Smriti Irani, the feisty Union Minister of Textiles, is the most fascinating story of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. She has emerged as a giant-killer — a person who vanquished the biggest icon of dynastic politics, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, a three-term MP from Amethi, in the Nehru-Gandhi family pocket borough. Her profile, her politics and the determined way in which she pursued her goals and assignments given by her superiors in the party would forever serve as a reference point for students of politics and possibly of management practices.
Five years ago, the BJP leadership, the duo of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, decided to field her from Amethi out of nowhere. She didn’t have the right credentials to take on Rahul Gandhi, at least as practitioners and believers in conventional political wisdom believed about caste-ridden Uttar Pradesh. She was a yesteryear television star, she had lost one election that she fought from Chandni Chowk in Delhi in 2004, she did not have a caste to name, she was married to a Parsi, and had no worthwhile connection to UP.
But then Modi and Shah were not leaders who believed in conventional wisdom in politics. They were leaders who thought outside the box. They believed in Smriti’s grit and she believed in herself and had proven in the past that she did full justice to giving her best to the task at hand. She lost that 2014 election to Rahul Gandhi but won many admirers, within and outside of Amethi, for the valiant fight, securing over three lakh votes, something which no other leader had ever achieved against a Congress leader since Independence in Amethi or, more specifically, no one could come close to securing one lakh votes since the time Sanjay Gandhi won from here in 1980.
Since then, Amethi had been away from the Congress or the first family of the party only briefly when erstwhile royal family scion Sanjay Sinh retained this seat, then as a BJP candidate in 1998-99. There was practically nothing that Smriti could look for to gain confidence.
It was heartening to see her 2014 campaign promising “win or lose, she was going to stay with them, serve them” and prove that she was not a migratory bird who had come there to grab media space and temporary glory. From the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2019, she stayed true to her words, making Amethi her home, finding a house for herself, fighting for the people, their welfare and infrastructure projects. That was something this place had never seen.
Their three-term MP Rahul Gandhi would come once in a while, sometimes with foreign dignitaries to show them the backwardness of the region, and boast of the self-help NGO he and his sister ran. In 10 years of UPA rule when he and his mother’s wish was command for Manmohan Singh’s government, he would land with some industrialists and claim to lay the foundation of a food park and other things, and then conveniently forget all about that.
Through her five-year long relationship with the people of Amethi, she changed the way people would look at their future representative. After losing, she sent a truckload of slippers and sandals for villagers because she thought it was difficult for them to walk in the fields or on broken roads without footwear. She would get a bridge built to connect a remote village in the district, in that constituency where people had boycotted the 2014 elections demanding the bridge.
She was challenging not just Rahul Gandhi but the entire Gandhi-Nehru family, all those who had appeared in the picture frame when the Congress president had filed his nomination paper for these elections – mother Sonia Gandhi, sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, brother-in-law Robert Vadra and the two gen-next children Raihan and Miraya Vadra (who have shown early inclinations of entering politics).
She was also up against nostalgia and loyalty that a section of the people held for the Congress’s first family.
Her answer to those challenges was simple – first, take the first family on with sharp rebuttals, expose Rahul Gandhi not just as a non-performer but someone who cheated on popular aspirations and emotional connect; second, showcase her ability to deliver and underscore what development she could bring to the region (if she could deliver that much after defeat, she could deliver much more after victory). Tulsi of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi fame soon became a 'didi' for people in the region. A section of people had become tired of carrying the dynastic yoke of Congress’s first family and the five yearly ritual of Rahul and Priyanka coming and waving at them to secure votes. She came as a ray of hope, as didi, as a leader who was going to be there with them through thick and thin.
In the end of April, when an accidental fire flared up in Purab Dwara village of Amethi, she rushed there, working on a hand pump to fetch water to douse the flames. That news and pictures of the incident went viral on WhatsApp. Didi had won the hearts of the people. While the people began to love her, Congress men started hating her. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra used some very sharp words against her, something which finally boomeranged.
On Thursday, Rahul Gandhi conceded defeat in Amethi at a press conference in Delhi even as counting was on, urging his victorious rival to treat his erstwhile constituency "with love". As the outcome became apparent, Smriti tweeted this response that sums up her long-drawn battle:
कौन कहता है आसमां में सुराख नहीं हो सकता ...
— Smriti Z Irani (@smritiirani) May 23, 2019
Smriti Irani's victory in Amethi is the victory of the aam aadmi over dynastic politics, and its reverberations will be felt unceasingly in the foreseeable future.
Updated Date: May 23, 2019 20:40:36 IST