to counter the political artillery of the acclaimed actor-turned-politician. Other senior leaders like former Union ministers Mohsina Kidwai and Ambika Soni are conspicuous by their non-participation in any heated debate. From the non-BJP parties, only Mayawati and Jaya Bachchan have been able to make an impression with their interventions.
In the Lok Sabha too, the Congress lacks powerful female speakers. On the other hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ensured that comparatively younger women candidates were given tickets during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The average age of women MPs is 47 as against 54 for men. The younger lot belongs to the BJP. Led by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, the saffron bloc is packed with powerful women orators like Kirron Kher, Meenakshi Lekhi, Poonam Mahajan and Maneka Gandhi. The Congress, with its paltry 45 MPs, has hardly any women gladiator except first-timers like Sushmita Dev from Assam. With the emergence of Irani and her type, the Congress has to realise that Sonia Gandhi alone is not enough to move the masses. She needs the assistance of more shaktis in the Indira mould. Indian politics is stuck at the crossroads of a gender crisis, from where only women possessing the magnanimity of a mother, the unconquerable power of Durga, and the multidimensional perspective of a modern mind will show the right way forward.