Seven months after he took his life, Hyderabad University Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula's ghost has returned to haunt Smriti Irani. His suicide had been provoked by months of harassment, including suspension on charges of being “anti-national” by the university authorities acting under pressure from the Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry under Irani. Later, even after his death, she had engaged in an ugly battle of words with Vemula's family, describing the outrage at the Dalit scholar’s suicide as a political stunt and even contested that he was a Dalit.
Today, her dramatic ouster from the HRD ministry in Tuesday’s cabinet reshuffle is believed to be largely triggered by the deep-rooted alienation caused among the Dalit community at the needless grandstanding of Irani while dealing with the Rohith Vemula controversy. Indeed in the run up to next year's crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, her continuance in the ministry had become bit of a political liability impeding the vigorous Dalit outreach by the BJP in the state. Although Hyderabad is far away from Uttar Pradesh, many Dalits, particularly the younger generation even in rural areas of the state, were traumatised by Rohith Vemula's suicide, identifying with the research scholar as a tragic but heroic victim of upper caste prejudice by ministers such as Smriti Irani, thereby tarnishing the BJP.
Significantly, it is the all-powerful party president Amit Shah who is believed to have insisted that the HRD minister be shunted out in the face of strong resistance from the RSS, and to a lesser extent, from even the Prime Minister. Till recently, she had the unflinching support of 'Gopalji', veteran RSS leader general secretary in charge of BJP affairs. Modi too has been favourably inclined towards Irani and not so long ago, it would have been inconceivable that a minister with so much clout could be shifted without much ado.
However, such is Shah's clout nowadays. He appears to have succeeded in convincing both the RSS and the Prime Minister about the importance of sending a message to the Dalits through the removal of the controversial minister from the ministry that had hounded Rohith Vemula. Interestingly, the RSS seems to have made another major concession in agreeing to the simultaneous removal from the HRD Ministry of Ram Shankar Katheria, who used to be an RSS pracharak and known to be close to the Sangh, in fact, going to the extent of recently advocating the “saffronisation of education”. It is ironic that Katheria is a Dalit from Agra, one of the few BJP leaders from that community in Uttar Pradesh.
While there is some speculation in the media about Irani being removed from her high profile HRD perch in order to push her into the Uttar Pradesh poll campaign as the BJP's chief ministerial face, this seems unlikely. The fact that she may be a bug bear to the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh because of her perceived role in the Rohith Vemula would make it quite illogical to use her as a major campaign prop except in a few select places, let alone promote her as a chief minister. Besides, a series of opinion polls in Uttar Pradesh on who would be the best leader for the BJP to project as chief minister in the state have recently given her very low scores rating her as a poor last among other party leaders in the race such as Varun Gandhi, Rajnath Singh and Yogi Adityanath.
Political observers believe that had the plan been to shift Irani to electoral battlefield in Uttar Pradesh, the Prime Minister and the party president would have directly moved Irani to the party. Considering the importance of the textiles to both the Prime Minister’s home state of Gujarat and also the weaving looms in his Varanasi constituency, it would be unlikely that the ministry would be used for stop gap appointments.
This is by no means the end of the road for Smriti Irani who is seen by people who matter in the ruling party establishment as a temporary liability rather than a permanent threat. Despite the widespread perception that the lady has lost out big time, the party is desperately trying to put a good spin on the ministerial reallocation, pointing out textiles was a key department expected to create vitally needed jobs. The real reason, of course, is that textiles ministry, by its very nature, is a far less high profile department than HRD quite unconnected to academics or Dalits which should allow Irani to stay out of the public limelight for the moment.
Possibly related to Smriti Irani’s ouster by the party president Amit Shah bypassing support to her from the RSS veteran Gopalji is the clipping of wings of another controversial minister Mahesh Sharma, who has been stripped of the additional portfolio of minister of state for Civil Aviation and left with only Culture and Tourism. Sharma, who is elected from Gautam Buddha Nagar in Western Uttar Pradesh, is also known to be close to Gopalji, which may well signify the waning influence of this key RSS functionary on the BJP. It also goes to underline the enormous clout that the party president Amit Shah has started wielding not just in the party but also in the government on the eve of the Uttar Pradesh polls.