Live Mint recently published an article by a certain Mr. Aakar Patel. The main target of the article was Narendra Modi. Much of what he wrote in his article was a re-hash of old, worn out themes. However,the crux of the article was that Narendra Modi was not fit to run India because “Modi has never been to college (his degree is from a correspondence course). His simple views spring from this lack of knowledge.” Mr. Patel then went on to say that “He’s not well-read, has little idea about the world or its history. It will be embarrassing, if he becomes prime minister, to have him in the same meeting as US President Barack Obama.”
While this article by a lesser-known journalist would have been ignored under normal circumstances, I have taken serious issue with it because it expressed some disturbing, unsaid opinions of a certain section of India’s entrenched elite.
Why does the degree matter?
We know that there are many successful people who do not have a formal degree. These include Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs to name just a few. Even India’s literary giant Rabindranath Tagore got very far in life without a formal degree. Thus it would be naïve to link knowledge with the mere acquisition of a paper degree.
Even if we accept that a degree may be personally important to Mr Patel, he does not seem to object to other people who have led India without formal degrees: Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi went to Oxbridge, but did not complete their degrees.
The effective head of the current government, Mrs Sonia Gandhi does not have a Bachelor’s degree, since she only went to Cambridge for a short language certification course. Yet these people are apparently considered fit to rule (and to meet Mr.Barak Obama). Is there a basis for this skewed view? Or is it a case of an elitist bias, which assumes qualifications based on lineage, looks and posh accents?
Furthermore, Mr. Patel was dismissive of a correspondence degree. In his haste to discredit Mr. Modi, he perhaps did not realize the ramifications of his mean-mindedness. By his open contempt, he has discounted and insulted the tenacity, hard work and aspirations of not only Mr.Modi, but of a young new middle class that is rising across the country.
There millions upon millions of Indians who slog despite overwhelming odds to get a basic education, learn English, and move up in life, and many of them have no choice, but to do a correspondence course. The haloed institutions of the metros are not accessible to them due to financial and social constraints. Yet they persevere to acquire skills and knowledge that will help them get jobs and climb the social ladder. However, people like Mr.Patel have only contempt for such social climbing. This dismissive attitude is not a figment of my imagination since Mr.Patel himself describes them as the “neo-literate middle class.”
However, this group is not a tiny minority anymore. Forty year ago India’s literacy rate was 34 percent and today it is 74 percent. This means that approximately 40 percent of India’s population is “neo literate” as per Mr.Patel’s categorization. If he cares to look around, he will see them everywhere: serving him in the malls, answering his bill queries, and representing his country in the national sports teams.
This “neo-literate middle class” identifies with Mr.Modi, as he symbolizes their dreams. In fact, he is one of them. This group may not be able to quote Shakespeare, but they are savvy enough to understand the elitist contempt that the old guard holds for them.
Through the years, I have heard many versions of Mr. Patel’s opinion, only more beautifully couched in polite rhetoric. As I understand it, here is the real problem: A chai-walla’s son, from a backward caste, with a correspondence degree and “desi” accent has the audacity to dream of breaching the gilded Delhi bastion. THAT is the basic discomfort. This fact hidden through many roundabout arguments, but small repeated slips, which dismiss a man based on his humble background, his accent and his education reveal the true nature of the problem.
The reality is that a section of India is confronted with the idea of having to deal with a determined, plain-speaking, “outsider” who does not care two hoots for the elitist snobberies. This section fears the impending social change and will continue to support a morally bankrupt, visionless polity because it maintains their status quo. But an equally strong and vocal aspirational lobby will continue to push for inclusiveness, whether the Mr. Patels of the world like it or not.