The 15th prime minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi, has started his tenure with an interesting choice of personnel for a key ministry, Human Resource and Development. He has chosen a young and dynamic politician with a less than stellar academic track record for heading it. More specifically, the HRD minister Ms. Irani has not received college education herself while education will be a key component of the ministry in question. The choice should have generated a healthy debate in public domain focusing on what does the extent domain knowledge of a minister facilitate the functioning of any given ministry in general and HRD ministry in particular. In a democratic polity, every decision of a PM is open to public scrutiny. In fact in an intellectually vibrant democracy, questions to PM are on real issues such as his choice of cabinets, rather than on vague abstracts like his idea of India. In many other democracies, like US, the secretaries (equivalent of cabinet ministers in Westminster terminology) nominated by the President must be individually confirmed by the Senate.

A Synopsis of Challenges that Confront Indian Education

HRD ministry includes, within its purview, education which ought to constitute a focus area for a country as young as India. I will enumerate some key challenges confronting higher education in India based on my observation of students from a diverse set of countries, including India, pursuing higher education in US. Upper echelons of undergraduate institutions in India remain competitive per international standards though the quality has been declining in the last decade or so. It would be difficult to locate an engineering academic in US who has not heard of the flagship Indian Institute of Technologies. Students from top two tiers of engineering institutes are trained better than average American students pursuing engineering but are somewhat ill-equipped when compared with their Chinese counterparts. The difference in training between Indian and Chinese students who join top academic institutes in US is not usually insurmountable – by and large Indian students distinguish themselves in masters, doctoral studies and subsequent professional careers in academia and industry. There is however a significant difference between the top and mid-level institutions in terms of quality of training although it is the latter that handles the bulk of students.

India has however completely faltered in research. There are only a handful of Universities that have a vibrant research environment. The formidable Indian Institutes of technology are largely teaching schools now. A small fraction of students graduating from IITs pursue careers in engineering let alone higher education in the same. The faculty at almost every IIT is heavily understaffed primarily because the number of engineering doctorates India generates is grossly inadequate for its academic needs. Most newly founded IITs lack basic education infrastructure including campus space. It is therefore not surprising that India also remains under-represented in premier science and engineering journals and conferences.

It is worthwhile to note that no country has ever become an economic super power without scaling commensurate heights in science and technology. The progress in science and technology is in fact an essential prerequisite not merely for registering India’s signature in a major field of intellect but also for the more prosaic requirement for reducing our reliance on foreign technologies in key sectors such as defense, energy, modern transportation, etc.

The story of our developed neighbor, China, serves as a stark contrast.  China had negligible presence in science until well after the cultural revolution –  communist regime employed scientists and academics as farm labors. But in less than three decades it has emerged as a major power giving US a run for its money. The inspirational success story has been a consequence of visionary policy initiatives sorely lacking in Indian context. Suggesting policy solutions in Indian context is beyond the scope of this piece, except that the spectacular turnaround in China starting from barebones tells us that India can perhaps craft its own story in a decade given that it has a functional educational architecture to start from.

The challenges in higher education are not limited to science and technology. Humanities education in India suffers from a profound leftist intellectual bias. Specifically, education and research in history and economics have only represented socialist schools of thought. Premier institutions  offer very few if any Sanskrit courses which defies all pedagogical logic since Sanskrit is the root of very many Indian languages and is closely related to other classical languages such as Latin or ancient Persian. It’s an irony that Ivy League schools in US offer several courses in Sanskrit.

The bias has also had an unhealthy influence on the nature of faculty hire in tax funded Universities which has in turn influenced its curricular and research agenda. Even worse the curricular bias is not limited to higher education. School texts provide lopsided presentations of Indian history. They barely dwell on the revolutionary chapters of our freedom struggle and filter out the contributions of intellectual stalwarts like Dr. Shyamaprasad Mookerjee or Veer Savarkar owing to the political preferences of long standing ruling dispensations. Restoration of a minimal balance in humanities ecosystem can only broaden and enrich the intellectual horizon of emerging scholars.

Last, but perhaps the foremost, higher education cannot grow without commensurate progress in its primary and secondary counterparts. An alarming fraction of schools is devoid of basic education amenities such as science laboratories and regular necessities such as toilets. The number and quality of teachers remain far from satisfactory. The challenges in primary education have in fact been compounded by a recent legislation, that of right to education act whose wanton enforcement has lead to closure of several schools without ensuring replacements that offer the quality of education that RTE mandates.

The Role of Domain Knowledge in HRD Ministry

The challenges that confront Indian education can be surmounted through formulation of visionary policy initiatives and their focused and decisive execution. No one would disagree that a HRD minister needs to be a good administrator for accomplishing the above mission. There is however disagreement on the extent of domain knowledge a HRD minister needs. I am positing that domain knowledge will enable a minister to better and faster grasp the associated challenges, ask the right questions of experts who she would consult and evaluate the inputs that she receives. Domain knowledge also adds to the credibility of a minister in question. Politics is more about perception than truth and the acceptability of a narrative depends on the content as also the credibility of the proponent.  An eminent educationist will therefore be better equipped to convince her constituents on the need for necessary legislative or executive reforms even when they appear controversial. As a specific example, given the high regard for his scholarship, right leaning Arun Shourie’s views has never been ridiculed even in a left liberal eco system known for filtering out all those that are inconsistent with its ethos

Domain knowledge in context of education can be acquired through academic exposure or association with academic movements. It is entirely possible that an illiterate would lead an education movement given her understanding of the benefits of education she missed out on, which in turn would eminently provide her the domain knowledge that academic training can not by itself. For example, Mrs. Maneka Gandhi has had long associations with environmentalist and animal rights causes, and as such no one would have questioned her right to head an environment ministry should she have been selected for the same (she has also not had college education).

In a different context, the current head of MIT media labs, Joi Ito, is a College drop out. Mr. Ito has however founded and lead several successful technology companies which provided the domain knowledge that he needed to manage an academic lab where technology constitutes a predominant component. It is in this context that Ms. Irani’s appointment as HRD minister can be legitimately questioned. She has not been associated with any academic activity thus far in addition to not having received College education. The extent of import she attaches to formal education is unclear given her misrepresentation of her educational qualification under oath.

I would posit that a minister who is better acquainted with the domain is more likely to succeed in her ministry than who is not – the question therefore is of probability and not of certainty. It is however based on this likelihood that in most countries the union ministers who  handle education are selected from amongst those who have strong academic credentials. Notwithstanding the fact that many of India’s erstwhile education ministers with stellar academic records failed in administration, PM Modi had himself chosen ones with domain knowledge  during his chief ministerial sojourn in Gujarat. For the most part, his education minister in Gujarat was Mrs. Anandiben Patel, who had a masters in science and was also a gold medalist in masters in education. This former school principal lead several successful flagship programs on education in his government. It is for his domain knowledge that medical doctor Harsh Vardhan’s choice as health minister in Delhi state in 94 inspired confidence. He went on to eradicate polio in India and is currently the health minister in Union cabinet.

It is not always possible to find good administrators with domain knowledge for every field. For instance very few MPs have succeeded in state or national level championships in sports and therefore sports ministries are normally manned by those who have had limited exposure to the field (BJP parliamentary team counts among its ranks an Olympic silver medalist Rajyavardhan Rathore this election). The constraint on supply did not apply for this specific HRD appointment as BJP ecosystem and even its parliamentary team has several individuals with extensive domain knowledge.

Lastly, questioning an appointment is not prejudging the performance of the minister in question. There have been instances where ministers have performed extraordinarily well despite their limited prior knowledge of the domains under their care. Chief minister Kamaraj, a school dropout himself, is still remembered for bringing in free school education to millions of rural poor in Tamil Nadu. We naturally hope that despite the odds Ms. Irani will invalidate the concerns on her appointment by ushering in the reforms and executions that Indian education desperately needs

A case for an intellectually honest right leaning eco-system

While the HRD appointment has been questionable, its defense offered by the BJP leaning intellectual eco-system as also the spokespersons has been appalling at best. In a nutshell, the questions raised on Ms. Irani’s education qualifications has been castigated as motivated, elitist, classist and sexist. Her defense has gone to the extent of questioning the import of formal education and even the correlation between knowledge and performance in jobs, citing eminent exceptions who have excelled in their field without availing of formal education and those that failed in public life despite stellar academic accomplishment.  Kneejerk, ill-deliberated defense from spokespersons may well be the result of their brief, but an intellectual eco-system does not do itself justice by descending to the level of extended spokespersons of a political party.

The fate of the left wing ecosystem should serve as an early warning. By defending every act of the UPA government, resorting to unsound arguments as necessary, it compromised its credibility and could not restore the perception of the UPA government as a result. In contrast, the fledgling right wing ecosystem won the intellectual battle, despite limited access to mainstream media, because of  its intellectual integrity. Therefore, by exposing the fallacies of the arguments deployed in defense of the HRD appointment, I would make a case for a right wing ecosystem that would engage on intellectual issues with consistency regardless of the stance of the government of the day. It is only then that any political defense put forth by such an eco system will be persuasive through its power of conviction.

The motives that have been ascribed to those raising questions on Ms. Irani range from envy, owing to her mercurial rise in BJP politics, her youth (she is a cabinet minister at the age of 38), and her good looks. It has also been suggested that “the Irani controversy is all about reinforcing the image of Mr. Modi as a philistine.’’ (Swapan Dasgupta, Asian Age, May 30, 2014). Even granting all of these ulterior base instincts, can they obliterate the questions posed? The recent example of Subramanium Swamy suggests that they don’t. Despite his apparent personal animosity against the previous finance minister Mr. Chidambaram and the Gandhi family, the irregularities that he pointed out in their public conduct withstood the scrutiny of public perception. Usually, ascription of motives is redundant if the core arguments that any defense rests on suffice. It is also reminiscent of the days India just left behind where valid questions on the performance of UPA govt would be discredited with the boiler plate motive of communalism and fascism – worse, they failed, miserably.

Putting aside motives, then, we move to the new substitute for communalism, those of elitism and classism.   It is confounding that questions on educational qualifications can be dismissed as elitist or classist since formal education is not inherited, it’s acquired through talent and industry – unless of course we believe that our constitution suffers from the very same flaws. Indian constitution mandates that citizens disclose their educational qualifications before they contest for public office presumably because the constituents ought to consider the same while evaluating their suitability.

Rightfully so, as there is indeed a correlation between knowledge and performance and between formal education and general ability, regardless of the fact that one does not imply the other particularly in a country where economic disadvantage contributes to high school dropout ratio. Chief Minister Kamaraj who is celebrated for his contribution to education in Tamil Nadu dropped out of school to support his family. If Ms. Irani had not continued her education owing to factors that were beyond her control, that information would have constituted a pertinent addition to public debate on this issue.

There have certainly been individuals who have excelled in their chosen professions or vocations without any formal education. Rabindranath Thakur could get a Nobel in literature without receiving any formal education. Dhirubhai Ambani founded one of the largest business empires in the world, starting from scratch, without a degree in business administration. And, college drop out Bill Gate founded a tech empire too. Before devaluing the import of formal education citing these geniuses, it’s worthwhile to note that these very individuals attached great importance to formal education perhaps in recognition of the fact that they were exceptions, not norms.

Rabindranath Thakur used the funds he received as part of his Nobel award to expand a school he ran to a University which counts eminent chief ministers, academics, nobel laureates, film makers, artists and authors among its alum. Dhirubhai Ambani sent his sons to top business schools in the world for earning formal degrees in business administration. The company that Bill Gate founded rarely, if ever, hires college drop outs – it relies on graduates from top schools in the world.

It is ironical that the intellectuals who have been outraged that the HRD appointment has been questioned on an issue as elitist as educational qualification do not eschew this elitist practice in their personal choices. Many of them have been trained in best schools and Universities in the world and educate their next generation in the same. The pattern however does not surprise me as I grew up in a left regime where the ministers chopped off English from primary education in government schools calling the language itself imperialist, but continued to train their offsprings in private “English medium’’ schools.

The political impact of discrediting formal education as elitist, can in principle, have far reaching and devastating implications. It is this narrative that inspired Cultural Revolution during which Chairman Mao sent “parasitic’’ academics to labor camps. And how China regressed into dark ages is, as they say, history! But, thankfully, aspirational India tremendously values formal education, and therefore this philistine narrative is unlikely to fly.

Just as there has been leaders with stellar academic records who have let India down, there have been many more with stellar academic records who have left indelible imprints on our history-Swamy Vivekananda, Netaji Subhash Bose, BabaSaheb Ambedkar, Shyamaprasad Mookerjee, Bidhan Chandra Roy. In the recent past, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Manohar Parikar, Harsh Vardhan have excelled in public life along with in their academic lives. BJP ought to ponder if it wants to wantonly overuse its elitism discourse.

Our epics say that Karna was gifted with a shakti that would render itself ineffective after one use. In politics, Mayawati could not for long effectively de-legitimize questions on her administration as a caste bias against Dalits.  And, the communalism narrative that worked wonders for Congress in 2009 fell flat in 2014 due to mindless abuse in the interim period. In fact, campaigner Modi ridiculed Congress’ diversionary tactics as “I am talking of jobs, they are talking of secularism.’’  The ridicule would be as potent if secularism is substituted by elitism.

In a related digression, BJP’s response has been alarmingly similar to Congress’ on an issue concerning public accountability. It is well-known that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi had misrepresented their academic qualifications in sworn affidavits. Consistent with their limited regard for accountability, they had disregarded all questions related to obvious discrepancies. In an astounding judgment, Supreme Court condoned their wanton falsification under oath as instances of clerical error.

It has recently emerged that the information Ms. Irani provided under oath in 2004 on her academic degrees is inconsistent with that she provided in 2009. Much like the Gandhi family, she has not responded to questions on specifics. The spokespersons and committed supporters of BJP have with alacrity silenced Congress by citing the examples of their presidents and vice-president. In the process, they have succeeded in establishing an immoral equivalence between the two national parties in this limited instance, and every time it does so it encashes one goodwill cheque it possesses – there are just so many any party in governance has. Worse it is this immoral equivalence between national parties that has facilitated the emergence of anarchists  in the form of AAP in the recent past.

Finally, gender equality cannot be accomplished through gender protectionism. Questioning a woman’s professional credentials is not an attack on her gender, just as questioning a Dalit’s or a Muslim’s competence does not constitute attacks on their castes or faiths. The extent to which our public discourse has been vitiated is revealed when a woman of Ms. Sucheta Dalal’s accomplishment correlates questions on Ms. Irani’s professional credentials to her age and the aesthetics of her appearance. If anything, Ms. Irani has been an independent woman and a high achiever at that. Starting from odd jobs in food chains, she has succeeded in professions as diverse as acting and politics. She is amongst a handful of women who have succeeded in the latter without the support of a dynastic crutch. It is because of the goodwill she earned in the process that the nation was outraged when she was subjected to real elitist and gender attacks, respectively by Priyanka Vadra (in the now famous two words, “Smriti, who?’’) and Sanjay Nirupam (who denigrated her as a “naachnewali’’ because of her prior professional choice).  We will be doing grave injustice to all independent women like if we bring in gender attack when there is none. They deserve better.


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Saswati Sarkar

Saswati Sarkar

Professor of Electrical Engg at Univ. of Pennsylvania. She has strong political persuasions. Views expressed here are entirely in personal capacity.

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