Is India's new education minister a college dropout?

Is India's new education minister a college dropout?

Newly minted Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani probably did not expect to spend her first few days in office having her own educational qualifications scrutinised.

But Ms Irani, the youngest minister in the new Cabinet at 38, found that instead of the state of education in the country, the focus was on whether she was a college graduate or a dropout.

"Judge me by my work. I can simply say this," she told reporters even as she refused to be drawn into a discussion about her educational qualifications.

The controversy exploded after journalist Madhu Kishwar, a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tweeted about discrepancies in election documents filed by Ms Irani.

A model and former television actress, Ms Irani wrote in 2004 election documents that she graduated from Delhi University (DU).

However, in subsequent such documents, she maintained that she had completed only the first year of a DU Bachelor of Commerce course by correspondence.

While the discrepancy is not going to affect her status as a parliamentarian or minister, it provided the first controversy for the new Narendra Modi government.

"Smriti Irani merely class 12 pass. Went to become fashion model on to TV serial bahu (daughter-in-law). Is this qualification enough for India's Education Minister?" Ms Kishwar tweeted. "My sentiments echoed with great fervour within BJP circles. BJP insiders saying much harsher things than me."

The rise of Ms Irani, who left a successful career as a television actress that made her a household name in North India to join politics, has surprised not just outsiders but also those within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A mother of two, she joined the BJP in 2003, contesting in the general election a year later but losing to Congress party leader Kapil Sibal in a Delhi constituency. The defeat did not kill her political career. Instead, the well-spoken politician became one of the articulate spokesmen of the BJP.

In 2010, she was made the head of the party's women's wing, and the following year, she was elected to the Rajya Sabha or upper house of Parliament.

For this year's general election, she was a core member of Mr Modi's campaign team.

But a month before the elections, Mr Modi, in a surprise move, decided to field her in Amethi, the ward of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

The Congress camp dismissed her as a lightweight.

Ms Irani, who tried to tap the discontent against the Gandhi family for failing to deliver on basics like good roads, had a relatively low-key campaign. Still, she connected enough with people in the constituency to cut Mr Gandhi's margin to less than half of that in the previous polls.

Mr Modi is known to trust Ms Irani and considers her one of his people. But she had spoken out against the Prime Minister at least once in the past.

In 2004, she told Outlook magazine that Mr Modi's decision not to step down as Gujarat chief minister after the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in the state was "extremely shocking and appalling".

In a testament to her ambition, Ms Irani impressed Mr Modi and also senior leader Arun Jaitley over the last couple of years, managing to find a place in the inner circle.

"Smriti is a very good spokesperson and Modi likes good communicators. She is a very typical and successful example of aspirational India," said journalist Sheela Bhatt of news portal rediff.com.

Ms Irani, the eldest of three sisters, whose father ran a small courier business, left home soon after school to go to Mumbai.

She cleaned tables and swept the floor as a cleaner at McDonald's while waiting for modelling and acting gigs. She participated but lost in the Miss India pageant in 1998.

She got her big break when she was cast as Tulsi in one of India's most popular Hindi soap operas Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi or Because The Mother-In-Law Was Once A Daughter-In-Law.

As Tulsi, she had viewers glued to their TV sets, wondering if she would survive the machinations of conniving members of the rich business family she married into.

She survived and flourished, much like her career in politics.

"Smriti will do a lot of good... Whatever she does, she will try her best to do it right and perfectly," said actress Sudha Shivpuri, who played the mother-in-law.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 2, 2014.
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