In India’s male-dominated politics, you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that it would take a man to take on the Congress president and dynast Rahul Gandhi in his ancestral constituency of Amethi.
But it took a woman, a former television actress as her detractors define her, to humble the Gandhi scion: Smriti Irani, the ultimate warrior.
The 43-year-old leader is not one to back down from a fight. In February this year, I curated a festival called ‘Words Count’ and had the opportunity to be in conversation with her.
I asked about the possibility of her contesting from Amethi. I raised the query repeatedly, but every time she demurred, deflecting the decision to her party seniors. But one could sense that the prospect tempted her.
Irani’s life has been one of struggle and challenges, from her beginnings in a modest home, to her part-time job selling wares on Janpath to support herself, and then her superstardom in India’s TV world, which made her a familiar face – Tulsi.
Every opportunity came after a trial and a test of ability. So it was unsurprising that her failure to win Amethi in 2014, only made her dig her heels in and stay tuned in to those who had turned her away.
There was no guarantee that five years later, she would have an opportunity to contest again and reap the benefits of her work in the constituency, but she persisted. Stealing time away from her ministerial duties, she made regular trips to Amethi and worked for the people.
Her continued interest riled up dynasty loyalists and made her the target of sexually charged innuendos, misogyny and downright cruelty. There was something decidedly elitist and sexist in the way she was attacked, the fact that she was placed in a high profile ministry only riled up her opponents further.
It would be naïve to assume that intraparty politics didn’t weigh her down either, and I know from responsible sources that there were occasions when her physical safety came under question.
Only in recent interviews, after the career-defining fight, does she reveal some vulnerability, when she speaks of how the nasty rumours impacted her two children, both in their teens. It is easy to see her smiling on TV after her thrilling win and assume it was a smooth ride, but it has been anything but that.
To not acknowledge her journey is to discount and possibly negate what it takes for a woman to make it in public life. To ignore just how impressive her win is for non-dynasts in politics would be criminal.
She now says that the attempts to diminish her and trivialise her presence worked to her advantage. It is a statement that reveals a bit of the ‘impostor syndrome’ that afflicts successful women, who deny themselves the achievements they have earned.
Michele Obama spoke of it eloquently as she described her struggles with this affliction and logically denounced it: “Here is the secret. I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of; I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the UN.... they are not that smart.”
Smriti has spent the last five years being pursued by an entire ecosystem that has insisted on telling her that she doesn’t deserve anything she has achieved. She just isn't that smart.
Her missteps were amplified, her failures shoved at her, the career lows fuelled scores of media reports, memes, social media commentary and gossip. Her personal life was shredded, by strangers and those related to the dynasty. And now her dramatic win is being ignored by the same elitist cabal.
There will be much analysis on her win and she will live with the ‘giant slayer’ epithet, but will she fully realise what she has achieved?
That she defeated a Gandhi in their bastion.
No big event like the Emergency preceded this defeat, just hubris. And the entry of a woman who doesn’t still quite realise what she has achieved and the doors she has opened.
It’s all real, Mrs Irani, and you certainly are the real deal. Leave the ‘impostor’ in the dark and to the gossip columns and take your place under the sun!