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‘I didn’t seek controversy, it was inflicted upon me’

You have had a contentious political past, and now you are back in the HRD ministry. What have been the lessons you have learnt??

Oh Yes! I didn’t sort-of seek controversy; it was, to some degree, inflicted upon me. To this day, I can say with some kind of pride that none of these so-called ‘controversies’ would have been controversies in any other democracy. I just feel that in the English speaking world, everyone knows what ‘cattle-class’ means; or, that in the diplomatic world everyone knows what ‘interlocutor’ means etc. Yet, each of these instances was used to beat me on the head, to have headlines sand breaking news. So when I was finally broken at that time, I thought the breaking news should stop and it has stopped. I have been, therefore, much more circumspect. You don’t see me being quite so readily obliging with a sound-byte. I am hardly ever on television and when I am I only agree to do separate one-on-one conversations. I don’t get into arguments where things can be distorted. I don’t see myself participating in this voyeuristic entertainment that too much of talk-show television has now become. To me I thought I was contributing to the national discourse if that was not appreciated in our mainstream media space then I am quite happy to beat a retreat and concentrate on my work. I am content with my meetings, visiting people and schools and universities and getting the business of HRD ministry done, that’s my job here. Frankly that is the lesson I have leant from distasteful experiences from my agnipariksha in my first year.


Even after all this, you haven’t stopped tweeting?


No, I don’t see why? Twitter is only a vehicle. Of course, I try and avoid giving opportunities for people to distort maliciously and my sense of humour is firmly on a reign and leash. Now I always ask myself whether anything that I am planning to say has the potential to be misinterpreted because after all a Shakespeare taught us 400 years ago, the success of a jest lies not in the tongue of a teller, but in the ear of the hearer.


How has your stint in the HRD ministry been?

It has been an extremely interesting learning experience because this is a ministry, which in my view, is grappling with the single most important problem faced by our country, and it’s not just a problem, it is also a major opportunity. If you look at our country then we are a young one, we have basically 560 million people under the age of twenty-five. If you look at the crucial age of education – 10-19 years – we have 225 million. So these are the young people who will tomorrow constitute the dynamic youthful, productive, working-age population, when rest of the world, including China, is ageing. But they will only be productive and bring us this demographic dividend if we can educate them right. When I say education, I also include those who can’t or don’t have the talent and aptitude to go into college for their vocational and educational training. Basic education is very important and then comes the aptitude to learn a trait and skill. Frankly with 1.2 billion people, it is a disgrace we have a shortage of plumbers, electricians, auto-mechanics, welders, or masons, or places where they can get a proper training. Sadly, in our country we have a culture that if you want to be a cobbler, or a carpenter, then you must have a father, or somebody else, who is one and is going to teach you. The profession or the skill is transferred down the gene pool. That’s why in our country sons of Bollywood stars are Bollywood stars, sons of politicians are politicians, and so the sons of cobblers are cobblers. We need to break free from this as the son of a cobbler could be prepared to be a PhD in nuclear physics and the son of a PhD in nuclear physics might be better off as a plumber. We have the prime minister’s skill advisor S Ramadorai and in partnership with his office, we have now introduced a pilot project wherein we are offering 360 hours of vocational training opportunity in the high school of three states. If that works well we want to introduce that nationwide. We want to bring this at the high school level as once a kid has dropped out then you are not going to be able to capture him. This is the central issue and I want to say that if we fail and don’t get this right then the alternative stares us very darkly in the face. That is what we have seen in 165 of out country’s districts, where young, misguided, frustrated, young people have taken up the gun and become Maoists. For us, if you don’t want that, then you need to get this part right. That’s why education is not just a social, economic and cultural issue; it is also a national security issue, in my mind. This is why it’s very challenging to be in this ministry and there is a lot to learn.


How has it been, especially after Kapil Sibal, who was very passionate about this ministry? Are you all working towards taking his ideas forward? What are the changes that have been introduced??

We felt that there was no point in reinventing the wheel and we knew that he had done some very good and serious work. So we have actually tried to persist with many of the initiatives and pending reforms that were still hanging here when he left. There are 11 bills pending in Parliament on higher education alone. The problem is that Parliament itself has been so dysfunctional with the disruption by the oppositions’ alone and with the complete impossibility of introducing and discussing a legislation that we have found ourselves in a position that quite frankly that none of those 11 bills have even come up for a serious vote. We have had three listed in the last session but because of the disruptions, none of them have been discussed or voted upon. At the way the present session is going, there is a high danger that the same fate will meet us even this time around. My worry is not only the nation’s business is not being done because of the irresponsibility of some people in Parliament, but in addition to that the nation and the people of the nation are essentially going to be deprived of any legislative framework for any meaningful reform or transformation.

Keeping in mind the changes Kapil Sibal introduced during his tenure in the ministry, I would want to know your views on the Common Entrance Test (CET) he introduced for all IITs across the country.

I would like to see that happen. One of the frustrations the students have is this. Let’s take the IIT exam. So you are not sure which one you are going to get in and have seven different engineering institutions to go to and for that you will have to prepare for and then take seven different examinations. It would be nice to have a common engineering examination, the marks of which are recognised by all the engineering colleges in the country. I would like us to move to that culture of having common exams and standardised testing rather than obliging our students to go through hell.

I want to ask you about the protests generated against the four-year-undergraduate-programme (FYUP) in DU by students and teachers.

The university discussed it in its academic council where I am told from about 80 or 100 members, only two people dissented. Everybody else was strongly in favour of the FUYP, hence the university took the decision. I would really want them as a university to explain and defend it. I do think their logic is an interesting one and would certainly be of help to those students, who would like to go to graduate schools in some place like America, where you have a 12 plus 4 system rather than a 10+2+3 system, as we have had in our country. Certainly, we have undergraduates graduating after three years of our university with a degree they can’t use to get into a postgraduate school in America without doing one more year of undergraduate education.

At least having a four-year honours degree would have that kind of an echo. Plus, instead of three, some can drop out with an associate degree after two years. For those, who really don’t think they can hack it and feel they need to continue can carry on.


Do you think this issue has been politicised, especially by certain political parties like the Left, including the teachers and students protesting it?

That could happen. It’s unfortunate that a lot of our education and student politics is highly politicised. You have got the BJP-pro union, the CPI and CPM fronts and even of the Congress. To be honest, I don’t think we as a nation can afford to spend too much time in worrying about politicisation because it is a fact of life.

Whatever the politicisation, it should translate into a meaningful understanding of what’s good for the country. For us, there is a general conviction that in our part to give more autonomy to universities to set their own programmes, syllabi and way of doing things is good for the country.


Have your literary pursuits been affected since you took over this ministry?

Yes, because I actually wrote a book during my two and half year exile from the government. Now that I am back, it is obviously next to impossible. Riot was published in 2001. So, it has been 12 years since I wrote my last novel. I have been kicking around ideas in my head, but novels require not just time, which is scary enough, but a space inside your head to create an alternative universe, populate it with people, character, episodes, dialogues that are as real to you as the people you encounter every day. So as of now, I have a lot of demanding and interesting work in the ministry and also then the constituency Trivandrum. Earlier, during my UN days, I wrote on weekends. Here, there are no weekends, as from Monday to Friday, you work in the ministry and then, over the weekend, you fly to the constituency. Yes, my literary life has been affected, but then I have chosen this profession. One day I will be an ex-minister, I never hope never to be an ex-writer.


Tell us about the compilation of essays India: The Future Now by young MPs that you have worked on recently?

 I have contributed here an introductory essay, which is longer than the other essays. All I need to do is also go through the other 12 essays. These are the 12 MPs who came through with materials. We also approached other MPs who sadly did feel they no had time to do justice to this. However, here we do have some very reflective and far-reaching ideas, which I hope will be taken seriously.
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