In defence of Ms Smriti Irani

Higher education is neither a necessary condition nor a sufficient condition for good governance.

As I scoured through the Twitter pages of some well-known journalists and social activists on 27 May, I came across an animated discussion on the allotment of Human Resource Development portfolio to Ms Smriti Irani by prime minister Narendra Modi. The first reaction had apparently come from the Congress party’s Ajay Maken. He threw stones from inside a glasshouse and hurt its own inmates in the process. Well-known Modi supporter Ms Madhu Kishwar had also tweeted harshly on her appointment. Times of India had considered her tweets important enough to report them as a news-item. Ms Kishwar had noted that the Congress and the Left had nurtured intellectuals, academics for decades and that the BJP had neglected the arena. It is an important issue. But, the heat generated by her tweets vapourised it.

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The second issue is whether a politician has to be a specialist or experienced in the portfolio that is assigned to her. I got surprisingly uniform answers from three different people – a scientist, a geo-strategy and geo-political analyst and a civil servant. They said that it did not matter.

To start with, last ten years provides the most damning evidence against educated folks governing the nation. The qualifications of some of the senior members of the UPA government are well known to all. Yet, we had the most inept and dysfunctional government in independent India’s history. Neither wisdom nor character was on display. Higher education is neither a necessary condition nor a sufficient condition for good governance.

What is needed at that level is a strong intuitive sense of judgement of people. Behavioural skills and judgement matter more than cognitive skills. Most self-made politicians possess these strengths. They advance in their career by not allowing education to interfere with their learning and decision-making. Speaking from his experience, my friend in the Indian Civil Service told me the following:

A good minister is not necessarily one who has subject matter knowledge and experience–rather he or she is one who has good intentions and actually wants things to be done in public interest; does not micromanage; can bat for/ defend the department in Parliament / Legislature and in budgetary demands with Finance ministry; has a nose for what will be politically acceptable / not acceptable in the party and the country and is not corrupt.

Shri K Kamaraj, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister was famed for the spread of schooling and education in the State although he was not schooled himself. He was a clean and competent administrator too. He chided the Water Works Department when it tried to install a municipal tap near the house of his mother to save her the effort of taking water out of a hand pump at her ripe old age. He had it removed and said that his mother could not enjoy what other citizens did not. Such moral clarity is independent of educational attainments and, worse, higher education does a better job of making cynics out of us. Specifically with respect to Indians, higher education has made us more argumentative and less reflective.

In the 1960s, Argentina had a substantially higher literacy rate than South Korea and the Philippines was ahead of Taiwan. Most of us should know that Korea and Taiwan have become prosperous nations whereas Argentina and Philippines have failed to realise their potential. If you did not know that, it is probably clear that you have had the wrong kind of higher education. History, arts and literature are as important as they are ignored in higher education.

World over, universities have successfully inflated the price of higher education degree while simultaneously diminishing its utility. Professor Ha-Joon Chang uses a brilliant analogy to explain the popular obsession with higher education as an economic panacea in his book, 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism. “University education is ‘wasted’ in the essentially zero-sum game of sorting. It has become a theatre in which some people decided to stand to get a better view, prompting others behind them to stand. Once enough people stand, everyone has to stand, which means that no one is getting a better view, while everyone has become more uncomfortable.”

What should Ms Irani do, to prove her sceptics wrong?

One, she should ensure that she has competent, committed and clean civil servants work for her.

Two, she should read and commit to memory what her party’s manifesto has said about education. The manifesto has correctly identified the importance of people rooted in the country’s history and pride in its traditional knowledge: “BJP recognizes that no nation could chart out its domestic or foreign policies unless it has a clear understanding about itself, its history, its roots, its strengths and failings. In a highly mobile and globalized world, it is imperative for a nation to know its roots that provide sustenance to its people.”

Three, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) introduced the course, “Knowledge Traditions and Practices of India” in 2012.  It has ten modules that include Astronomy in India, Chemistry in India, Indian Literature (Parts 1 & 2), Indian Philosophical Systems, Indian Traditional Knowledge on Environmental Conservation, Life Sciences (Parts 1 & 2) – Ayurveda for Life, Health and Well-being and The Historical Evolution of Medical Tradition in Ancient India, Mathematics in India, Metallurgy in India, Music in India and Theatre and Drama in India. Schools have been lukewarm in introducing the course.  She should listen to the people behind this visionary initiative – Dr Jagbir Singh, Prof Kapil Kapoor and Michel Danino – to understand it thoroughly. Then, she should go on a Mission Mode on this one, as it is central to the party’s manifesto.

Four, next on her invitation list is James Tooley (author of The Beautiful Tree) to tell her about private schools in India and in other developing countries and about education in ancient India. What she learns might set India free from the “Right to Education”.

Five Most of us go through our entire lives lacking the most basic behavioural skills. Dysfunctional families and workplaces are the consequence. The nation suffers from lost productivity. Emotional health of mothers has been identified as the single most important factor in the development of children into happy and healthy adults.It means that life skills for girls are critical for nation-building.

An initiative of Aparajitha Foundation [1] in Madurai to teach life skills to schoolchildren in India in their mother tongue is spreading in Tamil Nadu. Indeed, it has gained greater traction in Gujarat. It is being translated into other Indian languages. It is based on the framework developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to equip children with life skills. The Return on Time Investment in understanding this initiative and in rolling it out across the Nation could be quite substantial.

Finally, having done all of the above, she can then approach the Prime Minister for a full government sponsorship of a 10-day Vipaasana course for all Indians who are on Twitter and Facebook. It might turn out to be the most transformative government initiative in the history of independent India.

[1] The author is one of the Trustees of the Aparajitha Foundation. He has no pecuniary interest in the matter. 

Photo: Chris