Wrong dichtomy dilutes the debate
The controversy over the educational status of the new human resource development minister Smriti Irani has taken a wrong turn. The questions that are being asked are one-sided and deflect from the core problem, which is the discrepancy in her affidavits submitted before the Election Commission in 2004 and 2014. Given that Irani is debuting as an administrator and has been allocated the sensitive responsibility of managing the HRD ministry, which oversees primary, secondary and tertiary education across the country, pulls the strings holding the myriad institutions, including central and state universities, technical and vocational institutes, as well as the ‘temples of excellence’ such as IITs, IIMs and business schools, needless to say it is an enormous role for a first-timer. While if Irani holds ‘adequate’ qualification befitting the role is a fuzzy question, inasmuch as even a doctoral in astrophysics or philosophy doesn’t prepare one for the grueling ground realities of Indian education system, which is leaky, terribly maladministered and phenomenally lacking in addressing the staggering needs of a young and burgeoning young population, nevertheless, it is a perfectly legitimate query whether she has, or would develop in the course of time, the necessary familiarity with and experience of an academic setup. The question is really not whether a college dropout can handle administrations of hundreds and thousands of shamefully ill-quipped and ill-staffed schools and colleges of India, but rather whether she has the larger vision and a progressive policy in mind upon which she would like to work on. It’s not textbook knowledge that is in effect the bone of contention here, but the realisation that youth is one of the most precious natural resource that a nation has and education beyond literacy is the cornerstone of nation-building.
Given that degrees and portfolios in Union Cabinet have been anyway incongruous [Arun Jaitley’s LLB and Najma Heptulla’s PhD in cardiac anatomy can be furnished as examples here], it is clear that the minister in charge of the berth isn’t expected to be an expert, but rather a decision-maker with a clear head. So the barrage on either side of the misconstrued debate gets it wrong when it furnishes a false binary of ‘elite educationists’ versus ‘grassroots aspirations’. In fact, the dichotomy that the controversy rests on includes that of a general proficiency and a narrow specialisation as well as that of a democratic mandate pitched against an obsession with technocratic chief executives leading the rat packs. Hence, Ajay Maken’s snide remark that Irani isn’t even a graduate reeks of exactly the kind of ‘elite trash’ that real educators and academics fighting the dilution and ‘spreading thin’ of the undergraduate and postgraduate courses in various central universities, particularly the University of Delhi, have expressed deep concern against. Yet, if the worldwide assault on liberal arts and humanities is an indicator, killing off the robustness of public discourse and filling in school-level textbooks with wrong, ideologically-coloured tosh are definitely not achieved by a mere lack of university degree. So, whether or not Irani has lied under oath should be the crux of the debate.