In May, India’s darling bahu became the youngest minister to join the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre. Smriti Zubin Irani, who contested against Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi in the Amethi constituency in the recent Lok Sabha elections, created a flutter across the country when she was sworn in as the Union Minister for Human Resources Development. The reason? She is a college dropout. Surprisingly, it invited the wrath of the nation so as to say.
It all started when Modi decided to induct the 38-year-old former actress into the Union Cabinet. As soon as the list of Council of Ministers was announced, Congress, which got decimated in the Lok Sabha elections, were the first to point fingers at the minister and said she was “not even a graduate”. Congress leader Ajay Maken tweeted: “What a Cabinet of Modi? HRD Minister (Looking after Education) Smriti Irani is not even a graduate! Look at her affidavit at ECI site pg 11”.
Soon after, Madhu Kishwar who is an admirer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was aghast at the decision and couldn’t contain her disbelief as she retweeted about it many times. The journalist-activist posted: “Smriti Irani merely class 12 pass. Went to bcm fashion model on to tv serial bahu. Is this qualification enf 4 India’s education minister?” “Smriti Irani’s appointment not the only one disappointing or controversial but its like an avoidable grahna (eclipse) on a bright and shining rising sun!” “HRD needs a head who can steer dextrously between Left and Right extremists in academia to define sensible course unfettered by partisan agendas.”
Though Kishwar maintained in her tweets that she had nothing against Smriti Irani and that BJP insideers were echoing her sentiments, it appears anything but that from her tweets. “Smriti Irani defenders please note: My sentiments echoed with great fervor within BJP circles. BJP insiders saying much harsher things than me” “Clarifying loud & clear, I’ve nothing against @smritiirani or any1 getting portfolios. But I’ve a right to express my concerns reg key areas.”
From her tweets, one would assume that it is wrong for a woman, a model or a TV actress to become a politician. It is even more wrong if she becomes the Union HRD Minister. For reasons known best to Smriti, she decided not to pursue her college degree though she applied for a correspondence course. But, surely it is not a crime.
The attack on Smriti Irani is symptomatic of a bigger problem: Is it that India’s HRD Minister does not have a college education and is seen unfit to hold the portfolio? In that case, shouldn’t that paradigm be applied to all the ministers? Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah put it more aptly when he tweeted, “To say that someone needs to be educated to be HRD Min is like saying one needs to be a pilot for Civil Aviation or a miner for Coal Min”. Or is the problem more of a personal nature where it has more to do with what is “perceived” to be the truth and what is the actual reality?
According to columnist Swapan Dasgupta, Rabindranath Tagore did not attend university and yet he established one. Someone remind me. Did Rabindranath Tagore go to university? he certainly established one & had enlightened views on education.
In fact, some of the best CEOs that the world has seen until now don’t have college degrees. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson, Michael Dell of Dell Computers etc are just some of them and they head Fortune 500 companies now.
From being a helper at fast food giant McDonalds to being a finalist at Miss India to her on-screen rendezvous at Ekta Kapoor’s magnum opus ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ to becoming the youngest minister in the Modi government, Smriti Irani has come a long way. Belittling her background–be it educational or her past roles–is a personal attack on her.
The day after the news about the discrepancy over her qualifications came out, five officials from Delhi University were suspended. Congress leader Digvijaya Singh tweeted, “5 officials of Delhi University suspended for leaking HRD Minster’s educational qualification details! Does this Govt believe in transparency.” The HRD Minister soon intervened and appealed to DU to reinstate the officials. To which again Singh mockingly replied “Thanks Smriti for appealing to VC DU for reinstating DU officials. Now let people of this Country know your actual Educational Qualification”.
Is she wrong in not stating upfront that she is not a graduate? Yes! But, does that disqualify her from the job? I don’t think so. If that were so, then half the MPs and MLAs would never have become ministers. Ministers and MPs who have had long criminal records have held office. That has never stopped all these self-righteous bigots from exercising their vocal chords or tweets then. Why gun for the HRD Minister now? If a ministry has done shoddy work, then of course it is the right and duty of every common man to raise questions about the functioning and highlight the issues concerned.
Despite all the negativity surrounding her, Smriti Irani has gone ahead with her job. One of her major priorities in the first 100 days is the restructuring of the University Grants Commission in tune with the latest changes and trends in the education sector. Irani has plans to change the nature of UGC from a grant-disbursing organization to becoming the top education regulator. She has already toured the ministry and met most of the staff. As per an Economic Times report, Irani went from room to room talking to her employees, who were touched by the fact that the minister talked to them. While a lot of the staff members were feeling that she would be a distant minister given her acting background, many of them were surprised by the down-to-earth nature that she displayed.
She is already pushing for funds from the finance ministry to set up eight new IITs. She is also seeking funds for other priority projects such as a Central university for Himalayan Technology and a national e-library. Kerala, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Goa, Sikkim and Chhattisgarh - the states that do not have an IIT – would benefit from Irani’s proposals.
I’m not shying away from the fact that Smriti Irani might have declared wrongly on her affidavit. The jury is still out on whether she is wrong or right or even how wrong she is. But, far worse stuff have been declared wrongly in election affidavits and I have not seen the same proportion of reaction in those cases as I did in Smriti Irani’s case. I feel that Smriti Irani should be judged on the basis of her work rather than whether she is a film star or if she has a degree.