PM's degree row: Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring

The Prime Minister of India may not necessarily be formally educated, but it’s worse to have at the helm a non-expert who pretends to be an ‘expert’

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Jagdish Rattanani

Not very long ago, SMSes and social media forwards used to be not about the veracity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s university degrees but about the plethora of academic degrees and honours showered on his predecessor, Dr. Manmohan Singh, who remains in those terms the most educated Prime Minister India has had. Those messages urged us to take national pride in the fact that Dr. Singh had more to show in terms of formal qualifications than probably any other leader in the world at that time. Today, social media messages are about the suspected lack of education of the current Prime Minister, and the question being asked is whether the Prime Minister of India needs to be formally educated or not.

This is the wrong pill for the ills that beset the nation today.

It is, of course, proper to ask if the degrees shown by the Prime Minister and his team are genuine. If they are not, then the charges of dishonesty, fraud and worse will stick, and political as well as regulatory consequences must follow. But that is a different issue.

As the rule book stands today, a university degree is not a pre-requisite to be the Prime Minister of India. This is as it should be. Knowledge, of the formal and expert variety in particular, is closely linked to power, and the interlock can disenfranchise the majority while creating a minority of ‘experts’ who begin to control, command and get away unquestioned.

Thus, in many cases development ‘experts’ deliver the worst of development with their ideas, power and reach. The environmental crisis is after all a result of the development experts running amok. The so-called economic experts did not predict the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, and may have had a hand in the making of that crisis. Queen Elizabeth II of the UK was moved to ask at the London School of Economics, which inaugurating a 71 million pounds new academic building.: “It’s awful … Why did no one see it coming?” There were no answers. There is no dearth of money either for the Rockstar academic institutions.

We are dealing with a privileged class of people here. Their knowledge is important but it is not the only knowledge there is. Knowledge also resides in indigenous cultures, customs, the ways and means of understanding developed over the centuries outside the university systems. A memorandum from the Executive Office of US President Joe Biden in November 2021 recognised Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK), a form of indigenous knowledge, as one of the ‘many important bodies of knowledge that contributes to the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of the United States and to our collective understanding of the natural world’.

Insisting on formal qualifications will make political positions less inclusive particularly in India given the widespread inequality, adding new burdens on those outside the system— which is what the narrative of the Prime Minister has been right from the beginning of his shift from Gujarat to New Delhi.

In an interview in 2014, he was quoted as saying: “I’m an outsider. I actually consider myself as an outsider not only to Delhi politics but to politics per se. For 50 years of my life, I was just moving around interacting with people trying to understand the problems they face. I was always on the move from one part of the country to another, from one state to another.” In an interview long before this, he was quoted as saying: “You may be surprised to hear this … but I’m not educated.”

We can agree that in India today we have a leader who is clearly the antithesis of an ‘expert’, and the expectation at the least ought to be for him not to suffer the pitfalls of experts. He can listen to experts without buying everything they might suggest.

We look to the ‘non-experts’ for a different kind of knowledge, a sense of curiosity, observation and listening that is more grounded in the real needs of everyday people, in respect for the environment and a true celebration of vasudhaiva kutumbakam— that the world is one family

In this context, the worst would be the non-expert who pretends to be the expert. The definitive pronunciations against the well-studied reality of climate change and all the embarrassing stories that are the stuff of ridicule these days come from this desire to claim expert status without having expert knowledge. Degrees in ‘Entire Political Science’ fall in the same category of creating the “pretence of knowledge” without having the requisite knowledge.

Barack Obama’s remarks that pointed to Trump and his anti-intellectualism seem apt in this context: “It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about.” We have a non-expert who carries all the pitfalls of an expert, like a sense of certitude—a double whammy that has brought us wild-cat policy decisions like demonetisation, the suddenly-imposed lockdown, the beating of thalis that showed just how much noise empty vessels can make.

The demands for an educated Prime Minister are a good way to attack the BJP and its leader but they side-track the issue. The demands have to be for a more humane Prime Minister who listens, cares and builds for the future rather than one who tramples rights and runs roughshod over everyone seen as an opponent.

What we need is not a PhD Prime Minister but an empathetic Prime Minister who can humanise the knowledge of experts and make it serve the people and the nation with its rich ethos of caring for people, the planet and indeed the wide cosmos

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