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Do manifestos matter?

No election was ever lost for want of a manifesto. Nor do most thinking Indians imagine that those political parties that do publish manifestos, will practise what they preach, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Apr 15, 2009 22:40 IST

No election was ever lost for want of a manifesto. Nor do most thinking Indians imagine that those political parties that do publish manifestos, will practise what they preach. As a friend put it, “They’re basically necessary hogwash — the wash within which the political hogs bathe themselves in order to suggest they’re clean.” And yet, media scrutiny of manifestos makes it seem as if these are documents of serious intent.

If Hindu nationalism was expected to be the focus of the BJP, its manifesto must have disappointed BJP-baiters. Indrajit Hazra was one of those who pointed to the absence of a “Hindu fundamentalist Santa Claus wish list” there (Damned if they don’t, April 8), and that food and farmers are far more important than heritage with a Hindu flavour.

That, of course, does not mean much. Within days of the manifesto release, L.K. Advani, wrote to a few hundred religious leaders, pledging to consult them on policy matters if he became the prime minister. So, regardless of its manifesto, religion remains entrenched in the BJP’s political agenda.

What does this mean for higher education? At the very least, if the next government is formed by the BJP, one can expect that it would revive what it began in 1999 when it was in power. This will mean more funding for astrology courses and incentives for opening departments for the study of karam kand or Hindu ritual, as was done in 2001 by the University Grants Commission.

If the BJP speaks in many voices, the silence in the manifesto of the Congress on the autonomy of institutions of higher learning is ominous. In its 2004 manifesto, when the Congress was the main Opposition party in parliament, it had promised to ensure that all institutions of higher learning would retain a sense of autonomy which, it reiterated, they had enjoyed in previous Congress regimes.

‘Academic autonomy’, however, no longer figures in its 2009 manifesto. This should have set off alarm bells for academics. So why are those bells silent?

Actually, those bells began ringing less than two months ago when the government appointed 15 vice-Chancellors for our newly-created Central universities. It took only two sittings for a government appointed Search Committee to examine and dispose off some 1,500 applications even though most of the new universities exist mainly on paper — 12 of them have no buildings or faculty.

Since any talk of academic autonomy would be embarrassing in the immediate aftermath of those appointments, the Congress must have thought it politic to drop it altogether. If the Congress leads the next government, academic posts are likely to continue being packed with political appointees. Curiously enough, what the Congress dropped, the BJP has reiterated, stating that it would give full autonomy to institutions of higher learning. But surely the BJP doesn’t think that we have already forgotten the vehemence of the attack that their own HRD minister had launched against IITs, which was widely perceived as a move to compromise their autonomy?

Educational spending, though is an issue on which both parties are in agreement, promising to raise public spending on education to 6 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). How do we explain this convergence? As a kind of ritual chanting, some sceptics would say. Favourite numbers exist across civilisations. Number 7 had a worldwide appeal — China was made up of seven provinces, Persia was divided into seven satrapies, and the seventh day was the most sacred for Christian nations. In India, 18 was traditionally a favourite — with 18 puranas, 18 types of westerners, and 18 fort-kingdoms in various parts of India.

Number 6 is slowly joining that league. This figure was first mentioned more than 40 years ago, in 1964-66, by the Kothari Commission on education. By examining spending in educationally advanced countries, it had suggested that the government set a target of 6 per cent national spending on education. Since then, everyone – from planners to PMs — has continued to pay obeisance to this figure.

If this is not ritual sloganeering, shouldn’t some political pundit should tell us why, after 40 years, this number continues to be the cherished target, even though nothing close it ever gets spent on education?

Nayanjot Lahiri writes occasional articles for Hindustan Times and Times Higher Education, London.

First Published: Apr 15, 2009 22:36 IST