Photo: Raj K Raj/ Hindustan Times
Photo: Raj K Raj/ Hindustan Times

Smriti Irani, Yale and morality

Not having a degree is not wrong; claiming to have a degree that you don't have, is wrong. Not apologizing is worse.

Smriti Irani is not the first politician to embellish her résumé, and nor will she be the last. In 2009, the Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament Varun Gandhi was challenged over his claim that he had degrees from the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies. When Mamata Banerjee was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1991 as a Congress candidate, the future West Bengal chief minister had claimed a doctorate from East Georgia University, which didn’t exist. Three years earlier, then Youth Congress president Gurudas Kamat had said he had an MBA from The International University in Missouri, which was not an accredited university, and he had undertaken a correspondence course.

Yale is one of eight elite Ivy League institutions in the US, and in naming Yale, Irani showed good taste. But she had to backtrack quickly and admit that she had only been there for a six-day course along with several other Indian parliamentarians in 2013. She says she has a certificate proving that, which is nice, but as any minister for human resource development should know, that is not the same as a degree. Perhaps she misspoke out of irritation because her apparent lack of university education has been held against her, considering the ministry she is in charge of oversees Indian education. She claims she has done a correspondence course at Delhi University, but in different election affidavits, she has named different courses (BA in 1996, in a 2004 affidavit; B.Com. in 1994, in a 2014 affidavit), and never named Yale as her alma mater.

Irani’s misunderstanding—or fantasy—of her real qualifications matters because she is expected to uphold the excellence of educational institutions and to lead by personal example by being honest, so that students learn the value of a degree. Other politicians abroad have taken bigger steps to express atonement when they are found out. Veteran anti-apartheid activist Pallo Jordan, who has held senior cabinet positions in past South African administrations, resigned in disgrace on Monday, after a newspaper investigation showed that for years he had claimed degrees from University of Madison-Wisconsin and the LSE which he did not have. Nobody expects Irani to resign over this.

None of this should matter; what matters is that somehow Irani craves for a qualification, and when she doesn’t have one, she embroiders her credentials. You don’t have to be a graduate to be a parliamentarian. Through ambition and hard work Irani has come to symbolize what people can achieve regardless of qualifications, and not because of qualifications. There’s nothing embarrassing about that. In a pressure-cooker society where parents urge their children to drop everything and focus on getting into good colleges or the Indian Institutes of Management or Technology, Irani shows that it is possible not only to pursue your dream, but also to make a successful transition from one demanding profession to another. Irani won Indian hearts with her performance as the nation’s favourite daughter-in-law in the soap Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi appealing to millions who saw their orthodoxy reinforced. Then she emerged as an accomplished spokesperson for her party, handling critics and rivals with aplomb on national television. She acquitted herself well at Amethi against Rahul Gandhi, where she expectedly lost but wasn’t humiliated.

To be sure, the last time India had an educationist in charge of the human resource development ministry (or education, as it was then known) was around 1980. Almost all of India’s first 12 education ministers were professors, vice-chancellors of universities, had doctoral degrees, or were barristers. And almost all the 18 ministers since have been career politicians, although some have had other professional qualifications. Irani doesn’t have to be an educationist, but that would have helped.

Granted, she is not Indira Gandhi, but she is no Sarah Palin either. She is the kind of heroine Chetan Bhagat would write a novel about because she is not from the old, established elite aristocracy. Her life story shows her determination to succeed. Her appeal lies in the constituencies where Bhagat’s novels are read and Ekta Kapoor’s soaps are seen. Her having a degree—from Delhi or Yale—is irrelevant in that equation. Irani’s appointment could even have been an inspired choice, if she could think outside the box and stress the need to make education more relevant and practical. Those who criticized her appointment because she didn’t have a degree revealed churlish snobbery. She should be judged by her deeds.

And that’s her failing. When found out, she responded unimaginatively like any other politician, claiming what she said was misunderstood. The morality test she fails is this: Not having a degree is not wrong; claiming to have a degree that you don’t have, is wrong. Not apologizing is wrong. In South Africa, Jordan understood the price he had to pay and he resigned from all positions. In India, Irani will survive because, well, “we are like that only".

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

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