Beyond a point, it does not matter whether Smriti Irani was shifted from the Human Resources Development ministry to the Textiles ministry owing to the displeasure of the RSS or for projecting closeness to the centre of power. All that is mere quibbling.
What matters is that Irani is the one cabinet minister who damaged the BJP politically. Some of the others, such as those who have used crassly communal language, may have upset liberal citizens more than she has, but then liberal citizens are not vital to the BJP’s electoral calculations. Dalits are. The apparent shift of Dalit votes to the Modi bandwagon in 2014 was crucial to the ruling party getting a majority in the current Lok Sabha. Most of us may have forgotten the suicide of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) last winter, but the (alienating) impact of that on Dalit voters across the country is likely to be huge.
Irani’s attempts to argue that Vemula was not a Dalit backfired. Her defence came across as lame, patronising, and cynical. On the surface, student unrest appears to have subsided at HCU, but that hardly matters on the electoral battlefield. The ruling party may yet pay a price at the hustings.
In the public mind, the single most lasting memory of Irani’s controversial tenure as HRD minister was the face-off at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Cut to the bone, that had two effects in electoral terms. One, it brought together the opposition ranging from the Congress to the Samata Party and the Left for the first time in a couple of decades.
Two, it brought into the international limelight a student leader who, as a direct result of that projection, could easily win a Lok Sabha seat in 2019. That would be one seat down as far as the BJP is concerned. (The Begusarai seat is currently held by the BJP, which wrested it from the JD(U). The JNU Students’ Union President, Kanhaiya Kumar, hails from Begusarai.)
Overall, the result of the face-off at JNU is that the students have held their ground. The government – indeed, the might of the state – has had to back down. The attempt was to use an event organised by a marginal students outfit to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru to brand India’s finest University as anti-national and a den of radical and libertine evil. In the bargain, the ruling establishment had hoped to brand the Left parties as generally anti-national.
The president and vice-president of the JNU students union showed amazing wisdom, courage and savvy to effectively counter that attack. Their response included a show of liberal patriotism; their supporters waved the national flag with aplomb.
Irani need not have got herself personally singed by that controversy. Particularly after she had burnt her fingers so badly over the HCU, she would have done well to have kept a low profile. It was Home Minister Rajnath Singh who had set the ball rolling in the JNU case.
However, Irani seems compelled to leap forward from the back foot. She summoned vice-chancellors from across the country a week after the JNU fracas began to unfold, and got them to agree to install a national flag on a 200-foot mast at a central location on each campus.
By so doing, she set herself at the centre of the establishment’s high-profile gambit to portray JNU, liberal academics, and Left parties as anti-national. Flags fly even today, but the objective of the entire exercise has fizzled out in, at best, a stalemate.
In fact, teachers and other academics from across the land, and beyond, rallied to JNU’s defence. In May, I saw posters in support of JNU at the entrance to the Centre for Modern Indian Studies of Goettingen University, arguably Germany’s finest centre for Indian studies. Some of the finest universities across the world have organised lectures, seminars and public demonstrations in support of JNU.
The entire affair breathed new life into liberal academics, and steeled the determination of Indian academia to resist the ruling establishment’s regressive agenda. Politically, it was a fiasco for the establishment. Even the vicious aggression of the establishment’s trolls appears to have been blunted. When one considers all this, the fact that Smriti Irani has been shifted from the crucial (especially for the ruling establishment) HRD portfolio should not surprise anyone. Such obvious electoral cost to the party in power is not easily condoned.