Need No Lecture on Misogyny. I Live it Every Day, Says Smriti Irani
Smriti Irani is in Uttar Pradesh campaigning for BJP as India's most populous state enters the last week before polls. In this interview with CNN-News18's Marya Shakil, the Union minister for textiles talks about her plans for the Nehru-Gandhi pocket borough Amethi, which is still her second home although she lost to Rahul Gandhi in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Smriti here also takes on political attacks that borders on misogyny and argues for round table between all political parties to address this issue.
Smriti Irani is in Uttar Pradesh campaigning for BJP as India's most populous state enters the last week before polls. In this interview with CNN-News18 Deputy Political Editor Marya Shakil, the Union minister for textiles talks about her plans for the Nehru-Gandhi pocket borough Amethi, which is still her second home although she lost to Rahul Gandhi in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Smriti here also takes on political attacks that border on misogyny, and argues for a round-table between all political parties to address this issue.
Is Smriti Irani an enigma? What is this enigma behind a very combative leader?
I don’t think there is any enigma here. I think that when you do not belong to a very, very successful economic stratum and you make it from scratch, there is always a chip on your shoulder and I think that chip on your shoulder becomes a combative element in your personality. So anybody who sees you in that position, where you fight out on every small thing, they tell you that ‘Oh, take it easy. Why do you have to take a stand on every issue?’
But then I came into politics because I wanted to take a stand. I didn't want to be a silent bystander and so here I am. So anybody who is not silent enough or coy enough is called combative.
In 2014, India's most acceptable bahu (daughter-in-law) tried to become the beti (daughter) of Amethi when you contested the Lok Sabha polls from the pocket borough of the Nehru-Gandhis against Rahul Gandhi. You have continued your association with that constituency. In fact, every weekend you are in Amethi. Looks like you have a plan for Amethi...
I went to Amethi in 2014 because the party decided to field me from that Lok Sabha constituency. I took it upon myself to re-instill faith in the fact that not every leader promises you the world and then disappears for the next five years. So my staying back even after losing the elections is only for that. It’s a personal intervention. It’s not that my party dispatches me every time to Amethi. I go there of my own volition, but I go there only so that people understand and they believe that not every leader deserts you like the Gandhi family does.
Since you are talking about the Gandhi family, you would have seen those election posters of the SP-Congress alliance that have come up here in Lucknow: UP ko ye saath pasand hai (UP likes this alliance)...
I think Congress posters have kind of journeyed from '27 saal behal’ (27 years of misrule) to ‘UP ko yeh saath pasand hai'. So UP has seen a lot of proverbs, the old folks use to say thieves are cousins, now SP and Congress are saying UP likes this duo. I think ultimately what the voter will test you on is whether you’ve delivered on the issues of development.
Is the new alliance making the BJP jittery?
No. I think that the very fact that these two parties had to come together to combat the BJP is a sign that it is they who are jittery, and not us.
Rahul Gandhi says that the BJP does ‘krodh ki rajneeti’ (politics of anger). Would you think that that image would perhaps come to hurt the party after the jibe of 'suit-boot ki sarkar'?
I think he also said that politics sabki pant mein hain, aapki shirt mein hai (politics is in your shirt and pants). So he has a different definition of politics with every election and I don’t think people subscribe to his definition or his understanding of politics. After all, this is a gentleman who came out and said I’ve got to journey across the country and find my version of India. I don’t know whether he has found it or not. In that journey, I don’t know whether he has passed through every village, every block of Amethi. Because the people have definitely not benefitted from his journey or from his understanding of politics. Because the ground reality of Amethi is of neglect, of a leadership that is totally redundant and does not deliver on promises of development.
You had put up a strong fight in Amethi. So does the BJP now feel that there is a need to field Smriti again in this election?
I am not contesting this election.
To take on Rahul and Akhilesh?
Recently, SP leader Gayatri Prajapati gave a statement to the press and said that in 2014 we helped him win so now he should help us win. So Rahul needed their help even then to fight and win Amethi. So he had 2G, he had CWG and he had Gayatriji and that is how he managed a victory. He didn’t win on the basis of the strength of his own leadership. I am here as a party worker campaigning. I had been to Goa and Punjab, too.
Akhilesh and Rahul have pinned their hopes on the youth vote. Their campaign itself says we are two young men trying to change UP...
Well, you know, I am 40, and he is older than me. So this is like an evergreen youth, God bless him, but I think that politics should not be about ‘I am this old, so I will deliver better’.
This is promise of youth was made to the people of UP even before this election. But not much has changed for the people of UP. In the last Assembly polls, they were given this promise of ‘young CM’ and that everything will change overnight. But nothing changed. Like I said, Rahul Gandhi is much older than I am. But I am the ‘aunty-national’.
Would you now say Rahul Gandhi has become more politically astute than he was in, say 2014? After all, he has stitched together this alliance, and the Congress in UP, it seems, is finally emerging out of 27 years of wilderness.
If he was astute, would you ask me that question? You wouldn’t because you would know that as a fact. So the very fact that you are asking me this means you're still in a maze as to whether Rahul Gandhi is actually... whether he has grown into his own space, but that’s for him to work around. It is for his party to be bothered about, not for us.
The family feud in the Samajwadi Party played on for several months, almost like a soap opera. It had several episodes, some say it was scripted because the father wanted to resurrect his son, some say it wasn’t. But what it has definitely done is that it has helped CM Akhilesh to shed the baggage of anti-incumbency...
I think that people understand that it is the same family, same party, and they will bring back the same goonda raj. But let’s talk on specific issues. For instance, the PM was campaigning in UP and he spoke about allocations to the state for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, allocations for health in UP and the fact that the state government has managed to spend only less than 10%. So let's talk about those issues instead of getting into a fancy, melodramatic posturing of bhai, bhatija, young and old. Let's talk about issues. When it comes to issues, did this so-called young leader deliver?
Well, he says he did.
Well, the numbers say otherwise. Like I said, if you have Rs 950 crore for Safai Abhiyaan and you have spent only Rs 40 crore, is that delivering on a promise? There's a newspaper article, which says I started a women’s cell and they're calling and they're complaining and there are 6.5 lakh complaints and the officer talks to the reporter and says, "Har romeo ko thodi na jail mein daal sakte hain, toh UP ke saare jail bhar jaayenge (Can’t put every Romeo in jail, UP’s jails will be full then)". Is that governance?
In his interview to News18, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that he is the HM of the country and not a CM candidate. Can the BJP take on Akhilesh Yadav without a CM face?
I feel the BJP is fighting this election for a better tomorrow, for the people of UP. It isn't fighting the elections for one particular face to be projected. When you see this combination of Rahul and Akhilesh coming together, it is for their political survival. And here in the BJP we are talking about better survival prospects for the people of UP. And I think that is where we have a different approach of looking at the election. So in any public stage, you see Akhilesh talking about himself, his family, his troubles within his own family. Rahul will sometimes talk about some crores, sometimes about ‘don’t be afraid’, ducking the basic issues.
There is an opinion that UP polls will be a kind of mid-term referendum for the Modi government. Isn’t the BJP risking a lot by betting everything on the Prime Minister?
If Congress, SP or Mayawati, or, in fact, anybody in this country has to fight even a street election, they'll call it a referendum on Modi. It's become a fancy way of targeting the PM and saying ‘this is a referendum on you’. I think the referendum on Modi was in 2014, and the next one will come in 2019. I will only say that there have been surveys done on the PM's popularity index and I think there is a dead silence when it is said that even today if there were Lok Sabha elections, Narendra Modi, and under his leadership, the BJP-led NDA will smash all records and get a record victory again.
You're the textile minister and that is an important job-generating industry. That is also one industry perhaps which has been impacted by demonetisation...
I personally saw to it that in my department, if an employer said ‘nahi ji, I can't give them a salary demonetisation ke baad kyunki unke paas account hi nahi hain’. I would go and say, ‘Aap bank ka branch bataayien… account khulwa ke dete hain. Please transfer the entire amount to the worker’. And we've seen that benefit accruing to workers saying ‘Dhaayi lakh hamaare naam se bolte the account khula hain. Ek paisa bhi nahi mila. And now we are getting our haq ka paisa, plus the provident fund cover that every worker needs for a future saving'.
But the immediate impact of demonetisation... would you say that it would be a referendum on that issue in UP?
I think that the PM was very clear in his communication to the country. He said it would be difficult for the first 50 days. This is the biggest financial exercise done in our country and in the world. Such a large democracy, large number of people, varied culture, different states... but the process involved is about engaging with every state… and I've personally seen where the Government of India told every state, you tell us where you're facing a challenge and we will step in to help out.
What about the weavers, the weavers of UP?
I personally held a meeting of 15 national banks. I said I will identify 15 weaver clusters for you. Please go and open mini ATMs, please go and issue debit cards. If you need help on the ground, we will ensure that an officer standing next to you deals with weavers every day to ensure that the weaver gets that benefit. For the first time, we are ensuring that individual weavers and artisans are identified. Their children get money for their own education. Schemes like Mudra Yojana are directly given to weavers. So we are giving the benefit directly to those who need it the most. This is a system, which was not as transparent before. There were announcements, but the implementation was very shoddy.
As the poll season heats up, there is an unfortunate trend of politically-motivated misogyny that is being seen now. And BJP, in many ways, unfortunately is taking the lead: Vinay Katiyar has said that there are more beautiful women in BJP than Priyanka Gandhi... Are you pained at this kind of character assassination?
I don’t think any working woman would say that ‘Oh yeah, let’s celebrate the fact that I am only beautiful but not talented and not hard-working enough and haven’t made a niche for myself’. But I want you to do something today. It’s a bit unpalatable, but I want you to read something...
What is it?
I want you to read something, just read this part (shows her mobile phone). It’s from a Twitter handle, I want you to read this part first. This happened when I was the HRD minister.
This happened in February 2016 when universities had said ‘let’s fly the national flag’ because that was the decision taken by universities... Look at the comment made here.
“May I request Smriti Irani that we must also 'erect' a 56-inch pole”
‘Erect’ in inverted commas...
“56-inch pole in every university with a condom on it”
And who is the person who has done this?
It says Tehseen Poonawalla...
And who is this Poonawalla?
He is related to Robert Vadra
So this is a gentleman who must have spoken to many women like this. Of course, he is related to Vadra, so he can obviously take that liberty. He must have thought that ‘I talk like this to every woman, I can talk like this to Smriti too’. After all, nobody will come screaming that there is misogyny from the Vadra family. And nobody spoke... it's been one year. This is February right? So if we want to talk about women's rights in UP especially, I think if Akhilesh, Rahul... all these young leaders like Dimple, Priyanka... We all should come out on an open platform. Possibly your network can host a show, we can all sit together...
It’s an open challenge...
It is not a challenge, I think that in 2014 I said you want a debate, Mr Rahul Gandhi, and I was rightful in that context. I was a candidate from Amethi, I think that today if you like to talk about women's rights, let’s all sit in UP and have a chat... Akhilesh or Rahul or Priyanka or Dimple because sometimes they bring Priyanka into the poll and then they push it on the backburner... I don’t know what they are doing, but I am saying that these are four people I am willing to sit with. No audiences, let’s sit and talk about these issues.
Akhilesh, if he is a man of principle, if he is a man who does not believe in goonda raj, then let him first come to Amethi and then return the Samrat cycle land to the farmers, which is being used by the Gandhi Foundation. Will he do it? He will not, he had enough time, he did not. So what did he do instead? He went to Sultanpur and said 'Gayatri Prajapati ko jitaeye, ahem seat hai' (help Prajapati win, it is an important seat). That’s why I said it is a dynastic party with ties to the land mafia.
BJP president Amit Shah spoke to us last week and talked about forming what he called ‘Anti-Romeo Squads’. Don’t you think that this is almost like an open invitation for aggressive moral policing?
I think you need to read the manifesto, he is very clear about police stations. This is very clear, this is a state where a woman goes to rescue her husband from the police station and gets raped, so what has the BJP manifesto said... that we will ensure that there will be more and more presence of women in the police squad, we will ensure that there will be women police stations. But we will also ensure fast track courts, at least a 100 of them because we know that just filing a complaint will not ensure justice. It has to reach its ultimate conclusion in a court of law.
Is Smriti Irani ready to be Chief Minister of UP if the party asks you?
This is not about me, my question, when we began this interview, was the same as it is now: how come only we are talking about the issues that matter? We talk about law and order, we talk about women's issues, we are talking about health issues and all they are talking about is ‘don’t be afraid’.
Let me end this interview with what played out in Parliament between you and Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress. He talked about the trolls...
I have given you an example, forget trolls. This is a party representative. How come my good colleague Derek O’Brien never stood up when this kind of filth was said about me? I am his colleague in the Rajya Sabha, I didn’t see anybody. I didn’t ask for help, but how come he is not active enough to hear every other voice?
Do you feel disappointed at this open misogyny and sexism?
No, no. I don’t need Derek’s help to stand up for myself. I am just saying that I filed a case in the court of law against a Congress person who publically was not only misogynistic... he attacked me on my job. And what did the Gandhi family do? They made him the president of an entire unit, so I don’t need to be lectured on misogyny. I live it every day.
Let me just end with your comment on Priyanka Gandhi because she is being seen as an architect behind the alliance in UP...
I thought it was Soniaji. All I care about is what future do you construct for the people of UP. For me that is the only concern.
FULL COVERAGE: Assembly Elections 2017
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