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Does the education minister’s education matter?

Should the education minister be a graduate? Perhaps, like me, your instinct is a loud and unequivocal yes. And you may well be right. But it’s not quite as simple as you think, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: May 31, 2014 21:35 IST

Should the education minister be a graduate? Perhaps, like me, your instinct is a loud and unequivocal yes. And you may well be right. But it’s not quite as simple as you think. You can argue this equally convincingly from both points of view.

The starting point is the fact there are no minimum qualifications necessary to be an MP. You might think there should be but, remember, that could undermine our democracy. According to the 2001 census (the latest available), only 6.7% of India’s population are graduates. In fact, barely 14.1% can be considered school leavers. So if you set minimum educational qualifications you would probably eliminate the preponderant majority from contesting elections. Where would that leave our democracy?

Now, since every MP is eligible to be a minister we have always known we could end up with an education minister — or even a prime minister — who’s not a graduate. Incidentally, the Manmohan Singh cabinet had at least five ministers who were not graduates.

But is there something special about the education minister? I think there is. It would seem contradictory for any individual to be committed to boosting education and, more than that, to the belief that education matters, possibly above all else, and yet not have a graduate degree.

In the case of Mr Modi’s government, the contradiction between Ms Irani’s lack of a degree and the claims of its manifesto go one step further and could even, conceivably, be embarrassing. Let me give you a couple of examples.

On page 22 the manifesto says: “BJP believes that education is the most powerful tool for the advancement of the nation.” But if Ms Irani gave up trying for a graduate degree after just one year couldn’t you conclude she disagrees? Or she doesn’t care about her own advancement? Or, maybe, she’s just terribly lazy?

Again, on page 22 the manifesto says: “India has to become a knowledge society and has to reverberate with educated skilled manpower of high standards required to meet the challenges of 21st century.” And it adds “this requires a bold and visionary leadership”. Those words could make Ms Irani squirm.

There is, however, an opposite point of view. It’s intelligence and common sense one expects from ministers, alongside a capacity to govern and implement. I’m not sure either is enhanced by a graduate degree or undermined if you don’t have one. Quite frankly, for this specific purpose, a degree is irrelevant.

Indira Gandhi, who many consider our best prime minister, was not a graduate. She barely finished a year at Oxford. Nor was Rajiv Gandhi. And the same is true of his widow, the UPA chairperson, as well as his late brother, Sanjay.

I’d say the key question is not one of qualification or capacity to perform. It’s to do with the legitimate expectations of the Indian people. Does the aam aadmi expect his ministers to be graduates? Would he be dismayed if they were merely 12th class pass? Or left school after the 5th, as Uma Bharti did?

I don’t have the answer. And I’m pretty sure you don’t either! But if the aam aadmi cares he ought to make it clear by the way he votes. After all, that’s why the Election Commission makes public the educational qualifications of each candidate.

If after that politicians without degrees or even school leaving certificates are elected, you could say the aam aadmi has made his answer known.

The views expressed by the author are personal