Women in Leadership: Smriti Irani in Conversation with Sadhguru
Smriti Irani is a woman of many facets: current Union Minister of Textiles, former Union Minister of Human Resource Development, Member of Parliament, former model and actress, wife, mother of two, and a fiery speaker. Here is the first part of a spirited exchange between Smriti Irani and Sadhguru during a session with participants of the Isha INSIGHT: The DNA of Success leadership program, which took place from 24 to 27 November 2016 at the Isha Yoga Center.
Sadhguru: It is our privilege that Madam Minister, normally known as just Smriti, who is many things in one – and today the Minister for what has been synonymous with India for thousands of years, which is textiles – is here with us today. When in most parts of the world, people were still walking around half-naked, we were making fine cloth. We have literally clothed the entire known world at one time. For whatever reasons, we fell back a little, and I think putting a dynamic person like Smriti into that area will take things forward in many ways. But she has not come here to speak about textiles.
This being a kind of a leadership summit… I think India as a society is changing more rapidly than any other society on the planet right now. In my perception, what it meant to be a woman and a leader in this country five years ago and what it means today seems to be completely different. What is your experience of being a woman, which is not by choice, and being a leader and being in politics, which is by choice, in India today? How do these things fall together? What are the advantages, what are the disadvantages that you face?
Minister Smriti Irani: I think if I had a choice in terms of my gender, I would choose to be a woman again. The reason why I say this is because leadership is an inherent skill for women. I would not look at leadership as a status because you are in a particular position – it is actually a part of your everyday life. For me, every woman is a leader, because if she is a mother, she leads her child to school every day; she leads her own economic life…
Sadhguru: Before she becomes a mother, she leads the husband.
Minister Smriti Irani: Well, between me and my husband, Guruji, we have a pact. He says, “I’m the boss of the house and I have your permission to say so,” and that is how we present ourselves to the world. But I think that when I look at my background, my journey, and when you talk about India today… How do we define India today? We do map our economic activities, but is that all that India is about? When I was invited for this interaction with you today, I told Guruji that when you go to a Guru, you normally don’t give bhashan (speech).
You go to a Guru to hear the Guru’s version of life, the Guru’s path as to how you can gain enlightenment. So let me say first, Guruji, that I’m extremely uncomfortable, and the reason for my discomfort is for so long, it has been ingrained in us that you never sit at an equal position to a Guru – you always sit below the Guru.
Sadhguru: That is only in attitude, not in altitude.
Minister Smriti Irani: Attitude or altitude, both. Forgive me – I’m not as learned as you are. When I touched your feet, I didn’t bodily touch your feet – I touched the ground on which you walked. Some say that this is an old-school way of looking at things, but I think that is what has kept me in good stead. When I talk about Samskriti (Hindi word loosely translating to culture or tradition) today, many people are extremely scared of embracing it. The word “samskriti” then becomes a phrase or a temperament that causes friction or some kind of non-conformist behavior with a lot of people. When you asked me, “What does it feel like to be a woman and to be in politics,” I think for too long, we have had this image of a woman who’ll always be docile and who’ll always say, “Yes.”
Sadhguru: No, we have Kali.
Minister Smriti Irani: But that is a goddess. As mortal beings, we have seen women as an image of sacrifice, as an image of someone who conforms. There is this idea that a good woman is one who balances everything and does not allow friction to happen. And hence, in the modern context – I’m forty years old today – if you ask what it means to be a woman, then I would say if you’re a woman with a mind of your own, it means you do stick out like a sore thumb. I think I see a lot of smiles amongst the women here. I’m sure everyone has a similar story to tell. But when you talk about leadership…
Sadhguru: I would not like to surround myself with any woman who does not have a mind of her own.
Minister Smriti Irani: Yes! But then you’re not just a man, you’re also Sadhguru. I believe that leadership inherently develops that feminine sense of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of those in your team, and then either strengthening them on their journey, or if someone does not work as a team, be gentle enough to tell them how we as a team and a people benefit if we all work together.
What should be highlighted about women in politics today is that yes, there are issues on which we all come together but then, as individuals, there are some issues that drive us away from the crowd and still help us maintain our individuality. I think I can say that not only for women but also men. And I’m very proud of the men in my country who were open enough to choose a woman as a Prime Minister.
Sadhguru: Because in this country, from the day we got our independence, we did not even think whether a woman should have franchise or not.
Minister Smriti Irani: Yes.
Sadhguru: But at the same time, politics can be a little bit of a rough and tumble. You need to handle the crowds. I am saying this because I am constantly in crowds too. There is this physical discomfort of being in large, rough crowds. How do you convert that into an advantage as a leader rather than it becoming a disadvantage in terms of gender?
Minister Smriti Irani: I have seen crowds as a politician and as an actor. One of my sweetest memories is I was walking through a crowd of fifty thousand people in Chhattisgarh, not as a politician but as an actor. Normally, people say that female actors don’t have such kind crowds around. But I think it was an expression of parichay (recognition) and samskriti, that when I walked, those fifty thousand people parted and allowed me a very respectful exit.
Similarly, in politics, when you ask, “How do you make it an advantage for yourself” – people now believe in an idea of leadership which delivers for them. They want to connect with someone who possibly is either like them or a bit better than them. And I think the advance of technology in terms of communication can be an advantage or a disadvantage to a politician, because your life becomes open for inspection every day. I think that it will become more and more difficult for politicians to hide their true self from people – because, as they say in Hindi, “Yeh public hai, sab jaanti hai” [“This is public, they know everything.”].
Editor's Note: A version of this article was originally published in Isha Forest Flower January 2017.