While campaigning for the fifth phase of Uttar Pradesh Assembly election in Maharajganj, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was eloquent in his criticism of Harvard brand economists. He was motivated by the recent statistics from Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) which came out showing a robust 7% growth in GDP in the October-December quarter despite the demonetisation move. It must be underlined that Amartya Sen, Thomas W. Lamont University Professor of Philosophy and Economics in Harvard University, a Nobel laureate, had termed the demonetisation move as a “despotic action that has struck at the root of economy based on trust.” Another economist trained at Oxford and previous Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the move “organised loot and legalised plunder.”
In his rhetorical election catchy phrase, Prime Minister mocked rival economists and political activists asserting that “Harvard se jyada dum hota hai hard work mein.” (Hard work is stronger than Harvard) He continued by adding that great intellectuals and policy makers from Harvard and Oxford, who have served in the highest positions for the past 20-30 years, had predicted a decline of GDP by 2%. However, the sons of the poor mothers have worked hard than the Harvard folks to belittle their claims and proved them wrong.
Now, as it often does these days, Modi’s election speech was put on a deconstruction ride by a certain section of mainstream media. Ravish Kumar of NDTV chose to focus on this particular ‘Harvard versus hard work’ phrase to remind his viewers about the significance of universities such as Harvard and Oxbridge. He invited two Harvard students on his ‘Prime Time’ show and profiled many eminent policy makers according to their university training. The commentary had a mocking tone with embedded sarcasm which seems to suggest that Prime Minister was actually denigrating institutions such as Harvard and those associated with it. But was the Prime Minister actually doing that? Was the Prime Minister deprecating certain institutions or the ‘psyche’ that Indians trained in these institutions carry with them? These questions call for a rethinking of what at surface may seem an electioneering catch phrase.
Country of First Boys
Amartya Sen in one of his thought provoking essays ‘The Country of First Boys’ highlights a paradox. It goes like this: anyone who knows about the state of the Indian education system confirms its poverty, its deficiency in quality and coverage. However, Indian education receives acclaim abroad with knowledge economies such as USA frightened about their jobs going to Indians. How does one explain this dichotomy?
The answer to the present crisis lies in the past. The characteristics of the handful of people who constitute the ruling class in any system of governance remain almost similar. In a democracy such as ours, the leaders of the governance and state apparatus in different realms, such as legislature, bureaucracy, media, academia, corporate, intelligentsia and civil society share one common trait - foreign university training. Regardless of the fact that which instrument of state power one examines, the people at the top have been educated at the elite institutions in India first, and then, overseas. Amartya Sen himself is a first boy in that case. However he was not the first of the firsts.
Historically, the leaders of our freedom struggle, most of them, were educated abroad. Name them, and you will find an Oxbridge degree, training of law in England, and similar such pursuits as a running theme. With notable exceptions of Bhimrao Ambedkar, Jai Prakash Narayan, who went to the USA, and Rammanohar Lohia who went to Germany for their higher education, almost all the prominent Congress leaders and many Communists had their education in Britain at some point or the other. In colonial India, where illiteracy was widespread beyond belief, higher education overseas was an example of gross elitism and rare opportunity. This opportunity, which was not available to most others, has persisted in independent India as well.
The very logic of being competitive socially and economically, with polished training in language and texts, sophistication of research methods, and other required impetus have manufactured a block in quality education that only elites in this country can have. The right, and even the opportunity of higher education, is a rarity in independent India. Even the institutions of higher learning in India such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, with its promised inclusionary admission policy has chosen to be highly selective and exclusionary when it comes to appointing the faculty members.
Faculty members are the leaders of academia in the country. In the premier Centre for Historical Studies of JNU, out of 28 faculty members, many have gone to foreign universities for their doctoral degrees. More remarkably, barring three faculties, the remaining 25 have been students of the same centre in the past. (Source.) Further digging would tell us that most of these faculty members were educated for their under graduation in a common university - University of Delhi. Does it show a pattern? This pattern suggests that certain universities which are assumed to the centre of excellence in our country are also extremely selective about admittance - student or faculty.
Choice, Opportunity and Psyche
Education and its quality have remained a strong instrument for class division. This instrument has never showed any effort to bring in the majority under its fold. To be educated in Harvard-like institutions is not merely an issue of choice, opportunity, and competitiveness. It is also a facilitation of the comfort and ease in the hierarchies of the society. These hierarchies may overshadow the moral nature of education by manufacturing one more class barrier.
The Prime Minister has rightly asserted that hard work is better than Harvard. Barring his election temperament, this calls for some pondering where what happens on the ground as practices in everyday living must be linked to the discourse at the top by our foreign university-educated policy makers. It was not that long ago when Oxford educated Montek Singh Ahluwalia came up with a ‘Rs 32 per capita per day poverty line’ scheme while witnessing the construction of a hi-tech toilet block in the Planning Commission building that cost Rs. 35 lakhs. Our contemporary history has littered with examples of such actions that our reflective of a certain ‘psyche’ of our policy makers. This simply cannot be evaded.
According to a report by ICEF Monitor “the number of students going overseas to study rose a stunning 256% - from 53, 266 to 1,89,629 inn just nine years (2000-09)," which indicates the increasing number of those who can make this choice of going abroad for studies. But what is the strength of the students in the higher education in India? According to the ‘All India Survey of Higher Education’ prepared by Ministry of Human Resource Development in 2011-12, total enrolment in the higher education has been estimated to be 28.56 million with 15.87 million boys and 12.69 million girls. As a comparison, the students who go overseas with respect to the total enrolment in higher education is roughly 0.66%.
But if these students chose to come back to India for employment, their employability prospects whether in academia, media, corporate, and other fields remain extremely high and promising. They prefer to be located mostly in the metros and can contribute to policy making depending on their specialisation and expertise. We simply may not have examples of doctoral candidates returning back from Harvard and then joining, let’s say, Sagar University or Patna University for teaching and research. (No insult meant to these universities).
All this points to a simple conclusion. We are still governed by a handful of those who have the capacity to exercise choice, and who can dictate their own terms of education. They are concentrated in the corridors of power, but may not have an insight into the ground realities of a system. An expert with the most up-to-date training may lament the sorry state of affairs in India sitting in Delhi, he may even have a right prognosis for it, but he may not know the diagnosis simply because he has never known the disease. This backs the claim of mocking in the tone of Prime Minister for such a psyche which is unrepresentative, banal, and offers no real solutions to India's problems.
We certainly need those in the realm of policy making who are hard working but who have not lost their touch with the reality. People who talk of the hi-tech, cutting edge, upgraded and updated, but at the same time know the archaic, redundant, and lost.
(Author Studies Modern History at JNU, New Delhi.)