Smriti Irani as HRD minister: Why not?


From the track record of recent HRD ministers, it is clear that academic qualifications have nothing to do with performance

Article by Sandipan Deb

Smriti Irani, a college dropout, is India’s new human resource development minister. The appointment has got a sneering tweet from former United Progressive Alliance (UPA) minister Ajay Maken. Joining him in this scorn attack is activist-journalist Madhu Kishwar, a publicly fervent admirer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has tweeted many times on this issue.

Some samples, in chronological order: “Smriti Irani merely class 12 pass. Went to bcm fashion model on to tv serial bahu. Is this qualification enf 4 India’s education minister?” “Smriti Irani’s appointment not the only one disappointing or controversial but its like an avoidable grahna (eclipse) on a bright and shining rising sun!” “HRD needs a head who can steer dextrously between Left and Right extremists in academia to define sensible course unfettered by partisan agendas.”

The first allegation is that having been a fashion model and acted in anEkta Kapoor serial, Irani is a bimbo. This is a very strange judgemental statement coming from a feminist like Kishwar. Besides, as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson for several years, Irani has given ample evidence that she is intelligent, quick-witted and always comes well-prepared to a debate, whatever the topic. And by the way, Anand Gandhi, the director ofShip of Theseus, which won the National Award for Best Film this year, wrote the dialogues for the first 82 episodes of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, the serial in which Irani starred.

The second tweet requires no comment; it is merely rhetoric. The third statement implies that Kishwar would like the new government to define university syllabi and vet teachers’ ideologies. This, of course, goes against the concept of any democracy where institutes should be allowed to set their own paths.

US universities are packed with left-leaning professors. A 2005 national survey directed by Smith College professor Stanley Rothman found they outnumbered conservatives by a ratio of 5-to-1 on American campuses. Whatever the causes of this skew, the effects, as we all know, on US public opinion or policy, have been negligible. It’s only an instance of the way a democracy should allow—and has allowed—education to function.

However, the more immediate issue that Maken is sniggering at and Kishwar ranting about may be that as HRD minister, Irani would be presiding over the future of elite and world-class higher-learning institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). A Class 12 pass would obviously not have the intelligence or ability to do that.

As an alumnus of both IIT and IIM, I beg to differ.

I will not cite laughably irrelevant examples like Rabindranath Tagore, who never finished school, or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, both of whom dropped out of college. I will just stick to the business of the HRD ministry, and here too, to the elite institutions.

The last four HRD ministers we have had were all well-educated men. Irani’s immediate predecessor, Pallam Raju, is an engineer with an MBA from the US. He succeeded Kapil Sibal, who is one of the top lawyers of the country. Before Sibal, we had Arjun Singh, who was a BA, LLB. The Vajpayee government had Murli Manohar Joshi, who has a PhD in physics. Let’s see what they did for these institutions that all Indians are supposed to be proud of.

Raju was a low-profile minister, and by all accounts, a good one. But as we go back in time, the story gets murkier.

Sibal, for no discernible reason other than a perverse desire to fiddle with something that was working perfectly well, changed the IIT entrance examination system. He clubbed the JEE (the venerable IIT entrance test, regarded as the toughest and fairest of its type in the whole world) with all other engineering entrance tests run by the government. The top 1,50,000 students to qualify would then sit for JEE-Advanced, and the top 9,000 who passed this test would be offered an IIT seat. This of course means that if a student falls sick on the day of the first test, he or she has to just hang around for a year. In the earlier system, with multiple states and colleges having their own tests, you had a choice: a day wouldn’t set you back by a year.

That’s not all. Under Sibal’s scheme, the student’s performance in JEE-Advanced counts for only 60%. The rest 40% weightage is of the student’s Class XII board results. Now, given that different state higher secondary boards give different levels of marks (just compare marks in the West Bengal board and the Andhra Pradesh board, or CBSE and ISC), this has brought in a wholly new factor of uncertainty into the process. Also, quite simply, someone who has a brilliant engineering mind may not get a very high percentage in the Class XII boards, because he may not be good in languages. In short, Sibal messed up the IIT entrance system, diminishing its stature, rigour and fairness. This was our learned lawyer’s signal contribution India’s higher education.

And would anyone who has read Sibal’s poetry (two proudly published volumes till date) want him as the man in charge of our children’s education? Here’s an extract from a poem on his Twitter experience: “All the fans, every troll/ Make this for me, anything but droll./ Thanks tweeple for the journey so far/ It’s been a month, above par.”

Singh spent his days as HRD minister sulking that he was not Prime Minister, plotting his petty political schemes, supposedly making money by granting deemed university status to private educational institutions, and then sprang a surprise on the nation (including, reportedly, even the Gandhis) by announcing 27% reservation for Other Backward Class students in all institutes of higher learning. Singh typified the corrupt Indian politician, embroiled in scam after scam through his career, but managing to survive them all.

Of course, the most educationally qualified HRD minister of the past two decades was the NDA’s Joshi, who wrote his PhD thesis (on spectroscopy) in Hindi, a completely unnecessary exhibitionist exercise that proved or established nothing (What’s the Hindi for spectroscopy? And why do we need a Hindi word for it?). As minister, he spent taxpayers’ money funding insane projects like trying to build an aircraft modelled on the Pushpak Rath as described in the Ramayana, politicised all top academic appointments, and attempted to force universities to introduce courses like Vedic astrology and yogic consciousness. But his coup de grace was trying to seriously undermine the autonomy of the IITs and IIMs.

First, he announced that IIT alumni who donated money to their alma maters could not do so directly. They could only send the money to the HRD Ministry and the bureaucrats there would decide where the money should go. This was so utterly ridiculous. If you are donating your money, don’t you have the right to decide who are giving it to and for what?. There was such an uproar from influential and wealthy IITians that he had to beat a hasty retreat.

Next, he issued a diktat that the HRD ministry would from now on decide admission procedures, hiring norms and syllabi for IITs and IIMs. Though the Union government had always theoretically had the power to do so, no one had ever exercised these powers and left these excellent institutes alone to run themselves. This in fact was a key reason for their success and reputation. There was a national outrage, and some of the IIMs, led by IIM Ahmedabad director Bakul Dholakia, openly protested. Joshi threatened that if the IIMs did not fall in line, he would cut off central government financial assistance to them. Keep your money, replied the rebellious IIMs, we can manage on our own. Again, Joshi had to withdraw. In other words, Joshi was a general embarrassment as minister, as far as most educated progressive Indians were concerned, regardless of political ideology.

On Wednesday, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi and general secretary Digvijaya Singh have both expressed regret that Modi chose Irani over Joshi for the HRD ministry. That’s opportunistic politics.

The point I am trying to make is that of the last four HRD ministers, three have done—or tried to do—serious damage to our higher education system, and all three were well- to highly educated. Thus, academic credentials seem to have no correlation with an HRD minister’s competence or performance. Therefore, the fact that Irani is a college dropout is irrelevant. Educated does not necessarily mean literate, literate does not necessarily mean intelligent, and intelligent does not necessarily mean competent.

Even more important, it is the HRD ministry that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has always had its eye on. Education is one area it wishes to influence. Joshi was a direct RSS appointee. Irani is one of the few BJP politicians in the new cabinet who has no connections with the RSS at all. Through her appointment, Modi has sent a strong message to the mother organisation that it should desist from interfering in his government.

There is no reason why Irani will not make a reasonably good HRD minister. She is definitely sincere and hard working, and she should spend her energies on primary education. As for higher education, and especially the elite institutes, all she has to do to let them be. She needs to do nothing. It does not matter at all whether she is a college dropout or a double PhD.

After all, Rahul Gandhi is an MPhil in development studies from Trinity College, Cambridge. But in the Lok Sabha election nomination papers he filed in 2004 at Amethi, he got the name of his course wrong. Development economics, he wrote, instead of development studies. I rest my case.

First Published: Thu, May 29 2014. 01 27 PM IST

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