NEW DELHI — When a television journalist asked Smriti Irani what qualities Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw in her to give her the education portfolio, she chose not to answer. Instead, she turned to the studio audience and repeated his question. It was enough to enrage them.
Shouting “Shame, shame,” audience members jumped over chairs to reach the platform and nearly assaulted the journalist. Irani then got up and rescued him from the mob’s fury.
Irani, 40, the powerful minister for human-resource development overseeing education, is the queen of controversies. The TV soap star turned politician is always in the headlines for her sharp tongue and histrionics, but she has also come under criticism as having dodgy educational qualifications and for allegedly undermining university professors.
Irani, one of Modi’s favorite ministers, is accused of Hindu-izing India’s secular but troubled education system, which is dogged by high dropout rates and universities that churn out graduates but arguably fail to prepare most of the country’s young for jobs in the rapidly growing economy. She is now writing India’s new education policy, a process that has not been taken place in three decades.
At a meeting with 42 heads of universities in February outside New Delhi, Irani reportedly told them to come out of their “comfortable cocoons.” She also scolded two for dozing and threw out a professor who tried to take her photograph.
“She has proved disastrous as education minister, a dangerous combination of arrogance and ignorance,” said Ramachandra Guha, a political historian. “She has further undermined the already-fragile autonomy that our best universities had. Her contempt for scholars and scientists is in line with the overall anti-intellectual theme of this government.”
Irani’s office did not respond to a request from The Washington Post for an interview.
Irani is perhaps the most-trolled minister in Modi’s cabinet, and she frequently engages in Twitter spats with opponents. Critics call her a “drama queen” and “aunty-national” for her high-pitched sermons on nationalism.
When Modi appointed her to his cabinet, opponents argued that she had never attended college. She defended herself, stirring a bigger storm.
“I do have a degree from Yale, as well, which I can bring out and show how Yale celebrated my leadership capacity,” Irani said.
It turned out that she had attended a week-long leadership program at Yale in 2013. She was lampooned for days.
More recently, she made a spelling mistake in a tweet — “Governer instead of “Governor” — and trolls descended again.
But she wears all such criticism like a badge. She sarcastically refers to herself as “illiterate.”
At the heart of all the attention are two questions: How do Indians respond to the speedy rise of female politicians? And is Irani right for the job?
“I am not a political Cinderella. I don’t need to be rescued. If I feel insulted, I stand up and speak for myself,” Irani said in an interview with the Times of India last year.
Since she took office two years ago, three heads of colleges and universities have been forced to quit before their terms ended.
Sushanta Dattagupta, who was sacked this year as vice chancellor of a university, said that an education minister should have a vision and an appreciation of heterogeneity, and must regard universities as places for progressive ideas. “I did not discern any of these attributes in Mrs. Irani,” he said.
Irani said that Dattagupta was corrupt, a charge he denies.
But there are many who say she is doing a good job.
A lawmaker with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Kunwar Bharatendra Singh, recently took the head of a university to meet Irani to request funds.
“She had all the facts on her fingertips,” Singh said. “She never looked at her file even once. Either she is a genius or she has a phenomenal memory.”
Irani has earned praise for making it easy for students to attend technical institutes and formal school, setting up a national ranking for colleges, easing the norms for universities to invite foreign faculty and promoting online courses. She also announced maternity and child-care benefits for women pursuing PhDs.
Some say Irani routinely consults with Hindu-nationalist academic and student groups. She has promoted Sanskrit and yoga in schools and colleges, and has appointed Hindu nationalists to head historical research, national book trusts and libraries.
“Our textbooks should celebrate the ancient knowledge contained in our ancient scriptures, the Vedas,” said Atul Kothari of Save the Education Movement, which had called for a ban on a book by U.S. scholar Wendy Doniger over claims that it insulted Hinduism. His group has met with Irani three times for consultations.
A professor at Delhi University said that “the bureaucrats in her ministry have stopped interacting with liberal academics.”
Many now fear that the new education policy will include Hindu-supremacist ideas in curriculums and on campuses.
Irani was born in a middle-class family in New Delhi and moved to the entertainment city of Mumbai after school. For years, she was India’s darling daughter-in-law for her role on the longest-running blockbuster Hindi television soap opera, “Because a Mother-in-Law Was Once a Daughter-in-Law, Too.” She joined the Hindu-nationalist BJP in 2003. Later, she became the party spokeswoman and a member of the upper house of Parliament.
But many continued to view her as a television star. A Congress party member even called her a “dancing-singing woman” on national television, a derogatory remark here.
At one point, a television journalist asked, “Are some people cutting you down to size?” Irani replied, “I don’t think so — I’m too fat for that.”
Irani is married to a businessman and has two children with him, as well as a third from his first marriage.
She has faced the most criticism over the manner in which she handled student protests at two universities against the hanging of two men convicted of assisting terrorists. When Irani’s ministry repeatedly intervened, it precipitated a series of events that ended in the suicide of a lower-caste PhD student.
When she was slammed in Parliament about the situation, Irani made a dramatic wager.
“If you are not satisfied with my reply, your party workers can take my head and place it at your feet,” Irani told a prominent lower-caste lawmaker named Mayawati.
Mayawati later said she was not happy with the reply and asked, “Will she now fulfil her promise?” The chamber erupted in laughter.
Her solution for growing campus unrest was to order all universities to hoist a giant national flag in an attempt to instill patriotism among students.
Recently, the education minister of Bihar state, Ashok Choudhury, tweeted cattily about Irani’s education policy. He opened by saying: “Dear Smriti Irani ji.”
In reply, Irani tweeted, “When did you start addressing women with ‘dear’?” She said she uses “Respected.”
“She is often the target of many derogatory and sexist remarks on Twitter. Maybe all her pent-up anger came out that day,” said Rahul Kaushik, who works for the Hindu-nationalist group RSS.
On Facebook, Irani called it her “near Jerry Maguire like moment.”
She wrote that young Indian girls are raised by parents who teach them not to “respond or retort no matter how humiliated you feel.”
Listing her professional achievements, Irani said: “So, to those girls walking with their heads down, look up and speak up.”
She signed off, “Regards, Aunty National.”