Reproduced below is the unedited version of my interview with Vrinda Gopinath which was first published on Scroll.in
Noted academician Madhu Purnima Kishwar of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies and founder of Manushi, a women’s rights journal, has been in the news a lot. First, for her chronicles on Modi, called Modinama, in which she critiqued the media and human rights activists for “falsely demonising” Modi after the Gujarat riots of 2002. Then for her criticism of Smriti Irani’s “incompetence” as human resource development minister and “fraudulent qualifications”. In a freewheeling interview with Vrinda Gopinath, Kishwar talks about the disappointment and general despondency six months into Modi’s reign.
Q. Has your enthusiasm for Modi waned vis a vis his appointment of Smriti Irani as HRD Minister?
A. My enthusiasm for Modi as PM came because of the good work he had done as Gujarat chief minister, which I took the trouble to go and assess firsthand. It’s when I saw solid evidence that he was being demonized that I decided to document his tenure as Gujarat CM starting October 2001 when he took the oath of office.
Among other things, I saw a man who recognizes the importance of investing heavily in knowledge, skill development and learning, and who believes India should occupy its rightful place in this domain in the 21st century. He repeatedly emphasized this with conviction and passion in my conversations with him.
Since I have spent my entire life in the world of academia, I feel passionately about it too. For years I taught in a Delhi University college and witnessed the tragic deterioration in teaching standards; Teacher absenteeism even in a supposedly elite university of Delhi is very high. Our colleges and universities all over India are producing unemployable lumpens by millions. We are wasting generation after generation to bad education.
Therefore, Modi’s appointment of Smriti Irani came as a horrible shock to me. Here’s someone who is not just poorly educated, — she’s just 12th Pass — but she even lied about her qualifications in each of her three affidavits to the Election Commission. Nor has she garnered the knowledge that comes from engaging with learned people and the life of ordinary people in a serious manner—the way Modi has done. Look at the trajectory of this woman – at 18, she leaves home for the glamour industry, to become a fashion model, a beauty queen, then gets into saas-bahu serials which even by the standards of the entertainment industry, is the lowest and most brainless genre. She does not even have the qualifications to head the National School of Drama.
If Modi is talking about taking India to make up for its lost centuries in education, you need a person with vision, experience of varied domains of knowledge. Given the life she has lived, she sadly lacks on this front. She proved it fast and furious when she said I’ve a Yale degree on the basis of a five-day course she was taken to attend! Such courses are offered by American universities to bring our MPs etc under the influence of the American establishment.
She actually thought it was a badge of honour,– a recognition of her “leadership qualities” whereas it was actually meant to give ‘leadership training” to our naïve MPs. Even I couldn’t believe she was that dumb.
Q. Did you speak to Modi about this? Did he respond to your tweets of anguish?
A. I don’t expect Modi to respond to my protests in social media. He’s not the kind of person who will try to shut up his critics by his having his office phone them. As for me getting in touch with him, I avoided doing that for the simple reason that if in our meeting he had said, ‘Madhuji, chhodo na. Please trust that I know what is best for my government’, it would have been very difficult to say no. Milne se lihaaz aa hi jaata hai. I didn’t want to drop this matter or surrender my freedom vis a vis other harmful decisions of Modi government.
Q. So, do you think Modi Government is serious about education? Where does this leave Modi?
A. Her appointment is a shocker not just for me but also for people within BJP. It is a trauma I haven’t recovered from because I took Modi’s promises very seriously. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a Laloo Yadav had appointed Smriti Irani as HRD minister. After all, didn’t we take a Rabri Devi’s appointment in our stride, but you don’t expect a Rabri Devi from Narendra Modi, to come head a very key ministry. You cannot fix anything in India unless we fix our education system. Whether you want good doctors, nurses, competent bureaucrats, well trained engineers and highly professional cops, you need to bring far reaching changes in our education system at all levels. And we have an HRD minister who doesn’t even know the difference between a casual five day course and a university degree!
In fact, it is BJP leaders who introduced me to her colourful background and the questionable means she has used over the years to climb up. Her entry into BJP was apparently facilitated by Pramod Mahajan who got her the ticket to fight against Kapil Sibal in the 2004 election. Smriti’s clout comes from the fact that she is good at latching on to men who are at the top of political power structure. First it was Pramod Mahajan, and then came Gopinath Munde, followed by several others till she found the most powerful patron in Modi.
The rise of such women sends very negative message to other women in the Party—that your work does not count for much. All that counts is patronage of powerful leaders. The kinds of things BJP workers say about Smriti would make anyone cringe. Among other things, she is also an inveterate liar. But she delivers those lies with such passion that she starts believing them herself. The actress that she is, she thinks she can adopt any persona which helps her career at that point. For instance, in an interview to Karan Thapar on 22/12/2001 while describing her initial years of struggle in Mumbai, she proudly said, “It was a learning experience because here I was in Delhi throwing tantrums, you are a rich man’s daughter telling people, Tumhe pataa hai mein kiski beti hoon? Suddenly, cut to wiping floors and cleaning dishes.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6N5m5ahVxYo&feature=youtu.be
In another early interview, (www.tribuneindia.com/2002/20020310/spectrum/main8.htm) she told Vimla Patil how she had borrowed Rs 2 lakhs from her father to prepare herself for Miss India contest. Come 2014 election, Modi makes it politically fashionable to talk of his humble chaiwala background. Suddenly, Irani too follows suit and adopts a new persona to match Modi’s chaiwala image. She then starts playing the rags to riches story by saying her family was so poor that she had to give up education after class 12 and do low paying jobs like selling cosmetics on Janpath and sweeping floors in McDonalds to support her family. Tell me which poor family educates their daughter in a hi-fi Convent school of Delhi and which poor father could have afforded to spare Rs 2 lakhs in 1991-2 to indulge his daughter’s ambition of becoming a fashion model or beauty queen?
So lying about her education is not the only fraud she has committed. She has lied about her assets and much else.
Another lie she has suddenly begun peddling is to claim that her family has been with the RSS for three generations. This sudden love for the RSS does not come from any conviction but the belief that if she keeps them pleased, she is secure in her job.
Q. You still haven’t answered about your disappointment with the Modi Government?
A. Look, I still stand by my commendation of his tenure as Gujarat chief minister. I examined that period carefully, travelled all over the state, met thousands of people, interviewed hundreds—both in and outside the government– and saw things for myself He got rewarded for his work in Gujarat, he is now PM. But now starts a new chapter, he’s going to be assessed afresh on the basis of his performance as PM.
However, nobody can make sense of some of his decisions and appointments, neither me nor anyone else. Maybe it’s the evil influence of being ensconced in 7 Race Course Road or may be someone has done black magic on him. Maybe Modi has not got a grip over his government yet. Maybe Delhi has disoriented him. Honestly, I cannot believe this is happening. But it’s too premature to pass a final verdict. This government needs to be given time to prove its worth and I’m waiting and watching like a hawk, weighing its actions carefully while maintaining a safe distance so that I can remain non partisan.
Q. There are stories agog of Smriti’s arrogance and imperiousness.
A. I’ve met several people who have had to interact with her and almost all come back with horrific stories. For instance, a high powered team from FICCI went to make a presentation to her on important new initiatives required in the higher education sector. They came out despairing because she wouldn’t listen nor watch their power point presentation. She just shrugged them off disdainfully saying, “I know it all and we are doing all that needs to be done”. Similarly, vice chancellors and other educationists who have met her say that she acts like a bully—talks and talks aggressively to hide her incompetence, but doesn’t listen.
I recently got a letter written by a person who attended her session on education at the World Hindu Conference at Ashoka Hotel in Delhi. He has expressed deep anguish and outrage at her rough and rude behavior vis a vis participants. The poor man pleaded with her to accept a document he had prepared on education reforms. She was disdainful and refused to even touch that piece of paper leave alone look at it.
Bureaucrats are being screamed at and given sultani farmans. I am told IAS officers are reluctant to work with her because she is overbearing and arrogant. They are asking for transfers out of her ministry. She has changed three information officers in six months because she feels she is not kind of media coverage. Trouble is she is not willing to work quietly, pick up the ropes; she is hungry for media coverage and in the process exposing her incompetence more and more.
Q. Perhaps Modi is not what he’s cracked up to be?
A. I have based my assessment of Modi from the ground – people may have voted for him from what they’ve heard, but I spent a lot of time trying to understand his work. His choice of Irani as HRD minister is not in tune with his track record in Gujarat. This is completely out of character, it’s inexplicable. One of the things he earned respect for was his ability to pick the right person for the right job. He was also known for not encouraging sycophants to hang around him. Nor was he known to cultivate worthless people as favorites.
Q. Is he playing the Delhi game of keeping everyone happy?
A. Given the free hand he has in BJP today, he cannot use that excuse. After all he has marginalized many senior people because they do not fit in with his scheme of things. This is important as it’s made out to look as if Modi owes Smriti something but I don’t buy that argument. She has no political base; there is not a single constituency where she can win a single election on her own steam – even though she was vice-president of BJP. She’s not a Vasundhara Raje Scindia who not only win her own election but also plays a key role in bringing her party into power. She is not even a Varun Gandhi who wins his own seat on his own steam and also helps several MLAs get elected.
Irani is not credited with having made any contribution towards building the party– she’s no Amit Shah who helped to bring about a tectonic shift in the electoral fortunes of BJP. She simply gives speeches that are fed to her. But no one can accuse her of coming up with any creative new ideas or a vision for the future of India.
Some say she had to be rewarded for giving Rahul Gandhi a tough fight in Amethi. If that were the case, how come nobody talks about rewarding Ajay Agrawal, the BJP candidate who fought Sonia Gandhi and garnered nearly 1.75 lakh votes, despite all odds? Smriti had unlimited resources at her disposal – money, national media, with numerous top BJP leaders, including Modi campaigning for her. Several bigwigs of BJP, including BJP CMs camped in Amethi for days on end. Modi himself went and pleaded for her as his “chhoti behan”.
By contrast, Ajay Aggrawal was given a ticket last minute and deprived of even monetary support while money flowed like water for Smriti’s campaign. Not a single BJP leader campaigned for Agrawal. Modi had promised he would hold at least one meeting in Sonia’s constituency but did not keep that promise nor sent other leaders to lend support to Aggrawal. No one in media paid the slightest attention to Aggrawal. Yet he secured 1.75 lakh votes in a constituency where BJP vote tally used to be around 25,000 or less. Did anyone in BJP even acknowledge the fight he put up, leave alone reward him? Not surprisingly, he is a very demoralized man today.
Q. Where else has the Modi government let you down?
A. It’s not a case of this Government letting Madhu Kishwar down. I don’t count for much and Modi doesn’t owe me anything. But the BJP government is letting the people of India down by their reneging on some key promises and their frequent U Turns. The black money case is another blow. Modi had made the return of India’s looted wealth a core issue of his election campaign. Arun Jaitley has deceived the public by pretending he’s doing something. But what he is doing is a joke- like releasing three insignificant names out of 700 while studiously protecting the real culprits—many of who are hios close friends. This is forcing people to believe that this Government is trying to shield the looters. Remember, Jaitley played similar tricks in the Bofors case during the Vajpayee regime.
Similarly, this government is also going out of its way to protect NDTV and Chidambram in the Rs 5500 crore hawala scam. t has not even reinstated the Income Tax Commissioner who exposed the fraud. It reflects very badly on Modi. Likewise, there is very little sign of the governance reform agenda promised by Modi being put into action. How I really want this government to succeed.
Q. There are rumors that Smriti Irani may be appointed as Delhi CM if BJP comes to power?
A. Anything to rid her from the HRD Ministry. Make her the Deputy PM, if you will but get her out of education. Of course I wouldn’t trust her with any ministry, I don’t think Delhi chief minister is such a lightweight job; it’s a difficult state to run. All this tells me that nepotism of a very venal variety is at play. For, even if you have favorites, you must at least have talented favorites. That’s what we expect of Modi, to nurture talent. Modi shouldn’t be doing things that even shock his party.
Q. You’ve listed her lies about her education qualifications in her affidavit. You’ve said she’s lied about her assets. There is also talk of her growing assets since she came to the Rajya Sabha–the fibre glass boats and farm lands she owns. Are you planning to take legal recourse?
A. Unfortunately, the media is not sophisticated enough to see the merits of the case, they would make it a personal issue between her and me. That becomes very ugly. When I tweeted against Smriti’s appointment in May, I had to face very low level, crass and obscene attacks in the social media. I don’t think serious politicians gather such a large army of crass followers as does Smriti. She had her trolls making the most obscene insinuations against me.
However, why me? Why isn’t anyone else’s blood boiling at her lies on oath? Why is the Congress not filing a case against Irani on her false affidavits? Is it because it would expose Sonia Gandhi’s lies in her affidavit? Do you know the offence she has committed would invite a six month imprisonment and her election can be nullified? I was very forthright, I put my head on the chopping block, I went on national television and spoke my mind openly.
However, getting a credible lawyer to fight such a case is very difficult. You need some top notch, heavy weight lawyer for this along with unlimited resources. These petitions can go on forever. Get me a heavyweight lawyer to back me without charging a bomb and I shall take up the case. Smriti’s lies deserve to be challenged. However, I don’t want to engage a lawyer who has a pathological hatred for Modi, I don’t want to end up in the camp of Modi baiters. I’m not against Modi, In fact, I want him to live up to his promises in letter and spirit because India can’t afford another disappointing PM and another failed regime.
Q. Where do you stand today vis a vis Modi?
A. I would say I am where Arun Shourie is today, his criticisms are valid. But unlike Shourie, I am not in the party, nor am I in the power game.
I’m exactly where I was when I supported Modi. At that time too I told truth to power and exposed the lies being peddled by the Congress and its allies in demonizing Modi and the BJP.
Similarly, I have made sure that I retain the freedom to speak my mind fearlessly by maintaining a healthy distance from this government. I have never visited BJP office nor do I go cultivating this or that leader. I will gladly applaud and celebrate good policies and programs of Modi Government. But I will not hesitate to criticize when they go wrong or act in a malafide manner.
I want to be in the space of a creative, constructive opposition so that I am among those who give timely warning signals against misuse of power.