01 Jul 2019

Modi critic-turned-loyalist Smriti Irani’s star has been on the rise meteorically ever since Amethi rewarded her perseverance

 The ruling alliance led by the Bharitya Janata Party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi tasted sweet success after sweeping the Lok Sabha elections by bagging a staggering 350 out of 542 parliamentary seats, but it was Smriti Irani’s victory in the Gandhi bastion of Amethi that proved to be the icing on the cake.

Dubbed the “giant slayer” for storming the Gandhi bastion of Amethi, and ousting Congress president Rahul Gandhi from a constituency he has held since his 2004 electoral debut, Smriti’s star is on the rise.

Over the years, 43-year-old Smriti has donned many avatars -- a former Miss India contestant, a television actress who became a household name after her role as Tulsi Virani in the iconic TV show "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi" and a young politician quickly rising up the ranks of the BJP. 

Smriti joined the BJP in 2003 and lost her first Lok Sabha election in 2004 when she fought against Congress leader Kapil Sibal for the Chandni Chowk seat.

In 2004, Smriti made headlines after an interview in Gujarat where she blamed then state Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the BJP’s defeat in the assembly election.

“Nobody in the country would deny the fact that Vajpayee and LK Advani have selflessly served the country for last 50 years and for them to be blamed and pointed out just because Narendrabhai would not leave the seat was something extremely shocking, appalling, quite hurtful honestly," Smriti had said.

Smriti went a step further and told reporters in Surat that she would start a 'fast-unto-death' agitation if Modi did not step down. She said her fast agitation would start on the birthday of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, December 25, to redeem his name.

Her statement was a major embarrassment for party leaders who made it clear that she must either retract her statements or face action. It is said that once in Mumbai, she spoke to party president LK Advani and Maharashtra BJP president Gopinath Munde before issuing a statement withdrawing the remarks "unconditionally".

Within hours of her interview, she withdrew her statements unconditionally and issued an apology to Modi. She later said that her statements against Modi were a result of media propaganda against the former chief minister in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots.

Some believe this incident turned her into a disciplined soldier who fell in line with the party. When question about this episode, Smriti said: “I am a living example of Narendra Modi’s generosity.”

Smriti was made the Vice-President of the Maharashtra Youth Wing in 2004 and the National Secretary of BJP and All India President of the BJP Mahila Morcha in early 2010. A year later, she became a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat with the blessings of Modi, the then Gujarat chief minister.

Her equation with Modi would only go from strength to strength. In 2014, Smriti fought a spirited battle in Amethi, cutting into Rahul Gandhi’s victory margin. Modi rewarded her efforts by making her a minister in the union cabinet.

In 2014, Smriti became the Human Resource Development Minister. However, her appointment and tenure was full of controversy. Her own educational qualifications were under the scanner and she was considered too inexperienced and temperamental in her role as minister.

Called the most controversial minister in Modi’s cabinet, Smriti was soon given charge of the Textile Ministry, sparking rumours of being out of favour because of negative publicity surrounding the ministry.  In 2017, Smriti was handed charge of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. However, the following year, she was removed and appointed again to continue in the Ministry of Textiles.

Her recent win in Amethi has been rewarded with an additional charge of Ministry of Women and Child Development along with the Textile Ministry that she already presides over.

While Modi has repeatedly put faith in Smriti, her support too has remained unwavering in the past 15 years since her apology in Surat. Earlier this year, Smriti said that she would leave politics the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi retires.  However, retirement for her or Modi is not on the cards anytime soon.

Smriti managed to win over Amethi by remaining in touch with the electorate there, despite losing the election five years ago, and worked to bring development projects to the constituency.

Roads, scholarships to the students and youths, a Kendriya Vidyalaya centre and several schemes brought by Smriti in Amethi helped her connect with the masses, especially the youth.

Despite losing the election in 2014, Smriti visited Amethi over 35 times. A sharp contrast to Rahul who came 16 times and was barely seen during this election season.

Created in 1967, the Amethi constituency has been held by a Congress leader for 48 of the last 52 years.

Her patience and perseverance in cultivating the constituency did not go to waste. Smriti recently announced that she will construct her own house in Amethi and has already identified a plot in Gauriganj.

Rahul Gandhi had been representing Amethi in the Lok Sabha from 2004 to 2019 and his mother Sonia Gandhi had won the seat in 1999. The Gandhi family, however, never found a permanent abode in Amethi and chose to stay in guest houses during their visits.

Smriti, who is already seen as much more accessible than the Gandhis, will be even more rooted in the constituency with a permanent home. Her decision to build a house in the constituency is a clear indication that she intends to continue her relationship with Amethi in the coming years.

Even Smriti’s worst detractors will have to make peace with a reality now: She is in politics for the long haul -- not just to survive, but thrive.

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