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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  What it means to have an uneducated leader

What it means to have an uneducated leader

A lack of education produces two qualitiesinstinct to simplify and certitude

In Narendra Modi, a lack of formal education is combined with certitude. Photo: AFPPremium
In Narendra Modi, a lack of formal education is combined with certitude. Photo: AFP

In the debate a few years ago over whether Sonia Gandhi should have become prime minister, one element was not commented on: her lack of qualification. Not qualification in the political or constitutional sense. She had that despite the embarrassing hysteria of Sushma Swaraj who threatened to tonsure her chubby head—a most unpleasant thought—if the Congress president became prime minister.

No, what I mean is Sonia’s lack of education. She has never studied beyond high school and her knowledge of the world is entirely from experience, and not even partially from academic application.

As prime minister she would have been reliant on advice to the point of dependency on such things as foreign affairs, finance, strategic affairs and the economy. Had she plowed on regardless of the assumption that she knew what was best, we would have come to grief.

Usually, a lack of education produces two qualities.

The first is the instinct to simplify. The other, a product of the first and more dangerous, is certitude. Dangerous, particularly when one is convinced that one is “decisive"—a word that really means that someone who is quick in making decisions. Sanjay Gandhi, who was barely literate (he failed in, and then dropped out of, high school), had just such a dangerous certitude.

Doubt is usually the sign of an enlightened mind. In our parts, however, it is seen as indecision when we are assessing leadership and therefore something not heroic.

Certitude is seen by Indians as a virtue in making leaders strong and decisive. But it is equally an indicator that its possessor suffers from a lack of awareness of opposing arguments, of lack of data and information. This is a universal problem, of course. In the West, it is the conservative who yearns for decisive leadership and a stamping of authority. Later, when the decisive leader produces a war that is pure stupidity, the conservative is baffled and chastised.

Extreme certitude, of the sort we observe in Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi, is actually a negative quality when coupled with a lack of proper education. Modi has never been to college and his degree is from a correspondence course.

His writing, which is all in Gujarati, is mainly hagiography. It is mediocre (perhaps it will come to wider attention now that he is where he is) and shows little awareness of the world. He has not travelled much outside India. Unfortunately, his English is also poor, which, in my opinion, has contributed to leaving his mind unopened because there is little access to the world for the Gujarati-only individual.

Modi would not have reached the position he is in today, within striking distance of becoming the prime minister, in a civilized nation because he isn’t qualified.

The rest of the world accepts this and it isn’t something that is particularly debated. It can, in fact, be easily demonstrated.

In the UK, the probable future leader Boris Johnson is from Oxford University. His degree is in Literae Humaniores, meaning the Classics of ancient Greece and Rome. Prime minister David Cameron is also from Oxford as is former prime minister Tony Blair. Former prime minister Gordon Brown has a PhD and so has Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Chinese president Xi Jinping also holds a doctorate and Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe has a master’s degree from the University of Southern California. France’s François Hollande has a postgraduate degree from the elite ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration). Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott is a Rhodes scholar from Oxford. Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper has a master’s degree in economics.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin, this will come as a surprise, also has a PhD. Foreign Affairs magazine reported last year that in 1989, “a 45-year-old Putin was busy defending his PhD thesis, The Strategic Planning of Regional Resources Under the Formation of Market Relations, at the St Petersburg Mining Institute. In it, he argued that Russian economic success would depend on creating national energy champions."

Whatever else one may have thought of former US president George W. Bush, he was no yokel. He studied at Yale and then at Harvard. Bill Clinton before him was a Rhodes scholar to Oxford and Barack Obama was at Harvard.

This insistence on academic qualifications from top universities is not some form of vanity. It is an indicator, the strongest one and perhaps the only one, that the candidate has a fine and balanced mind. Manmohan Singh, our vacillating, indecisive prime minister, is more qualified than any of those above, as Obama himself acknowledges.

Modi does not belong to this list. Sonia doesn’t either, but at least she knows it.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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Published: 28 Sep 2013, 12:03 AM IST
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