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I don’t certify your patriotism. You don’t certify mine: Smriti Irani

Author: Rohini Singh
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: May 25, 2016
URL:   http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/i-dont-certify-your-patriotism-you-dont-certify-mine-smriti-irani/articleshow/52425127.cms?from=mdr

Over the course of a long and exhaustive interaction with ET on politics, policy and personal experience as a high-profile cabinet member, HRD minister Smriti Irani tells Rohini Singh that PM Narendra Modi's hard questions leave one with no option but to work diligently and deliver results. Counting good relations with states as a big achievement, she says there was too much of acrimony and bad blood, but mercifully that's not been the hallmark of this government. She advises Congress that it will be better off by not playing the victim card always. Excerpts:

Q.: How do you rate two years of your government?
A.: When I look at the governance challenges that we inherited from the UPA, we met many such challenges in coordination between ministries. Also, there was a consolidation of effort within our ecosystems. In my own ministry there was a gap between school education and higher education in terms of even communication with regard to what efforts were to be undertaken. We chased down deliverables to the last point and studied impacts and then kind of facilitated the way forward not only for the Centre but also states. Cohesive strategy augured well because on any policy issue the Centre and states in the education sector are working together, which was not the case in the previous government. There was too much acrimony and bad blood, and that mercifully has not been the hallmark of this government, especially in the education sector. I can say very proudly we ventured into areas which earlier were not looked at because they were not, from a media point of view, very glamorous initiatives or interventions...one of the biggest challenges in education was that there were too many gaps and hence connecting the dots was needed in the sector. That is what we have managed to do in two years.

Q.: What are your biggest achievements as HRD minister?
A.: One of the things we took up and implemented is higher education quality improvement. This happens only when you do two things - one is accreditation, the other is ranking. We said that in terms of accreditation you have the NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council), which is an agency under the UGC. We said we have an absolutely transparent system where we videograph an entire establishment, and check the academic background and credentials of each teacher.

We check whether your programmes are accredited. On the basis of that we give you the money. We said now if you'd like the money from the Centre to come to you and you genuinely want to expand on quality education do the NAAC of your institution. A lot of states suddenly woke up to that fact and worked with us to get that accreditation done.

Q.: How do you view the reports that Nehru is being removed from textbooks in Rajasthan?
A.: I think that one needs to understand education is in the concurrent list and every state has the constitutional right to evolve a curriculum as per its own constitutional needs. I'm of the opinion that irrespective of which party is in government in the state, it would not reflect well on the central government to say that we will tell the states what to do because in terms of constitutional propriety they have the right to formulate a curriculum suiting their own needs.

Q.: But do you think education should be politicised?
A.: I think that somebody who has been at the receiving end of a lot of politics, I'm of the opinion that the Congress will try to hang on to every thread that it can to be in news and to be visible and to matter. But the kind of response they are getting at the polling booths possibly is an indication that they need to go beyond this whole strategy of playing victim or raising a big ruckus without actually addressing the genuine issues that people would like to be voiced in Indian polity.

So it is for them to decide, but I think politics is more about just serving one family.

Q.: What would you say about your comments on Rahul Gandhi?? Separately, what is the BJP's best strategy ahead of Uttar Pradesh polls?
A.: The strategy of UP is best left to my party president... in terms of my observation about Rahul, I complete five years as Rajya Sabha member in August and if you look at the use of my own MPLADS (Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) funds, it's almost 100 % use every year...How many years has he been a parliamentarian?

Twelve years now. How he has used his MPLADS fund should tell you whether he's an effective parliamentarian.

Q.: Is he the biggest source of political comfort for BJP?
A.: I think you give him too much importance in terms of whether he's a comfort or discomfort.

Q.: Do you consider him your best campaigner?
A.: In terms of a political slight, that makes for a great headline. But as an individual citizen I'd say, as a politician I'd say, he has in his 12 years of being a parliamentarian, let alone his legacy, individually not made a mark administratively or politically . It says a lot about him as an individual. I don't believe in slighting him per se because I fought him in Amethi...His 12 years as an Amethi parliamentarian have been of no value to his own constituents. I remember two years ago when I fought from Amethi there was a gaon (village) called Pipri and the people of Pipri said we will not vote, not for BJP, not for Congress, because we've not got anything.

Our whole land gets swept away in the waters and nobody does anything and I remember at that time I told them don't worry, I'll come back and ensure that whatever your challenge is I find some solution for it ... I've worked consistently for one year to ensure that they get some kind of embankment so that their lands are not washed away. This is not a village that voted for me, but it's interesting to note that a village in Rahul Gandhi's constituency said we don't believe in democracy because our MP has not done anything.

Q.: Is there some truth in talk about BJP projecting you as chief ministerial candidate in UP?
A.: I love the way you push me to a headline. I shall not oblige.

Q.: Why is it that you have been attacked so much by the Opposition?
A.: I make for good headlines. And courtesy me, they get a few lines as well.

Q.: Does that make you angry? We saw an intervention in Parliament...
A.: It doesn't make me angry because I guess I'm not a person who lives with a facade... Even when I was part of the media industry I was advised that you're a star and you need to have a certain air about yourself and I never did. As a professional I have always said that it is on the merit of my work that I will go ahead or I shall perish. It is only when you're not exceptionally confident of your capacity to deliver that you would need other crutches like having an aura or having a facade. So for me my job entails an attack from the Opposition . I can't behave as though, 'Oh gosh! Why me?' ...Earlier, insults were not only derogatory from a gender perspective, there was also an air of intellectual superiority about those who wanted to denigrate me. Slowly and steadily, they are confused as to how to genuinely insult me.

Q.: What do you think of the way the nationalism debate has evolved?
A.: I have no qualms about very emphatically declaring that I love my country. There is nothing melodramatic about it. There is nothing regressive about it. There is nothing saffron about it. I think that any Indian, irrespective of political ideology and who they vote for, should be rightfully either outraged or concerned as to since when has in some way dissing your own country become the secular thing to do.

Q.: Is it right to force people to say 'Bharat Mata ki Jai'?
A.: I have said very directly in my speech that I don't certify your patriotism. You don't certify mine. It's as simple as that. So why, like I said, would you call me 'Aunty-national'? Just because I would say, Bharat Mata ki Jai ...It made for a fun headline for some editor who possibly thought that it's a great headline. But could you imagine being a caricature because you said Bharat Mata ki Jai.

Q.: How did you go about your much talked about speech in Parliament?
A.: That day, very honestly, I just spoke. I had no preparation.

I had all of this with me for a very, very long time. But because of my sensitivity of office, I never showed these papers to anyone.

I was quiet. And when I sat there, and this whole discussion was happening from the Opposition point of view, I saw Mr Gandhi smirk. He had that gotcha kind of a look on his face. Something in me snapped and I felt that there's a boy who's died. How could you possibly think that, 'Oh wow, I've got one up on Smriti Irani'...I expect more of my colleagues in Parliament, irrespective of their political background, in terms of sensitivity towards an issue or towards the country. I cannot imagine anybody in their right minds go and pat a boy in the back and say, 'Haan Bharat ki barbadi tak jung ladenge, chalo chalo karte hain (Let's fight till India is destroyed)'. There are certain things you put above your political interest. You put you nation first.

Q.: Tell us something about the Prime Minister that provides a real insight into his character...
A.: The PM looks into the details of your work. He will have some very hard questions for you and he would know when you are doing khanapurti (bare minimum).

He will keep you on your toes and he will know every subject that he is questioning you on. So he's one person who would ask you for the details of every particular programme that you've put forth. He would have studied it himself before he has a meeting with you and he will ask you those fundamental things as long as he's convinced that the foundational aspect of that programme is extremely strong and brings about a qualitative change. Then he will help you roll it out completely.

Secondly, he hates too much of government intervention... he speaks about minimum government and maximum governance. He hates it when the private sector is tied down by the regulator and completely harassed and there's a lot of red tape. So he's consistently of the opinion that you allow people to flourish on their own. If they break the law, then you take action. But don't use them as puppets where a string can be pulled whenever it's politically convenient.

Thirdly, he's totally in support of leveraging technology to bring about transparency and having more and more people speak their mind. The end person needs to have some kind of say or even if you roll it out and they have something to say, that this aspect of a particular programme is not working, he says listen to it, no matter how solitary a citizen it is in one end of the country. But if they are making sense in terms of their criticism, if there is constructive criticism, listen to it and you can course correct it. He's not somebody who says make a big announcement and then that's it.

Q.: What are your views on trolling?
A.: If you can't take the heat, don't be on that street...I get abused every day. And I don't cry on anybody's shoulder. I don't play the victim card. I get abused, threatened not only on Twitter but off it also. My kids get dragged in. It happens to me every day.

Q.: Is it true as some people allege that a lot of these trolls are right-wing bhakts?
A.: I think that the Congress and its affiliates and the journalists who support them have made trolling quite a sophisticated measure of intervention.

Many neutral observers have lamented that India doesn't have quality centre-right intellectuals...
I'll give you one example. A scholar met me, a Fulbright scholar. The only thing he lamented about was he was not even taken as an associate professor at a central university because he was a known right-wing academician.

Q.: Do you think it is possible to nurture intellectually high-powered right of centre academics?
A.: I think everything is possible if you give everyone a level playing field.

Q.: Is that happening?
A.: Let's presume that I want to talk about Deendayal Upadhyaya. Before I even utter a word about him, your clan goes, 'Arre, saffron!' If academics is about hearing both sides of the story and being reasonable, then why is it that the right side of the story is to be demonised and not heard?

Q.: Sharad Pawar and other leaders have told ET that they have never seen such a bitter relationship between the government and the Opposition. What is your view on that?
A.: I think that the government has substantially reached out to the Opposition, especially on issues like the GST bill. Just the fact that Opposition members and even celebrated politicians like even Manmohan Singh are saying that if you have any issue with Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi then forget the GST shows that the arrogance is still not gone that you will hold the country's economic interest hostage and just not let the government function. I think that on every platform when it comes to trying for consensus in terms of decision, at least in my sector I have never seen any political party saying that we were not taken along. So possibly the Congress needs to realise what matters most-- the interest of the family or the interest of the country-- and then take a call accordingly.

Q.: Do you think Congress-mukt Bharat is becoming a reality?

A.: Is it not?
 
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