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Mainstream, VOL LII No 28, July 5, 2014

From Azad to Irani: Road Traversed by Human Resource Development Ministry

Saturday 5 July 2014

COMMENTARY

by Navneet Sharma, Harikrishnan B. and Pradeep Nair

The euphoria of Narendra Modi’s landslide win is at its peak. Every Indian is basking in the glory of electing a stable government which is hoped to provide a new direction to governance and administration in India. The PM, Narendra Modi, has taken the oath of secrecy along with his small Cabinet. Though the selection of Ministers is the PM’s prerogative, it reflects the concern and seriousness of the PM elect, with which he perceives an issue. In the new Cabinet, Smriti Zubin Irani has been allocated the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the erstwhile Ministry of Education. Smriti Zubin Irani’s rise to fame is because of being a quintessential daughter-in-law of the television serials. This actress has struggled a lot and even contested for the Miss India pageant. Having a veteran artist at the helm would bring a different ‘cheer’ to the much sombre education process.

As the small Cabinet of the new government takes oath, the decision to hand over a crucial Ministry to a political novice is met with frowns, both inside the ruling coalition and among the stakeholders of higher education in the country. This particular decision is worth frowning upon since it is unheard of, not only in India, but also in the immediate SAARC neighbours on whom Modi relies to build better relations for the ‘acche din’ in the offing. It is going to make long-term repercussions, not only for the BJP’s own Hindutva project, but also for the future of the country. In this commentary, we are not contesting the qualification claim of Ms Irani in her various and different affidavits. We are also not suggesting that the country could be better run and managed by ‘technocrats’. We also do not view that ‘schooling’ or ‘degrees’ can be the hallmark of performance at least in matters relating to governance and administration. In this commentary, we are just wondering why an important Ministry has been allocated to a new, young and junior leader than to a veteran. We are attempting to perceive the reasons for allotment of this to someone who is new at managing the domain of education, that too at the national level. We are not sceptical of Ms Irani’s capacities at present until we get reasons for so. One can be pretty hopeful that a second woman at the helm of the MHRD (Shiela Kaul, being the first woman HRD Minister), might bring a more ‘humanist’ approach to the attitude of this Ministry.

There is severe criticism raised against the posting, and in this, unfortunately, the educational background of the Minster has come to the fore. A twelfth class pass taking charge of the HRD Ministry, which is directly responsible for framing the education policy of the country and running premier institutes like IITs and IIMs, is obviously drawing in some stark irony. Anyway, educational qualification may not be an accurate yardstick to gauge somebody’s administrative efficiency and efficacy, especially in the incredible India where we have ‘no qualification required’ as the constitutional mandate to reach the higher echelons of administration and the Government of India.

However, the matter of concern is that the crucial Ministry is given to a political novice who has limited political and no administrative experience except serving party positions. The HRD Ministry, which plays a crucial role in charting the future of education policy for the country, is vital in raising the human develop-ment indices and in supplying quality human resource. Modi, who rose to the prime post through a war-cry that was unprecedented, thereby replacing the democratic political campaign, has carefully constructed his brand by adding the flavour of the development promise, alongside claims of roping in invest-ment and generating employment.

Theories of brand-building, which were extensively used in projeeting Brand Modi during the campaign, also remind us that when a brand fails to meet the benefits promised by it, it will undermine the customer mind-share, which is crucial than the market-share. By picking a political novice, Brand Modi has, in a way, created a conflict regarding the benefits it promised to the youth of the country. This is apparent since developing quality human resource is an inevitable link in the process of bringing in investment and generating employ-ment, leading to betterment of the economy.

However, it is too early to decide whether the new HRD Minister would be able to deliver on Modi’s promise as part of the team. This is a job tougher even for veterans with extensive political and administrative experience, as was seen in the past.

In neighbouring countries like Pakistan, the responsibility of the Ministry of Higher Education has been given to Pir Sadruddin Shah Rashdi, who is a veteran parliamentarian. He has been a Member of the Parliament of Pakistan since 1988. Before being assigned this portfolio, he had been in the Federal Cabinet as a Provincial Minister for Communications. In Bangladesh, the Ministry of Education has been given to Nurul Islam Nahid, who earlier served as the Secretary of the Executive Committee on Education and Human Resource Development during the previous regime of Bangladesh Awami League. Nahid has a long and distingui-shed political career from the days of the agitation against Ayub Khan in the 1980s. He is an alumnus of Sylhet MC College and Dhaka University. In Sri Lanka, S.B. Dissanayake is the current Cabinet Minister for Higher Education in Mahinda Rajapakshe’s government. Before this assignment, he had served as the Cabinet Minister for Samurdhi, Youth Affairs and Sports in Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government. In 2002, he was assigned as the Cabinet Minister of Samurdhi and Agriculture in the UNP Government under Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. In Nepal, Ms Chitra Lekha Yadav is the Cabinet Minister of Education; before getting the portfolio of Education, she served as the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of Nepal.

In India also, time and again, stalwarts and political veterans have headed the Ministry, no matter the nature of the party or coalition in power. Since Indian independence, all governments of India have accorded an important status to education. This is reflected from the list of former HRD Ministers of India, which had luminaries like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, K.L. Shrimali, Humayun Kabir, M.C. Chagla, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Dr V.K.R.V. Rao, Prof S. Nurul Hasan, Prof Pratap Chandra Chunder, Rajmangal Pandey. Even when populist politicians were chosen for this important Ministry, senior political heavyweights got the preference, be it Madhavrao Scindia, V.P. Singh, B. Shankaranand or S.R. Bommai. The last NDA Government vested this Ministry with senior leader Murli Manohar Joshi, who was pecked at No. 3 in the BJP after Vajpayee and Advani. They were stalwarts not just with their educational qualification, but with their experience and visionary qualities. At least on three occasions, the crucial Ministry was directly manned by the then Prime Ministers for a while, considering its importance. The first NDA Government brought in Joshi as the HRD Minister to curb dissent and dissatisfaction in the realm of education. Joshi was brought to the fore also to pitch in the ideological saffron stance of the BJP. Somehow, the choice this time leaves us bewildered and apprehensive.

The reason behind the consistent pattern of picking political heavyweights for the HRD Ministry lies with the political importance of the Ministry. The HRD Ministry is vital for the ruling party mainly because of the nature of policy-making in the education sector in India. Education being on the concurrent list is a shared responsibility between the Centre and States. In this shared game, the power to frame the policies lies with the Central Government. This is an upper edge which makes the education portfolio crucial not just for the development of the country, but also for the ideological sustenance of the parties in power. In the past, the education policies went for a change whenever there were significant changes in the political colour on power. During the last NDA rule, Murli Manohar Joshi earnestly took up this ideological duty to saffronise education in the country by rewriting history, by an addition and deletion spree in textbooks and roping in party puppets in major policy-making bodies like the NCERT, UGC and top academic institutions. The propaganda project of Murli Manohar Joshi as an HRD Minister had even helped the Hindutva ideology to find chinks in the top intelligentsia in the country and invade the urban middle class’ thought processes.

There are many crucial issues which the HRD Ministry has to grapple with. Since the 1960s we have been delaying the fulfilment of the promise of universalisation of elementary education, let alone the secondary and senior secondary education which is a distant dream for even half the population. The dropout, wastage and stagnation in primary education place us at the 134th rank in the list of 180 countries. The institutions of higher education are accessible to a mere 13 per cent of the Indian population. Many policy decisions are pending, like increasing the expenditure for education to six per cent of the GDP from what is now hovering around 3.8. The recruitment of teachers at both school and university level stands paralysed. The RUSA and UGC are at loggerheads. IIMs and IITs claim for more autonomy. The growth of higher education is little and sporadic. The gap between State and Central Universities is widening with every passing day. Similarly, reflecting upon the gap between government/state controlled schools and privately managed ‘public’ schools has come to pass. Gender and minority issues, caste discrimination and rural-urban divide have led to the Indian education system getting stuck in ‘quantity’ issues rather than moving towards ‘quality’ when India in 2020 or 2040 aspires to be a giant mover and shaker in the knowledge society. At this time, the HRD Minister at the helm is yet to showcase her abilities; this does not reflect on our ‘concern’ for growth and education for all.

Somehow, the decision of placing Ms Irani in the HRD Ministry only justifies Maslow’s pyramid of human needs where basic amenities need to precede the desire to excel through education. But for someone who has espoused the patriotic fervour to win the election, the ‘nation’ as of Modi’s ideas could be built by a conglomeration of selfless individuals who could be motivated by education only; this stands a poor chance given Ms Irani as the choice. Further, the basic ‘Modi-esque’ premise to fight the 2014 election on the development agenda with cutting-edge competitive ideas to translate the ‘acche din’ rhetoric into a reality seems to have slipped under the shade of doubt, until the incumbent proves it otherwise.

Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh; Harikrishnan B. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Writing, Central University of Himachal Pradesh; and Dr Pradeep Nair is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh