|Smriti Irani; (above) Sushma Swaraj after meeting Rajnath Singh at her home in New Delhi on Wednesday. (PTI)
New Delhi, May 14: Smriti Irani may win or lose from Amethi but she appears set to unseat Sushma Swaraj as the BJP’s first lady.
Like Sushma three elections ago, Smriti has won the admiration of the party for her “courage and resolve” in taking on a Gandhi and making a fight of the contest.
Pitted against Rahul Gandhi now, the former television actress had a baptism of fire in 2004 when, as a new recruit in the BJP, she contested against Kapil Sibal from Chandni Chowk in Delhi.
Although a political rookie then, Smriti was a familiar face as the country’s favourite daughter-in-law Tulsi in the soap Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. She lost the election but won sympathy in the party.
Amethi has been a different kettle of fish. The contest has drawn comparisons with Sushma’s foray into uncharted territory in Bellary in 1999 against Sonia Gandhi.
Sushma, who hails from Haryana and had made her imprint as a north Indian politician, was persuaded by the BJP brass as well as the late Janata Dal leader, Ramakrishna Hegde, to take on the Congress president from the mining town in Karnataka.
Sonia trounced Sushma but the BJP flaunted the 56,100-margin as “no mean achievement”.
During the campaign, Sushma learnt to speak Kannada. Years later, when she and Sonia had become friends, the Congress chief once overheard her speaking to an MP in Kannada in Parliament. Sonia went up to Sushma, squeezed her arm and said: “Achcha, meri vajah se seekha. (You learnt the language because of me.)”
Kannada is one of the many languages Sushma speaks, the others being Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali Punjabi and Telugu, apart from Hindi and English.
Smriti, too, is on her way to becoming a polyglot. She speaks Bengali because her mother is from Bengal, learnt Gujarati because she is married to a Parsi and is a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat, and being a Mumbaikar knows Marathi.
Sushma had leveraged her Bellary sally to rise in the BJP hierarchy and succeeded against peers like Sumitra Mahajan, in spite of being a lateral entrant into the party and not through an RSS connection. It helped that she was a talented orator and an articulate spokesperson who held her own against colleagues such as Arun Jaitley, Mahajan and Narendra Modi. It also helped that she was guided by L.K. Advani, arguably the most powerful figure in the BJP at the time.
For years, there was no other woman leader in the party who could challenge Sushma. When Smriti joined the BJP and was coaxed by mentor Pramod Mahajan to fight against Sibal, no one would have thought she could become Sushma’s rival.
After Pramod Mahajan, Smriti found a mentor in Modi, whom she had lashed out against after the 2002 riots. Spotting talent in her, he made her a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat without allowing past issues to cloud his judgement.
Amethi was a blind date. When she reached the town, the only accommodation she could find for herself and her women associates from the BJP was a couple of rooms atop a dhaba.
A local BJP worker gave her a room in his home for a few days before she found a house to rent. Her presence in the constituency, preceded by a degree of celebrity quotient and Modi’s popularity, galvanised a dormant Amethi BJP unit into action.
If Smriti wins the election and the BJP forms a government at the Centre, a ministry would be hers for the asking, except the top four, sources said. Even if she loses, Modi could “reward” her with a cabinet berth for her “boldness”.
There is speculation over whether Sushma, the leader of the Opposition in the outgoing Lok Sabha, will find a place in a government headed by Modi whose rise she hasn’t been able to stomach.