Manoj Soni: Meet the ‘chhote Modi’ heading the UPSC selection committee

There’s a hue and cry about his ‘RSS-BJP connections’, but who is he?

WrittenBy:Meghnad S& Ashwine Kumar Singh
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In early April, IAS officer Jitin Yadav tweeted some advice to aspirants.

The first name on his list was Manoj Soni, the newly appointed chairman of the Union Public Service Commission, described as a “scholar of political science” who “specialises in international relations”.

Soni’s appointment was not without controversy, since he seems to share “close ties” with the BJP and the RSS. A Trinamool Congress MP called his appointment an “SOS”, Rahul Gandhi said the UPSC is now the “Union Pracharak Sangh Commission”.

So, we might not be IAS aspirants, but we decided to take Yadav’s advice anyway, and dive into the life and times of Dr Manoj Soni.

His official bio on the UPSC website is comprehensive enough: two-time vice-chancellor of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Open University, and youngest ever vice-chancellor of Baroda’s Maharaja Sayajirao University.

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After his appointment, news reports helped fill in the blanks. The Times of India said he used to sell incense sticks in Mumbai as a child to support his family – something that Better India focused on too. Soni is also “associated” with the Swaminarayan sect’s Anoopam Mission – apparently he does “social work”, though we could not find out more – and took “diksha” as a “nishkarma karmayogi”, or selfless worker, in January 2020.

Let’s unpack this.

The Swaminarayan sect refers to the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha in Gujarat. It was formed based on the teachings of Sahajanand Swami, a yogi in the 19th century. The sanstha built multiple temples across India, the most famous being the Akshardham temples in Delhi and Gujarat.

Also, the prime minister is one of its biggest followers. (Note: Pramukh Swami Maharaj was the head of the sanstha.)

Journalists who have reported on the sanstha’s work told us “it’s possible” that Soni and Modi have a “good relationship” due to their joint interest in the sanstha.

“The ashram is like a social club,” said a journalist on the condition of anonymity. “You can call it social capitalism as well.”

Modi’s interest in the sanstha could also allegedly stem from its potential as a vote bank.

“About 30-35 percent of people in Gujarat believe in the teachings of this sect,” said the journalist, though there is no specific data for this. “If a community can decide the votes of 10-15 percent of the population, they can swing the votes of 40-45 percent people downstream. How could Modi stay away from such a big vote bank?”

Now, back to Soni, who apparently carried the nickname of “Chhote Modi”, according to this 2007 TOI story.

An Ahmedabad-based journalist gave us the lowdown on Soni’s background.

“He did his Class 11 and 12 from Anand city,” he said. He alleged Soni initially opted for science in Class 12 but “failed”, after which he purportedly moved to the arts stream and passed. Soni worked as a typist at the time, the journalist said, and then did a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Baroda’s MS University. Soni was also the editor of a newsletter called Bramha Nirjhar, published by Anoopam Mission.

Then came the Gujarat riots of 2002.

“When CM Narendra Modi was accused of the riots, Soni published a book to present evidence of Modi’s innocence,” the Ahmedabad journalist said. The book was titled In Search of a Third Space and apparently told the story of the riots from a Hindutva perspective. The journalist alleged that after the book was published, Soni was made the vice-chancellor of MS University and a “member of the fees regulation committee”.

Newslaundry could not independently verify these allegations.

In 2007, Soni stumbled into controversy. A postgraduate student had displayed his paintings at an exhibition on the MS University campus. Two right-wing groups, one Hindu and one Christian, said the student’s depictions of Shiva, Durga, Jesus and others were “highly vulgar and objectionable”.

Soni as vice-chancellor stepped in, lending support to the groups protesting the paintings by choosing to describe the paintings in a report to the University Grants Commission. You need to read Indian Express’s report on Soni’s comments to truly get it. Soni also suspended a professor and the postgraduate student was eventually arrested. (Note: The student set the vice-chancellor’s office on fire 11 years later.)

In an opinion piece, TOI said it’s “well-known on the campus” that Soni would allow “RSS and BJP men in the MS University syndicate and senate, who are often government nominees, to influence every important decision that the university takes”.

While there’s a hue and cry about Soni’s appointment as chairman of the UPSC, a teacher at a UPSC coaching centre in Delhi pointed out Soni had been a member of the UPSC’s selection committee for five years prior to his appointment.

“The people raising questions on Soni’s appointment as chairman and his closeness to the BJP-RSS were silent when he was made a member of the committee,” the teacher said. “Why didn’t they speak up then?”

The teacher also said it’s “not mandatory” that only ex-bureaucrats can become chairpersons of the UPSC; academics can be appointed too. “This has happened in the past,” they said. “But the only difference is that the appointments are usually done for academics from well-known national universities.”

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