Why media’s obsession with degrees of Modi’s new ministers is misplaced

Having a college degree doesn't necessarily mean you really know your subject.

BySidharth Singh
Why media’s obsession with degrees of Modi’s new ministers is misplaced
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To go big is a preferred optics manoeuvre of the Narendra Modi government. Of the 77 members of the new ministry, 48 are from non-upper caste backgrounds (27 OBC, 12 SC and eight ST), making it the union ministry with the most caste representation till date.

In terms of gender representation, there are 11 women in the ministry. In the previous ministry there were nine women, the fewest in two decades. Both of Manmohan Singh’s ministries had 10 women.

There are five ministers from minority religions – two Buddhists, a Muslim, a Sikh, and a Christian. The Buddhists, Kiren Rijiju and Ramdas Athawale, were already in the cabinet. So was the Sikh, Hardeep Singh Puri, and the Muslim, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. The only new addition is John Barla, a Christian from Bengal.

The new ministry’s caste, gender and religious representation received wide primetime coverage but arguably the most overrated and hypocritical spit shine was lathered on the educational qualifications of the new ministers.

The subject of “knowledgeable ministers” with advanced degrees was debated on TV news channels ranging from CNN18 to Zee News. On the latter Hindi channel, Sudhir Chaudhary, declared that the time for well studied “domain experts” in government has arrived.

Let’s forget for a minute that the union council of ministers has always maintained a token focus on education, and consider the new academic qualifications of the new ministers.

Though TV news anchors frequently mentioned “PhD” and “professional”, most of the new ministers are undergraduates. There are five ministers with only LLB and 12 with Bachelor’s degrees. Jyotiraditya Scindia has a Masters from Stanford University, Bhagwat Kishanrao Karad is a surgeon, and there are a handful of PhDs, including Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, a geography professor from Manipur whom the media has ignored.

While it may be valuable to have formally educated ministers, assuming that a degree translates to depth of knowledge or expertise is at best a misguided notion which these anchors failed to note. Academics and technocrats don’t necessarily make for good ministers. In fact, having ministers with college degrees doesn’t even guarantee that they will respect and promote academic freedom, as this government has shown. When knowledge is inconvenient to the government, it jails scholars like Hani Babu, Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bhardwaj, Shoma Sen. It even subjects students to police brutality, like at Jamia Millia Islamia and AMU in 2019 and at Ramjas College in 2017.

Last year, India scored a meagre 0.352 in a report measuring Academic Freedom from 0 to 1. Yet, early this year, the Modi government flirted with the idea of making official approval mandatory for organising international seminars.

Today, even as it ropes in academics as ministers, the Modi government continues to get bureaucrats to run and direct universities. Prominent public universities such as the JNU have been academically subverted and bureaucratised to the extent that a professor with as storied a career as Romila Thapar was told to submit a CV for career verification.

Sadly, the political perspective on knowledge and education is extremely narrow in India, primarily because the polity admires the shine of a degree, but dislikes the notion of free thought. In such a political culture, where knowledge is actively suppressed, degrees and institutions will not mean much in the way of acquiring knowledge, let alone employing it in governance.

Partly for this reason, who comes from where and who might have never gone to college is such a hot political topic in this country. Indeed, a controversy has already stirred about the veracity of Nisith Pramanik’s academic qualification.

If you still think that a college degree necessarily translates to depth in knowledge, understanding and empathy, watch Arnab Goswami screaming on Republic TV and know that this is the best the man managed with a Master’s in social anthropology from Oxford University.

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