Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Smriti Irani, India's Sarah Palin.

If Narendra Modi had chosen Smriti Irani for finance ministry it would have sent shock waves through Dalal street and the investment community, which played a big role in his victory, would've reacted with horror. The care that Modi showed in selecting a suave educated Arun Jaitley for finance ministry is matched by the carelessness in the choice of minister for education.

In an ugly spectacle a panoply of voices, ranging from Ramachandra Guha to Shobaa De and techies in top notch companies abroad. a sickening indignation arose against those who were appalled by the choice of a lady who failed to graduate and can at best be described as twelfth grade pass out. It is disgusting to see a pestilence of anti-intellectualism sweep across India.

It is ironical that Guha, who is often mistaken for a historian, biographer of Gandhi, plumbed the depths of intellectual dishonesty when he cited Lewis Mumford as an example for those who do good intellectual work despite not having a degree. Mumford had indeed joined a college but could not finish his degree due to illness and was later called to serve in World War I. In his post-war career Mumford worked his way to becoming an architecture critic. A story possible in the pre-World War II America. The point is Mumford educated himself and had to prove himself by working his way up in an intellectual atmosphere. Equating Mumford with Irani was chicanery.

In a cringeworthy remark, journalist Swapandas Gupta asked, "which university did Rabindranath Tagore go to? did he not create a university?" Tagore is India's true Renaissance man in the classical sense of that word. Only an intellectually corrupt journalist would equate Tagore and Irani. Tagore, to state the obvious, educated himself ceaselessly and led a life of learning in a deeply intellectual climate.

Smriti Irani - Courtesy Wikipedia
One Indian after another trooped to cite names, ironically, mostly American, to justify Irani's appointment. Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg and Mark Zuckerberg were cited. What no one cared to mention was that none of them, except Spielberg, would hire anybody less than a degree holder to run their companies. Spielberg actually went back to college and graduated in 2002 after wining two Oscars. Ford, Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg were too good for college but they maintain strong ties to academic institutions. Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg became innovators at their expense first. Their dropping out of college was a risk they took. Bill Gates, as philanthropist and influencer of policy making, lays heavy emphasis on education. Closer home are the examples of Dhirubhai Ambani and even Adani. Ambani, like Ford, was an innovator who spent years learning in the best college that is life. But Ambani's rise was fueled by shady deals and corruption. That a businessmen like Adani is even offered as an example shows the intellectual bankruptcy of India.

It is not an accident that India's glorious freedom struggle was led by highly educated erudite intellectuals. Revolutions are not born out of illiterate minds. The 1857 Sepoy mutiny, led by a rag tag of feudal chieftains, lacked the intellectual firepower of Gandhi's Satyagrahis. To be sure India experienced an intellectual turmoil in the half century before Independence. So many competing ideologies about the nation we are to become, the idea of nationhood, the idea of what it is to be an India, the very idea of India, ideas of state and many other ideological conflicts between some of the finest minds ever to walk on Indian soil took place. Tagore called Gandhi a Mahatma and then opposed his ideas of nationalism. Nehru, Gandhi's disciple, would reject Gandhian economics. Associates and comrades-in-arms of Nehru would part ways later clashing with him on so many ideas. Ram Manohar Lohia, Subhas Bose and Rajaji carried on an ideological feud with Nehru. Today we are asking what good is a degree? What a shameful state.

Of Nehru's cabinet several like Rajagopalachari, C.D. Deshmukh, Gopalasami Ayyangar and Shanmukham Chetty left a mark for generations to come as not just ministers but as thinkers too. Patel was in a league of his own as India's Bismarck. Then there was B.R. Ambedkar, alumnus of Columbia University, the architect of India's constitution and one of India's political giants. The choice of Abul Kalam Azad, prodigy and a fine intellect that Nehru adored, as India's first education minister was a no-brainer. Whatever that is good in India's educational infrastructure was the work of Nehru and Azad. Nehru and Azad fashioned a nascent republic's intellectual foundation. UGC, IITs, IISc, Research centers and more were the brain child of Nehru and Azad. They changed India's educational landscape as Lincoln changed America's nearly a century before.

Amongst the many ills that plague India, the framework of academia, laid down by Nehru and Azad, despite its many shortcomings remains the brightest spot and the beacon of hope for India. Indians do not realize the vision behind IIT and Bhaba Atomic Research Center. That such institutions were dreamed of in a country that was mired in poverty, born amidst a civil war and sorely lacked financial capital, is something that is awe inspiring. Many countries that were born like India lacked such a vision and for that reason alone lack the hopes that Indians harbor today for their country. Nehru and Bhabha's correspondence sheds light on how involved India's prime minister was in forming research institutions. Nehru addresses "my dear Homi", to which Bhabha replies "my dear bhai". Nehru made it a point to attend every session of Indian Science Congress which was established in 1914 by Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee. I shudder at the prospect of Irani addressing such a gathering.

Today Smriti Irani, a twelfth grade pass out, adorns the office that was once occupied by Abul Kalam Azad. She will appoint Vice Chancellors, preside over how to educate India's hundreds of millions, decide whether or not to allow foreign universities, how to invite investment for research, rejuvenate the notorious teach-for-test Indian education and confer with educationists on myriad issues that defy easy solutions.

Kamaraj, illiterate chief minister of Tamil Nadu, is credited with revolutionizing school education in Tamil Nadu. Born into grinding poverty and losing himself in the freedom struggle Kamaraj did not attend school and remained illiterate. However, his illiteracy bred in Kamaraj the sensitivity to educate every child, especially those in poor villages. Kamaraj provided a clean administration and is fondly remembered for his welfare schemes. This example is often cited in favor of not looking down upon illiterates. And then there are Mulayam and Laloo, both namesake graduates, who are corrupt, have no idea of anything intellectual and yet wielded power as chief ministers of large states and as cabinet ministers of key portfolios like railways and defense.

Kamaraj was an exception who made up for his lack of intellect with earthy common sense and sincerity. Faced with the prospect of becoming India's prime minister Kamaraj, in cahoots with Nijalingappa, chose to foist Indira Gandhi simply because he felt diffident. Now, Indira too, was no graduate but was seen as 'groomed' for international leadership under the tutelage of her legendary father. Indira's legacy was one of destroying or distorting or corrupting every institution that her father had created.

The limits of earthy common sense led administration can be seen in Kamaraj's ideas on education. Beyond common sense ideas of how to provide school education he had no vision about higher centers of learning or science and research. A Kamaraj would not have dreamt of IIT or BARC.

Mulayam and Laloo, both namesake graduates, who are corrupt, have no idea of anything intellectual and yet wielded power as chief ministers of large states and as cabinet ministers of key portfolios like railways and defense.To be fair to Irani, Arjun Singh, a corrupt and venal politician, was an unedifying choice too and he caused ruckus in his position only to serve his political itch of wanting to be India's Prime Minister. Anbumani, a doctor by education, was a disaster as minister of health. In the previous BJP administration Murali Manohar Joshi, a Physics professor, alarmed educationists with his penchant to rewrite textbooks and indulge patently pseudo-science.

Corrupt and incompetent leadership by many, who held degrees, has made it is easy and palatable for Indians to argue "why not try a twelfth grade pass out?" This is travesty of the highest order.

What is forgotten in this ridicule of people like Arjun Singh or Cambridge educated Manmohan Singh is that the bigotry and corruption of the learned can be exposed only by the learned not the illiterate. Whether it is unmasking Nazism or Bofors or 2G scam it takes a historian with integrity or an honest journalist to combat the ills perpetrated by the well educated.

Tamil Nadu has paid a high price for the fact that the last chief minister with a college degree died in 1969. Since 1969 Tamil Nadu has been ruled by politicians who were not graduates and two were matinee idols. Yes, Tamil Nadu leads on many human welfare indexes but the reasons are many. Karunanidhi, a seventh grader, is indeed an able administrator and born out of a movement that laid stress on ideology he and his successors have ushered in key welfare ideas. All that said it is a blunt fact that almost all the government run colleges, Engineering and medical, were constructed before 1967. Between 1967 and the privatization era of MGR in 1980's no government college was opened. The state completely ceded its role in education to private operators. Public schools in Tamil Nadu, like elsewhere in India, are pathetically run.

Karunanidhi, who in a forgettable dirigible verse scorned the use of education, sought to reform the many confusing streams of school certification and in the process created a very watered down syllabus that is spawning highly inflated grades in school exams. According to a survey of Indian government only 17% of Tamil Nadu's engineering graduates, amongst thousands, are fit for employment at an MNC. Muthukrishnan who led the committee for syllabi reform lamented that of the many recommendations to revamp education, including upgrading etcher training institutes, the government took just the easiest one to implement and ignored the rest.

When Azhagiri, another corrupt and barely educated politician, was made Union Minister for drugs and fertilizers I wrote that it is a shame. India faces severe challenges in world forums on account of flouting patent norms to provide cheap medicines. There are many complex key issues that a minister of drugs has to deal with and Azhagiri had zero intellectual capabilities.

Cheap comments like 'so what is the qualification for a minister for family planning?" or "so should a minister for civil aviation be a pilot too?" are asked. I am appalled at such trivializing and in fact its shamefully disgusting. When I read Narayana Murthy's book on education I wondered if our education ministers even knew half of what the industrialist was writing about. Expecting the education minister to at least have a degree is not to suggest that he/she should be a subject matter expert. Arguments like 'should a minister of mining have been a miner' is idiotic. Irrespective of any ministry it is imperative to have an educated minister who can analyze issues, seek opinion across the ideological spectrum and finally make up one's own mind.

During the Cuban Missile crises the top brass in US army wanted JFK to invade Cuba. JFK would sensed that that would start World War III. Army generals and even Dean Acheson, former secretary of state and considered a Russia expert, told Kennedy that an invasion would be a success without any allowance for disasters or surprises. Later Kennedy confided to his inner circle about how the French army made the same hubristic mistake in World War I. JFK cited Barabara Tuchman's legendary bestseller 'Guns of August'. Bob Woodward in 'Obama's wars' detailed how the Pentagon would try hard to hoodwink Obama in sending a bigger force to Afghanistan than he intended. Reading it will show anyone why a leader must have an intellect of his own. And such an intellect is born out of education or by educating oneself. Irani has done neither.

It is laughable to see Indians heap scorn on formal education just because Manmohan, a Cambridge alumnus, left office with his popularity in the dump. George Bush, Yale graduate, left the presidency with abysmal job approval rating and is considered as probably one of the worst US Presidents. Yet, I've not heard Americans say "lets go elect Sarah Palin, enough of Ivy League grads". Rather, many Americans, including me, were apalled by Palin's vapid intellect. Columbia and Harvard graduate Barack Obama romped home to the Oval office against a ticket that was seen as pathetically unintellectual. I had then written "Go home Palin. And you too McCain". Palin offers the closest parallel to Irani.

A doctor, no less, cheerfully posted a video of Irani at an 'India Today Conclave', hosted by the magazine 'India Today',  that supposedly showed an articulate person. The implication was 'if she can speak so fluently in English and swat away the brickbats can she not be a good minister'. Sarah Palin can deliver stem winding red meat speeches that can bring down an entire stadium and yet, with good reason, Americans rebuffed her candidacy so much that, despite much expectation, she did not even bother running in 2012. If one viewed the conclave event in full one can see that many others on that stage, equally unintellectual, were indeed articulate. No one on the stage had any original ideas though. Irani just recycled template talking points. I am yet to read anything intelligent by Irani.

The department of education, in a country like India, carries huge challenges and great complexities. Indian students emigrating to study, mostly to US, costs Indian exchequer a lot. Harvard website boasts that India ranks 4th amongst international students. Harvard even has a regional office in India and its President Drew Gilpin Faust frequently visits India. Yet, the question of foreign universities in India is an issue fraught with complexity. The list of issues that cry out for attention is pretty long. "Will not bureaucrats help? Should she be a subject matter expert?" This is plain recipe for a minister becoming a puppet in the hands of India's fabled and loathsome bureaucracy. Just to make one point, bureaucrats, propelled by self interest, could give conflicting advice and it is the minister who needs to make up her mind and provide an impartial decision.

Smita Irani is no consummate politician who, say, like Karunanidhi, at least shows a flair for leading and canny political savvy. Having lost the election she even lacks political capital of her own. Within the party she is not known for any great organizational ability that can be arguably supplanted in running the ministry thus giving us confidence despite lack of academic credentials.

Indian political system was designed with avenues to bring in talent that cannot come through the rumble tumble electoral politics of Lok Sabha. In fact Irani will now need to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha to continue as a minister. Modi, who earned immense political capital, could have sought out a good educationist and brought him or her through the Rajya Sabha but he chose bring in a political operative and a dilettante at that.

In the run up to the election one of the many articles that fawned over Modi's unorthodox managerial methods gushed that when he took over as chief minister he sent emails to business men and corporate leaders asking for advice on how to make Gujarat investor friendly. I pointed out elsewhere that Modi did not send one email to an educationist or a health care professional to ask how to improve education and health care, two areas that Gujarat continues to lag other states. Thankfully the current choice for health ministry is spoken of as credible choice.

Economist magazine once wrote that British prime minister David Cameron invites intellectuals and thinkers for a chat. One of the invitees was Joshua Foer, bestselling author of 'Moonwalking with Einstein'. That article was suitably sub-titled "Despite Britain tradition of anti-intellectualism, Westminster has become a cerebral place'. I've seen America's 'Governors Association' invite MIT President, other academics, top journalists like Thomas Friedman, bestselling authors like Malcolm Gladwell to address them during their annual retreats.

Richard Nixon's nominee for ambassadorship to Sri Lanka fumbled during his confirmation hearings and knew nothing about Sri Lanka. Historian Richard Hofstadter became livid at that mockery and penned his Pulitzer awarded "Anti-Intellectualism in America". Recently Obama nominees were ridiculed for similar ignorance. Nobody said "oh he'll have officials to help". It is sad that in a country which has a goddess for learning that education is being ridiculed. Where is India's Richard Hofstadter?

To add to the ignominy of not being a graduate and heading the department of education it appears that Smriti Irani allegedly claimed being a graduate in one of her affidavits submitted to the election commission during an earlier election. Of course, in a country where corruption takes place in the thousands of crores by a single minister a lie in an election affidavit will not only barely register but invite a scornful, 'get a life, that's no bog deal'.

Modi's choice for another very important ministry, Water resources, is ex-chief minister Uma Bharati, a sixth grade school drop out. Two Indian states, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, often come close to riots due to water sharing disputes that run for nearly half a century. The unification of rivers, a complex and gargantuan undertaking, is another much talked about promise of Modi and the minister is a sixth grade dropout who is known for fire brand speeches like torching Walmart if it set up shop in India.

Former ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan exults in Rediff.com that Sushma Swaraj, the new minister for external affairs, is like Hillary Clinton. Other than the fact that Swaraj shares gender and nature of office with Clinton she is nowhere near the former first lady turned senator turned secretary of state. Both Clintons are legendary for being policy wonks. Hillary can lecture, very creditably, to an audience of experts on a variety of topics. Sreenivasan pins hopes for Swaraj's success as foreign minister on her being popular with NRI's and for being present with Modi when he 'read the riot act' to Nawaz Sharif. A typical fawning bureaucrat who thinks an intellectual lightweight like Sushma Swaraj is good only because he is probably thinking to himself "after all, people like me will be there to advise her. She just needs to listen". I'll be surprised if Sushma Swaraj had read Barbara Tuchman.

The only plausible explanation that comes out for the broad support against formally educated officeholders is the low esteem in which Indians themselves hold Indian educational system. The notorious rote learning that characterizes Indian education scarcely prepares any graduate for a career much less an intellectual life as a thinking citizen.

To be fair to Modi other Prime Ministers have had equally unsavory characters in their cabinets. When R.M. Veerapan became minister for education in Tamil Nadu my disgust was worse than what I feel now. That a history sheeter like K.K.S.S.R Ramachandran was minister for department of health is an ignominy that still makes me angry. That an aging matinee idol like Shatrughan Sinha was union minister for health is a travesty that Modi is yet to commit. If blogging had been a forum in those circumstances my opinions would be the same as it is now.

The most disquieting aspect in this affair is seeing how Indians loathe education and look down upon education as a life shaping force.


1. Smriti Irani at India Today conclave https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFsaGtz0Pks
2. Lewis Mumford http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Mumford
3. 'Bill Gates's riskiest project: Fixing education' -- CNBC http://www.cnbc.com/id/101059801
4. 'Westminster has become a thinking capital' - Economist on David Cameron meeting Joshua Foer - http://www.economist.com/node/18618772
5. Uma Bharati http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uma_Bharti
6. 'An agenda for India's Hillary Clinton' -- former ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan on Sushma Swaraj - http://www.rediff.com/news/column/tp-sreenivasan-an-agenda-for-indias-hillary-clinton/20140602.htm
7. My blog on Kamaraj's and MGR's role in education compared to Karunanidhi http://contrarianworld.blogspot.com/2013/05/tamil-nadus-debt-to-kamaraj-and-mgr-on.html
8. My blog 'Go home McCain (and Palin first) http://contrarianworld.blogspot.com/2008/09/go-home-mccain-and-palin-first.html
9. My blog on why Sarah Palin's 'folksy' speaking style is unintellectual and un-presidential http://contrarianworld.blogspot.com/2008/10/sarah-palin-is-no-vp-material-or-prez.html


kailash said...

Exceptions cant be taken as examples , Swapan and group please stop comparing Smriti with visionaries like Tagore and KAmaraj . Yes I agree Smriti can talk continuosly for 24 hours but what she talks matter most . Education System needs to be revamped and BJP has lot of intellectuals who is fit for this position . As you said Modi gives least importance to Education and Helathcare , he needs to change his attitude else like gujarat india is going to rank worse in education and health care. In Modis minsitry only loyalty has been rewarded and not the knowledge . A Military General is being appointed as minister to take care of North East . If he really feels himself as the architect of New India Modi has to relook his cabinet .

chandrasekharan said...

Why attach so much importance to formal educational qualification?
Should we not place emphasis on intelligence, curiosity, passion, character, motivation, communication skills and judgement skills. These traits may or may not benefit from exposure to formal education.
Formal education should be the last of qualities one should look for a HR minister.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful write. Exceptions like Kamaraj, though need to be accepted, cant become the rule. University degree may not be the only metric to measure anyone's intellectual depth, but Irani hasnt proved her intellect in any other unconventional ways even. Agreed that she needs to be given a chance, but shouldnt she begin at some lower position? Our education sector needs urgent reforms and it definitely needs a better person than Irani.

chandrasekharan said...

Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad who has been credited by you as a builder of educational infrastructure in India (in association with Pandit Nehru), did NOT have formal educational qualification. He had only traditional Islamic education with a view to becoming a clergy.

Is not Smriti Irani better placed?

Anonymous said...

I am not sure about the intention of your writing this post. It is very amusing to read this part// Rather, many Americans, including me, were apalled by Palin's vapid intellect. Columbia and Harvard graduate Barack Obama romped home to the Oval office against a ticket that was seen as pathetically unintellectual. I had then written "Go home Palin. And you too McCain". Palin offers the closest parallel to Irani.// The very fact that Palin got a nomination from your own party proves the intent of the American people ready to elect her as Vice President. So in your own analysis equating Irani to Palin is similar to equating BJP to Republican Party.Since you are a Republican you have to now accept that Smiriti as the best choice.

Shankar said...

Had people objected to Kamaraj becoming CM on the same grounds that you put forward about Irani, you will not be waxing eloquently about Kamaraj today.

And Palin equates with Irani? I have heard Palin's speeches and Irani's too. If you equate the two, then it clearly exposes your Republican mindset. While I was initially worried about her "non-educational background", I was pleasantly surprised and my fears allayed when I listened to her speak.

Let us give her a chance to see what she does before judging her. All examples provided by you - Spielberg, Gates, Jobs, etc. etc. are considered greats only after they achieved whatever they did. They were allowed to perform and not judged before they could deliver.