The Smriti Irani controversy, HRD ministry and intellectual honesty
Smriti Irani’s appointment and the subsequent controversy have stirred a hornet’s nest in the online world. Illustrating our commitment to diversity of opinions within the spectrum, there were a couple of perspectives on this issue on CRI – a concise take on the appointment of Ms.Irani by Amar here and an introspective, somewhat worried take by Prof.Sarkar here.
Amar warned against trying to professionalize the political class with the clamour for appointment of experts as ministers as opposed to political appointees. Prof Sarkar pointed out some important challenges facing our education system including lack of academic vigor among students graduating from mid-tier institutions vis-à-vis global standards, lack of a vibrant research environment and an educational system that mainly ends up mass-producing unemployable graduates. She contends that a domain expert who could grasp these issues quickly may not have had to deal with a steep learning curve at the cost of time that is running out.
While not discounting the gravity of these challenges the belief that only a domain expert or a professionally qualified technocrat can solve these problems is misplaced. A lot of these problems – RTE, loosening of examination standards, ever increasing reservations, insufficient research because of the lack of incentives or infrastructure – are political in nature in that they have been wrought upon us by politicians pushing a political agenda detrimental in the long run in lieu of short term political benefits.
The antidote to this lies not in apolitical, domain expert appointees but in political appointees who have enough political acumen to map real world problems to ideological stances, domain expertise to realpolitik and expert suggestions to imaginative political packaging. Running a ministry is a political job and part of it is consulting and appointing experts to ideate and execute plans. For example, no political party can risk doing away with RTE wholesale for the fear of losing political capital to other political players and the media who will accuse them of being anti-poor and anti-backward caste. However, a keen political player at the top would indulge domain experts to come up with ideas to repackage RTE to remove the potency of its venom so as to render it irrelevant, build momentum towards this idea by encouraging preemptive intellectual cover and provide enough political cover to it by managing the political optics.
In those days of the Food Security Bill debate when every opposition to it was being dubbed anti-poor, a politician with the political acumen of Mr.Modi could outflank the debate from the other side by suggesting that the Food Security Bill was anti-federalism and most importantly anti-farmer. No doubt he had domain experts helping him in calibrating his policy but the politician in him was needed to gather political capital for the anti-Food Security Bill stance that no domain expert or academic could possibly summon up. Mr.Modi is also credited with turning around the agrarian situation in Gujarat as also the power situation. In both, without being a domain expert, he has passionately done the political front-ending of the initiatives and gathered political capital for it while it is a no-brainer that there were key bureaucrats and domain experts who worked behind the scenes, deliberated on ideas and executed them.
Besides, some keen politics watchers from the Right have actually expressed optimism over the appointment of Ms.Irani as HRD minister owing to the perception that she is a close aide of Mr.Modi and hence he may have taken a keen interest in carving out an agenda for the HRD ministry to implement it through a trusted aide.
Coming to the question of various affidavits of Ms.Irani, if she has committed any crime then she deserves to face the music. However the Right would be justified in quoting other instances of such inconsistent affidavits by high profile politicians like the Gandhis that have gone virtually unquestioned.
Intellectual honesty or moral high ground although good to have, are of little utility unless backed by power and outcomes. The need of the moment for the BJP is to deliver outcomes regardless of minor quibbles rather than be worried about playing holier than thou politics which has rarely reaped them any dividend but cost them at least one state government. And the need of the hour for the BJP-leaning ecosystem is to provide policy prescriptions to lift the country out of the current morass, provide intellectual cover to good policies and constructive criticism on the missteps. There needs to be ruthlessness in following the political agenda to its logical conclusion, deftness in carrying out tough moves to build institutions and occupy academia to restore balance in key areas. The ideological battle against the Left and its assorted forces has hardly even begun, let alone won. Modi’s political victory is by no means the victory of the intellectual Right or its much touted intellectual honesty but of his political acumen and model of governance. The only way for the intellectual Right to surge ahead is to go about the business of policy prescription and commentary without splitting hair on trivial matters. Intellectual honesty is good to have when occupying positions of power within institutions or academia and that power is a derivative of political power that comes from delivering tangible outcomes to a nation desperate for it rather than just being intellectually honest. Focus of the online ecosystem needs to be more on passionately promulgating what needs to be done rather than who needs to do it because that is essentially a political job after all.
Various components of the BJP-leaning spectrum need to alert Ms.Irani of the tough challenges that face her ministry, provide suggestions and exert unrelenting pressure on her to deliver rather than indulging in needless pedantry on whether she has been to college or whether a professional would have done a much better job. As for the domain expert bit, it would suffice to say that we have hit the pits with one at our helm over the last decade.