With Goa Restaurant Debacle, Has Smriti Irani's Political Luck Run Out?

Despite Irani's charmed political career of quick ascensions and portfolios, her proclivity to court controversy may finally be catching up to her.

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The hugely popular Hindi soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, which ran for 38 seasons in the noughts, introduced a new cinematic vocabulary to Indian television. The dialogues were often accompanied by a series of dramatic close-ups of the characters, with thundering music playing in the background. Reactions were over the top, somewhat like in Kathakali, all wide open eyes and angry expressions, and short of thunder and lightning, there was everything.

A young actress, Smriti Irani, was the main star of the series, playing Tulsi, the aforementioned Bahu, who held the family and the show together. The acting and declamatory skills learnt on the show have stood Irani in good stead, as anyone who has seen as first, a budding politician, and then, as a minister, will endorse. It is these skills that have made her such a favourite with meme-makers, who have been kept very busy in the last few days. 

Last week, stung by accusations that her daughter was running a restaurant in Goa that obtained a fraudulent licence in the name of a dead Goan man, she displayed those histrionics in full cry, all the while side-stepping all the important questions that emerged.

A Goan lawyer had alleged that Silly Souls Cafe and Bar, being run by her daughter Zoish, had been given a licence in the name of Anthony D’Gama who had died a year ago. The Congress followed this with its own accusations, and Irani hit back immediately with a claim that the Congress was after her because she had defeated Rahul Gandhi in the elections and had accused Sonia Gandhi of fraud of Rs 5,000 crore. Her daughter did not run a bar, she said. (Congress leaders have since been asked by a court to pull down their tweets.)

The Delhi high court has now observed that there was no license ever issued in favour of Union minister Smriti Irani or her daughter in connection with a restaurant named Silly Souls Cafe and Bar, located in Goa. 

Trouble is, a television programme had already shown her daughter discussing the restaurant with the show’s host and Irani had soon followed up with a declaration of pride in her child for the favourable review. To disassociate her daughter from the establishment then was disingenuous; Irani was being very economical with the truth. The high moral ground begins to look shaky in these circumstances.

Also read: Firm Owned By Smriti Irani’s Husband Shares GST With Controversial Goa Restaurant

Reports are now surfacing of the close links that Irani’s family has with the location where the restaurant stands.

“These records show that daughter Zoish Irani; son Zohr Irani; husband Zubin Irani and his daughter Shanelle Irani own two companies Ugraya Mercantile Pvt Ltd and Ugraya Agro Farms Pvt Ltd.” an Indian Express report notes.

These firms invested in a third, Eightall Food and Beverages LLP, whose principal place of business is the same as that of Silly Souls Goa Café and Bar. The links between these companies are strong and bound by financial transactions. These are questions that will not be easy to wave away by any amount of rhetoric.

Irani has had a charmed political life. As a newbie, she would have been otherwise relegated to the back benches, kept there to applaud when the leader spoke or boo on demand. But soon after the elections, she swiftly got the high-profile human resource development ministry in 2014, followed by the Ministry of Textiles. Reports had then surfaced of her rude behaviour with officials, with at least one, the respected nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar, threatening to quit the board of IIT directors.

In between, she had lied about her educational qualifications, claiming a degree from Yale and was accused of ‘cancelling’ Christmas, declaring Good Governance Day in its place. Her survival skills were astonishing, which perhaps indicated a kindly fairy godfather in the wings. She has many inside the party who envy her meteoric rise despite all the controversies, but can’t do much to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘younger sister.’

In 2019, she improbably defeated Rahul Gandhi in his bastion Amethi, which gave her crowing rights and a permanent licence to attack the Gandhis, which she has now done with great aplomb. That is fine and dandy as far as it goes, but still does not wash away the grave accusations of misdemeanour that the Congress and media reports are levelling against her.

The restaurant licence may be in one name, and now the family of the deceased is claiming ownership, but the same address has been claimed by a company run by four people, including one Rahul Vohra, who is a director in two other companies with members of the Irani family, including the first wife of Smriti Irani’s husband Zubin Irani and another, with her husband and son as co-directors. Coincidence much?

Meanwhile, Goa’s Town Planning department has sent a notice to the restaurant to look into allegations of illegal landfilling. That this has been done by a department under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state has not gone unnoticed. Nor has the fact that no BJP leader in Goa nor at the Centre come out openly in her defence. 

Her family’s association with a restaurant that serves non-vegetarian food and alcohol may not have gone down with the high-minded sanskari purists, but mainly her gaffe-prone tendency and the many controversies she keeps on wading into may have finally become impossible to ignore. Even her godfathers may not be able to save her now.