As performances go, Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani’s was impressive.
On display during her debate in Parliament was a lot of anger, a sense of personal hurt and of course, her skill at clever oratory. She summoned the right material — some not directly connected to the issues at hand, but good enough to be props for a strong argument — to take on her detractors. She stood her ground emphatically.
One can dismiss it as theatrics and say that her long response to the Opposition’s charge on Rohith Vemula and the JNU matter cleverly took the emotional route to skirt many critical questions. For example, her speech didn’t make clear why the BJP, which is so passionate about Afzal Guru, got into an alliance with the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir for power. The PDP’s position on the hanged terrorist is clear: He was not a terrorist and his hanging was a gross miscarriage of justice. When you implicitly accept this position by aligning with the party in that state, how can you brand students who raise slogans in favour of Guru elsewhere as traitors?
Again, it’s not unusual for MPs and ministers to send letters to ministries to get work — often of a personal nature — done. How many of them are pursued as vigorously as in the case of Rohith Vemula? And how many of them result in such punitive action from the authorities? His suicide may or may not be directly related to the Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya’s letter to the HRD Ministry, but the possibility of it being an aggravating factor still weighs heavy on the general perception. Moreover, her speech does not explain the compelling necessity for her party to claim that he was not a Dalit.
However, these are only a minor part of the real significance of what she conveyed. It has to do with the BJP’s and the wider Sangh Parivar’s position on nationalism and other issues of significance for the Indian Right. The BJP had so far, appeared defensive, at least less than straight-forward, about these issues. Smriti’s speech dispels all ambiguity. It spells out very clearly where the party — by extension, the wider Parivar — stands.
She removes all pretension from the ‘us versus them’ debate by saying, “I am not certifying your patriotism, but don’t demean mine. I am not certifying your idea of India, but don’t demean mine.” “A traitor within the gates is worse than the enemy standing outside them.” The minister’s words may not have come exactly this way, but the tone certainly conveyed this: Yes, we are like this. Take it or leave it.
This might translate into ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’ on the ground, and it might force those in the ideological middle to take a position this way or that, but it's clear that the government won’t be desperate to capture or win over the middle any more. As the government’s response to recent activities of the fringe elements suggests, it will side with them come what may. They are the party’s most loyal constituents and fit perfectly into its narrative of the nation; in no circumstance, will it alienate them.
It’s interesting that the party would choose Smriti to be its commander in a crucial battle for ideological positioning. One would have expected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be in that position. But the HRD minister, with her brand of aggression, clarity and articulation, proved the perfect choice for a difficult job. It would not be a surprise if she overtakes other leaders in the party in prominence soon. She is exactly the kind of leader — direct, combative and in your face — the Indian Right requires.
Of course, a victory in a parliamentary debate does not amount to much. But it serves to send out a message to the faithful on the ground. They can act without reluctance now and take forward the ideological agenda.