Eyebrows were raised when Smriti Irani was made the Minister for Human Resource Development (HRD) two years ago; just as they are now, that she has been divested of the plum post and shifted to the much less hallowed Textile Ministry. For Irani, who was acknowledged as being among those Prime Minister Narendra Modi favoured, the demotion appears to send a signal of disapproval from the highest – and perhaps only – centre of power that matters in the present government.
Irani’s loss of HRD ministry has set off a buzz of speculation, throwing up multiple questions about the minister’s fall from grace. Was it her arrogance, her inflexibility in accommodating diverse opinions that put her in the dock? Did Irani’s spats with the Niti Ayog and the Prime Minister’s Office cross a line? Did her arrogant handling of Rohith Vemula’s suicide threaten the BJP’s political outreach among Dalits? That Irani had the ear of the RSS – the organisation which has ambitious plans for saffronising the education sector – further complicates the picture.
It is quite possible that all of these irritants contributed to the Prime Minister’s decision to move Irani out of a ministry that is currently entering a phase of experimentation. The government wants to push through the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill, and expedite the establishment of up to 20 educational institutions that meet ‘global standards.’ Irani had major differences with the PMO over some of these plans. Even a new education policy that is yet to be announced by the HRD ministry was a source of tension.
Former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian, who headed the committee which drafted the report on the policy, recently expressed his unhappiness over the delay in the HRD ministry making the report public. Irani’s aggressive and adversarial attitude was, clearly, a cause for concern to the government.
However, beyond speculations on why Irani was removed, the crucial question is – will the reshuffle make any difference to the state of primary and higher education? India is currently facing major challenges in the sector, none of which unfortunately, have found a worthwhile place in the national conversation. The abysmal quality of primary education, flawed government policies on the fate of public universities, and a host of other issues require immediate redressal.
The jury is still out on whether the new HRD minister Prakash Javadekar will be able to rise to the occasion. The only Minister of State to be rewarded with Cabinet rank in this reshuffle, Javadekar’s personality is understood to be very different from Irani’s. His general conciliatory approach sets him apart from his confrontationist predecessor – and doubtless made him a favourite for the post.
From the very beginning, there were valid questions raised about Irani’s capability in heading the HRD ministry. It wasn’t just her lack of educational qualifications that created controversy, but also her supercilious temperament. Irani’s stormy tenure, it seems, might end up as a vindication of her critics.
The former HRD Minister stoked one controversy after another, aggressively taking on students and teachers alike in universities around the country. The furore over the death of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University (HCU) was followed by one of the biggest conflicts of the Modi government’s regime so far in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). If universities were – and continue to be – on a boil, Irani’s decision to replace German with Sanskrit as the third language in Kendriya Vidyalays touched off another heated debate, triggering speculation that she was taking her policy cues from the RSS.
As the storm in HCU and JNU took a political dimension, Irani put herself in the direct line of fire by unnecessarily meddling in the running of academic institutions. For instance, nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar quit as IIT Bombay Chairperson in 2015, following a difference of opinion over the choice of director for IIT Ropar. In an interview to NDTV, the now former HRD minister accused Kakodkar of breaking the law by interviewing a candidate who had not applied for the post. Irani said that “eminence does not give you the right to break the law.”
On cue from the RSS, Irani also pushed to both saffronise and ‘Indianise’ education, reducing the academic and administrative autonomy of educational institutions and centralising powers in the HRD ministry. That agenda is not going to disappear with the arrival of a new HRD minister. How Javadekar negotiates the contrary pulls and tensions among the different stakeholders is something to be watched in the coming days and months.
As Irani departs from the HRD ministry, she leaves behind – among these other flashpoints – the uncomfortable “legacy” of her speech in Parliament at the end of the debate over the battles in JNU and HCU – a speech that conjured the image of her dramatic, tear jerking performance in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.
At the end of that speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted a link to it, with the words “Satyamev Jayate.” Now, with Irani’s departure from the ministry and Javadekar’s arrival, it is entirely likely that histrionics will be substituted by a quieter enforcement of the same ideological and political agendas.