Home / Politics / Policy /  Does having a degree make a good politician?

The war of words between the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over whether or not Prime Minister Narendra Modi has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Delhi University and the Gujarat University, respectively, is far from over.

However, the allegations and counter-allegations beget several key questions.

First and foremost is whether it’s worth lying. Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, in a column in NDTV.com, said. “It is not necessary to be a graduate to qualify as PM. What is more important is to be truthful about it. Frank and upfront."

Writing about our earlier PMs, he shares an anecdote about Rajiv Gandhi, “I sat in on an interview that Rajiv Gandhi gave to Dhiren Bhagat, who asked what kind of degree Rajiv had obtained at Cambridge. ‘Ploughed,’ came the laconic reply. Bhagat looked startled... ‘Failed,’ clarified the Prime Minister."

“Indira Gandhi too had graduated from Santiniketan but dropped out of Oxford. Jawaharlal Nehru had managed no more than a poor second. The ‘Shastri’ after Lal Bahadur was his degree, not his surname. PV Narasimha Rao was much more qualified, but as Vir Sanghvi remarked, ‘He could speak eighteen languages - but couldn’t make up his mind in any one of them!’ The less said of the educational qualifications of Deve Gowda and Chandra Shekhar the better. Of Morarji Desai, more is known of his therapies than his degrees. Inder Gujral was known in Lahore as a bright student. Dr. Manmohan Singh alone of our many PMs can lay any claim to high academic credentials. The point is that a PM is not an IAS officer. He does not have to pass exams to qualify," he added.

The point is there is no linear relationship between how well a Prime Minister performed at studies and how well he performs as head of government or head of state, Aiyar wrote.

It is only recently that in India, politicians’ educational qualifications (or lack of) have started coming under scrutiny and influencing public opinion. Otherwise, politics and journalism were the only careers where fancy degrees have not been prerequisites to getting elected, or finding jobs. An older generation of successful politicians such as the late K. Kamraj, or Rabri Devi and J Jayalalithaa, have never tried to hide that they didn’t go to college. It hasn’t diminished their stature one bit.

At its core, politics is about representing the needs of the people. It’s debatable how much a degree in business administration matters if you’re trying to provide water and electricity to a remote hamlet in Ladakh. While education can never be a waste, tenacity and experience at the ground level count for as much if not more in politics.

But why has the issue of educational qualification become so big in the Indian polity?

Besides Modi’s, even documents pertaining to HRD minister Smriti Irani’s degree are under scrutiny. “Whether the ministers of the government of India have diplomas and degrees in their CVs or not, their party, paradoxically, has been more demanding than any other in this domain. Indeed, last year, two BJP-ruled states—Haryana and Rajasthan—altered the electoral law governing local bodies in a manner that was unprecedented in India but which has not received a lot of attention, writes Christophe Jaffrelot for The Indian Express.

These new norms are in contradiction with the philosophy of the Indian Constitution, which allowed every Indian to contest elections in 1952 while the literacy rate was 11%. Yet, the laws under review have been justified by the Supreme Court, which has systematically upheld them on two grounds. First, education has been seen by the judges as a precondition for efficiency. Second, the same judges have applied a moral viewpoint according to which “it is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad". This means that educated persons cannot be dishonest, writes Jaffrelot, while pointing out the intrinsic problems in the new law.

Coming back to the present row over Modi’s degrees, if the past is anything to go by, this incident will boomerang in favour of the BJP. Have we forgotten Mani Shankar Aiyar’s abundant gift to the BJP, when he attempted to shame the PM for his humble origins as a chaiwalla? It turned out to be most propitious for the party, giving them one of their most successful campaigns, Chai Pe Charcha. This created community sentiment and momentum for the BJP, and was a bit hit in its media appeal, according to an article in Outlookindia.com.

Politically, the lack of a degree is hardly a drawback for the government. If anything, it endears him to the masses—after all, 283 million people in our country are considered illiterate.

The article concludes, “Pressing for honesty is a justified demand. But coming across as elitist in the bargain allows the PM once again to make a victor out of victimhood."

Be it questions over his marital status or educational qualifications, Modi has had his share of controversies over his personal life, including the chaiwalla (tea vendor) jibe and comments on how he dresses, among others.

In all this, another Narendra Modi is getting the attention that he would have never expected.

Meanwhile, Twitterati had a hearty laugh at the goings-on. Read here and here.

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