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.
Audience members shouting “shame, shame” jumped over chairs to reach the platform and nearly assaulted the journalist. Irani then got up and rescued him from the crowd’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 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 “Hinduizing” 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 writing a new national education policy, something not done in three decades.
At a meeting with 42 university heads 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.