Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Oxbridge miracles? No thanks

Some people just never learn. First, it was Mani Shankar Aiyar's chaiwallah comment that virtually catapulted Narendra Modi's election campaign to the skies and made the Congress pay dearly for it. As if that was not enough to highlight just how elitist and out of touch the Congress party had become, the controversy yesterday was over the appointment of Smriti Irani as Union HRD Minister, a move by PM Modi that this blog has greatly approved of. Irani, a BJP Vice-President and now a Union Minister, has had a stellar performance in the Rajya Sabha, having made well-researched speeches and asked pertinent questions. In fact, for her performance, she has been described by some as the Sushma Swaraj of the Modi-era in the BJP.

And yet, that did not stop the Congress' Ajay Maken from making this comment:
For those who don't know, Irani's life came from humble origins. After Class 12, she discontinued her studies (a vast majority of girls in India don't even make it to that level) to find work in the TV industry in Mumbai. Her parents could not support her, so she worked in McDonald's - clean, honest work of the kind that deserves respect, just like Modi's humble origins. Since then, her journey has been one that inspires Indians in general and girls in particular to aim big in the face of adversity. Her appointment as Union HRD Minister just shows that our democracy is still strong enough for such stories to come through.

And then we have Rahul Gandhi and his band of Oxbridge-educated chamchas. Mr. Gandhi, royal heir to the throne of India, did not consider the country's Parliament to be good enough for him to ask one single question in his ten years as an MP. Even when he does open his mouth, he makes a fool of himself. He supposedly has an M.Phil from Oxbridge - even that is disputed - but it seems royalty like him do not need to prove their ability to lead for they are ordained by God almighty to lead. As for his chamchas in the Congress, the less said the better. Time Magazine rightly called Manmohan Singh an underachiever - a PhD-holding economist who sunk India's economy; Mr. P. Chidambaram, a Harvard Graduate who was qualified enough to bring economic growth from 9% to 4%; and there are many more such stellar performers in the Congress whose degree does not seem to be worth the paper they are printed on when put to test. If this is what the Oxbridge elite can do in government, then it's good that we don't have them: let them go back and govern England if they so choose. They have failed here.
Of course, this probably isn't even Mr. Maken's fault - he has become so accustomed to saying things that he does not mean (such as #WeLoveRahul) that he just shoots from his hip. The entire Congress party is like that: they have internalized their refusal to see that Indians, and young Indians in particular, as disgusted by their elitism, their utter disconnect with the masses and their forced march behind the nincompoop Rahul Gandhi. Even their worst defeat in elections since the days of the Muslim League has not taught them anything.

Politics aside, Smriti Irani is not a bad choice at all. Omar Abdullah put it well:
 There are two problems here - one is the obsession with degrees. I am an IITian now pursuing a PhD in America but if there's anything my IIT days has taught me, it's that a degree is nothing more than proof that you passed a bunch of exams (usually by studying for them the night before). It is not proof of scholarship or leadership. That said, having an advanced degree is not a bad thing - Murli Manohar Joshi had a PhD - but simply having one does not make you qualified to run the HRD Ministry. And not having one also does not disqualify you: remember that she has passed Class 12 and can read, write and think for herself, and she has already shown that she is quite articulate in her speech.

The second problem is that people have no idea how governments are run, in fact they have no clue how anything around them works. Picking up from Omar Abdullah's line, it is not necessary for an HRD Minister to be highly educated. In fact, no Minister needs to be highly educated (they need to be educated enough to read, write and speak of course); as the millions of MBA graduates coming out of elite and not-so-elite institutions learn quickly, leadership cannot be taught in class. And being a Minister is all about leadership. Manmohan Singh was a scholar in his own right but he was a complete failure as PM because he lacked leadership, both in his party and in his Cabinet. The reason India has a permanent bureaucracy is that experts must advise the Minister, who must have the leadership to listen to all sides, take decisions and defend them in Parliament. If the Minister is expected to be an expert, then IAS officers might as well be forced to retire.

One last issue is what I was asked on Twitter - shouldn't the HRD Minister have been to college so that they can understand the problems in colleges across India?
That is a fair point and is a matter of priorities. Let me ask it in another way - if the HRD Minister only knows the problems of school dropouts, will they be able to bring more children into higher education? Unfortunately, since Nehru's days, India has focused all its energy on higher education. Therefore, we feel proud when our graduates excel in Silicon Valley (the fact that they run away from India is for another debate) but when India's primary school students are as good as uneducated, we blame the test! A vast majority of Indian children never make it beyond school and if I had to choose priorities, I would choose primary education over higher education. That's not to say that the problems of higher education are not important - they are, and the new Minister will also have to look into them with the help of experts - but if the logic is that you have to go to college to know what's wrong with it, then I would rather she focused on the ills of primary education. A country where a small elite is highly educated  while the vast majority learns nothing in school is not a prosperous, strong and proud country. Such a Bharat is not a Shreshtha Bharat.

The only good thing in this row has been Irani's own reaction - true to her style, she ignored the jibes and went on with her work. Unfortunately, people seem to have discovered here yesterday, as though she magically went from the Virani Parivaar to the HRD Ministry! Her leadership, which played a crucial role in bringing Manohar Parrikar to power and in seriously threatening Rahul Gandhi in Amethi (an unimaginable feat less than a year ago), is why Narendra Modi chose to include her in his Cabinet. After all, it takes a chaiwallah to understand where leadership is molded - in the corridors of Cambridge or the alleys of Mumbai.

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