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Monday, December 7, 2015

Grim harvest of failed education system

Digital India, Make in India, Clean India, Smart Cities... these are slogans supporters of embattled prime minister Narendra Modi chorus to emphasise the primacy of his “development and growth” agenda. On the other hand, ghar wapsi, love jihad, Hindu rashtra, bans on beef, books and broadcasts… these are slogans supporters of empowered prime minister Narendra Modi raise to assert the primacy of hindutva.

Numerous commentators have remarked on the lack of progress of the modernist charter while lamenting the spread of the primordial agenda. Supporters say the prime minister’s development plans are being held hostage by “fringe elements”. Opponents challenge this, saying the hindutva project is Mr. Modi’s main plank.

And thus the political debate goes on, nightly on television and in the newspapers every morning. What’s indisputable is that India is caught in a bind, with the whole world watching. There are two reasons why the world is watching: one, the prime minister is an avid traveller who basks in the company of the world’s who’s who. He is adept at showcasing his forays in the Indian media and before large and adulatory NRI audiences.

The other reason why all eyes are on India is because of reports that primordial formations are threatening to derail India’s democracy. While Modi’s global tours go unreported in the mainstream world media, the killings, bans, and bigotry are prominently displayed in pixels and print the world over.

Given such alarming reports in global media, who will take the prime minister’s invitation to build modern India seriously? Even as Mr. Modi tries to assure the world of his commitment to diversity and democracy, his partners in the saffron brotherhood blacken faces of dissenters, commit hate crimes against minorities, and talk menacingly about regulating the media.

In Mumbai, the brazen threats of the Shiv Sena, an ally of the BJP led by Mr. Modi, forced the cricket authorities to withdraw all Pakistani umpires and commentators from the remainder of the India-South Africa series. It’s the same with utterances and speeches of senior saffron sages about the need to regulate the media.

How this stand-off between economic modernisation and the authoritarian and revivalist agenda will be resolved is difficult to say. In a nation with a burgeoning middle class, the tendency would be to favour the former. This assumes that the middle class is the repository of enlightened liberal values and as such a bulwark against what the Indian press used to call “fissiparous tendencies”. I don’t think the assumption can stand scrutiny. Here’s why.

Historically, Indian policymakers have ignored elementary education and vocational training in favour of higher education and professional development. The result is an educated elite listing in the storm-tossed sea of a poorly educated majority. Even within the elite class, the emphasis is on engineering and medicine, management and accountancy. Middle class children, especially male, are encouraged, forced and nudged into the study of these streams to land steady jobs. Liberal arts disciplines such as literature, history, language and philosophy are dismissed as unworthy, okay for girls.

Despite heavily subsidised bias in its favour, the higher education system has failed miserably. It produces a vast pool of middle class graduates, ill-equipped to meet the demands of a modernising economy. Unable to find jobs, they are recruited by political parties to fight nefarious numbers wars that determine political outcomes. Easily manipulated, these youth become the foot soldiers of atavistic campaigns against change. As such, they form the bulk of illiberal forces threatening to take India back to the Stone Age.

On the other hand, the higher education system also produces some world-class scientists, engineers, lawyers and doctors, managers and technocrats. But decades of command-and-control industry policies have impaired the ability of the economy to provide jobs and business opportunities. Caught in the socialist quagmire, shiploads of the best graduates have migrated westward, contributing to India’s ‘brain drain’. True, the best middle-class graduates did well in the US and elsewhere but the disruption took its toll and they became implacably opposed to licence-permit raj and its purveyors.

Therefore, like those they left behind, they too became supporters of illiberal forces. These are the groups that turn out in huge numbers to hear Mr. Modi rant and rave against the previous regime in New York, California, Australia and elsewhere. Thus the top layer of the education system and its vast middling layer have fused into an aggrieved segment, embracing religious and cultural revivalism and chauvinist causes, harbouring vague hopes of seeing India emerge as a “global power”.

This is the whirlwind the country reaped in the 2014 election. With just 31 percent of the national vote in their favour, majoritarian political forces are poised to hack away at the carefully-nurtured edifice of constitutionalism. In the final analysis the education system bears a major share of responsibility for the growing atavism and intolerance spreading across the country.

(An edited version of this post appeared in Education World, November 2015)