Why Smriti Irani was chosen by BJP for the Amethi battle

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Why Smriti Irani was chosen by BJP for the Amethi battle
© Provided by Firstpost Why Smriti Irani was chosen by BJP for the Amethi battle

Smriti Irani’s victory in Amethi in 2019 was an epoch-making event in the history of Indian politics. She managed to do what many stalwarts of Indian public life (such as Kanshi Ram, Rajmohan Gandhi, Maneka Gandhi and Sharad Yadav) could not.

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Indeed, due to the BJP’s emphatic win both in 2014 and 2019, spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Congress’ popularity had dwindled. However, the 2019 election in Amethi was still an uphill task for a BJP candidate. For example, in the adjoining family bastion of Rae Bareli, Sonia Gandhi won comfortably, winning 55.78 percent of the vote share with a margin of over 1,60,000 votes.

Why was Irani chosen for Amethi in 2014? Here is an excerpt from my new book on her victory in Amethi:

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A possible reason for her selection which gained resonance among some commentators was that her popularity as the bahu (wife) — the most popular role she played as a television actor — would attract keen interest and would, in turn, keep Rahul Gandhi consigned to Amethi significantly more than he would like. After all, he was the undeclared face of the Indian National Congress and, therefore, had to campaign across India. That line of reasoning suggested that, while it was obvious that Irani’s loss was a foregone conclusion, it was necessary to constrict Rahul Gandhi. Her candidature, therefore, was mainly aimed at causing some inconvenience to Rahul Gandhi and not quite aimed at defeating him.

Some other commentators insinuated that the BJP top brass routinely conspired to sacrifice its women leaders in such impossible contests. The late Sushma Swaraj, as shall be recollected, was asked to contest against Sonia Gandhi in Bellary, Karnataka in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, and had lost.

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In other words, according to prevalent commentary at that time, the primary reason Irani was fielded in Amethi was either her star appeal, which contributed to her nuisance value or BJP’s apparent willingness to sacrifice its women leaders. She, it was implied, could not be looked at as a serious candidate to give Rahul Gandhi a real fight.

Why did the BJP choose her for Amethi? There are two reasons.

As we shall recollect from earlier in this book, when Irani joined the BJP, the late Gopinath Munde noted in her the tenacity to pick fights not many would want to pick. At an election rally, Modi remarked how lack of basic facilities in Amethi were, until then, never really highlighted by the media. Irani, he added, showed guts in exposing the hollow claims of the Nehru-Gandhi family in their bastion.

What she exuded in 2003 (which Munde noticed) was exactly what she exuded in 2014 (which Modi and Rajnath Singh noticed). Her ability to give a takkar ki ladai (a solid challenge) to her opponent, the heir of the most powerful dynasty in independent India’s politics, gave the BJP’s central election committee a compelling choice. That courage proved to sustain itself when Irani remained steadfast in Amethi, despite being threatened on the campaign trail that she would be shot.

The second reason? We shall soon return to it.

Modi, in his speech, would intentionally shift the focus of the Amethi battle, asking Amethi to vote pro-BJP rather than anti-Congress. In his resonating style of delivery and a clever play of words, Modi rejected the line of reasoning proffered by many analysts — that Irani was sent to Amethi to increase the inconvenience Rahul Gandhi would be required to confront. He turned that around, stating that Irani was, instead, chosen to decrease the inconvenience Amethi was confronting since the past several decades.

Suddenly, Modi was telling Amethi not to focus on its Member of Parliament, but on their future well-being. Indeed, an indirect reference was certainly made to those responsible for the condition of Amethi — it wasn’t just Rahul Gandhi, but also others in the Nehru-Gandhi lineage who had been elected as representatives of Amethi prior to him.

When Sonia Gandhi contested from Amethi in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, her campaign centred around the contribution that the Nehru-Gandhi family had brought to Amethi. In 2014, she would continue the same campaign pitch. It was a predominantly emotional pitch, the aim of which was to invoke the memories of Rajiv Gandhi.

Therefore, while Modi was referencing those responsible for the condition of Amethi, his emphasis in shifting focus on the inconvenience Amethi faced for decades, however, was on the future. This also echoed what Irani had stated a few days prior thereto in response to a discussion on her candidature. Quoting former United States President John F Kennedy, Irani said that her task was not to fix blame for the past, but to fix the course for the future.

And this gave Modi a segue into revealing another reason why Irani was chosen for Amethi — the second reason we said we shall return to.

He told the Amethi audience that, after Irani was elected as a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament from Gujarat, he, then Gujarat’s chief minister, had assigned her a responsibility. She was given a list of areas in Gujarat which were relatively underdeveloped. Her role was to identify ways to bring about change and dynamism in those areas. Irani, as we shall recall, had put in efforts in Anand district. Irani, Modi testified to the Amethi audience, impressively took charge and assiduously brought about change in the regions, alerting the governmental authorities about lapses as well as improvement opportunities.

Similarly, when the BJP election team did a study of the most underdeveloped regions in Uttar Pradesh, Amethi featured among them. Having seen her work in a relatively underdeveloped region in Gujarat, the BJP’s choice for Amethi was clear. He, consequently, appealed to the people of Amethi that he wasn’t interested in the politics of badla (revenge). He was, instead, interested in the politics of badlav (change).

An interesting contrast is worth mentioning here.

Kartikeya Tanna’s book, ‘The Smriti Irani Story: Why She Won Amethi’, is available on Amazon. Price: Hardcover (Rs 449); Kindle (Rs 399).

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