Smriti Zubin Irani, is a minister in the current Indian cabinet handling Ministry of Women and Child Development. But she was familiar to Indian television audience long before she became a politician. As the lead actress of one of the most popular TV serials in Hindi, Smriti Irani had received attention and affection of millions for years, before her name appeared on ballot papers.
Born in a middle-class family to a Bengali mother and a Punjabi father, Smriti was the girl-next-door who turned her fate around. After her Secondary School exams, she set up a small shop on the pavement of Janpath selling hair clips and a beauty product. But she had insatiable dreams, and set out for Mumbai at the age of 18.
With no high-profile connections in the City of Dreams, she earned her bread and butter by waitressing, while also trying her hand at modelling.
She was rejected by Jet Airways for a post of air hostess as they didn't think she had a ‘personality’ for it, but went on to be in the finals of Miss India Pageant 1998.
Next she tried her hand in television, and auditioned for several TV shows and debuted in Star Plus’s ‘Aatish,’ soon followed by ‘Hum hai kal aaj aur kal.’ This is when she caught the eye of the tsarina of Indian television, Ekta Kapoor. Smriti was cast as the iconic Tulsi Virani and became a household name in India as did her mega serial, ‘Kyunki saas bhi kabhi bahu thi’ in 2000.
Though Smriti has said that her auditions didn't go too well, Ekta Kapoor had felt different. The legend is that Ekta had declared to her team about Smriti that “She can make India cry. She will be Tulsi” Even recently Smriti was ecstatic on social media when the serial turned 19.
Politics in her genes
Irani’s grandfather was a senior member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and her mother Shibani Bagchi was an active member of the Jana Sangh, the political arm of RSS, which later developed into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 2003, inspired by BJP leaders Manisha Chaudhary Pramod Mahajan, she joined the party which was in power at the Centre at the time.
She became the Vice President of the Maharashtra Youth Wing in 2004. The first stint with general elections of Lok Sabha was in 2004, when she lost to Kapil Sibal of Congress Party from Chandni Chowk, Delhi.
After the infamous Godhra riots in Gujarat (2002) the firebrand politician did not hesitate to criticise the then-Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. In 2009, she campaigned for BJP’s Vijay Goel for Lok Sabha and voiced her concerns for women's safety in Delhi.
Climbing the ladder
In 2010, Smriti Irani was given the coveted position of President of BJP’s women’s wing (Mahila Morcha), and entered the Parliament the next year as a member of Rajya Sabha. She soon became a strong spokesperson of her party, and contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Amethi against Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Although she lost the election, she was inducted into the Cabinet as Minister of Human Resource and Development in 2014. On subsequent cabinet reshuffles, she was handed the Ministry of Textiles and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Controversies were a part of Irani’s political life – whether it is about her educational qualifications, or her comments on women’s freedom in India, or even the brazenly sexist remarks against her on media and by the Opposition. But her work seems to have responded to the naysayers.
Post her defeat in 2014, Smriti set about to prepare for round two. She waged a five year rigorous campaign on ground and on social media against her rival Rahul Gandhi. She reached out to the common man by getting them scholarships and jobs, and ousted the Gandhi clan from Amethi after winning the Lok Sabha seat in 2019 with 49.70% vote share.
One of the very few self-made women leaders in Indian politics, Smriti Irani is raring to go. In her own words, “the little India all of us carry in our hearts should be good enough for us individually to take a step to help ensure that same freedom and justice, that our Constitution guarantees, is given to all.”