New Delhi: In a first-of-its-kind interaction with over 12 million students across the country on Teachers’ Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday put the spotlight afresh on the state of education in the country and used the opportunity to showcase the softer side of his persona.

Since a section of the students would be eligible to vote in the next general election, analysts pointed out that implicitly Modi was turning on the charm to woo future voters. Critics were also quick to point out that though it was Teachers’ Day, no teacher was invited to participate in the interaction that was telecast live.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ensured that he has the first-mover advantage with the first-time voters of 2019. If we look at the age group of the students who asked him questions, they will all be voters in the next elections," said Jai Mrug, a Mumbai-based political analyst. “It is one of the best efforts for brand outreach and to improve the brand of Modi."

In the 90-minute interaction, which was initiated after a short introductory speech by the Prime Minister, Modi employed wit and personal anecdotes to disarm the students and then engage with them on a range of issues including climate change, work ethic, aspirations and skill development. A little over a fortnight after his Independence Day speech, Modi reiterated the need to create a national environment conducive to promote the education of girls, and to also provide separate toilets for girls in schools.

India has one of the largest school education systems in the world with more than 230 million students pursuing their education in over 1.3 million schools. But despite the huge demography, poor learning quality as highlighted in several studies seems to be affecting the country’s competitiveness as a knowledge hub.

Despite the Right to Education law coming into force on 1 April 2010, the situation has not improved. While nearly half the schools don’t have the required toilet facilities, many schools are run by a single teacher. Overall, just elementary schools have nearly half a million vacancies.

“I am a task master. I employ the same high standards for myself. So I work hard and I expect others also to work hard. I had said in my Independence Day speech that if people work for 11 hours, I will work for 12 hours," Modi said in the interaction with students at the Manekshaw Centre in Delhi.

Modi also casually let it be known that he had not been able to find time to explore Delhi because of an increase in workload, and he was only moving between his office and home. While it was Modi’s first conversation with students, he asked schoolchildren to further the dialogue by writing to him.

Political experts said Modi had used the opportunity of Teachers’ Day for brand outreach and also to improve his own branding, which is already high after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s recent victory in the Lok Sabha election.

“This is for high connectivity because Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to establish that he is not only a great political leader, but he also enjoys a connect with young students," said Shiv Vishwanathan, a sociologist and professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy at Sonepat in Haryana.

Ever since his elevation as Prime Minister, Modi has consciously worked towards an image makeover. During his recent visit to Japan, he played the flute and the drum at public events. Similarly, he charmed the people of Bhutan when he broke protocol and stopped the official cavalcade to interact with students who had lined the streets to welcome him.

“Narendra Modi wants to consolidate his position. He not only wants to be known as a repository of wisdom, but also someone who could connect with children," said Vishwanathan.

During his engagement, the Prime Minister encouraged students to contribute towards nation-building by saving electricity in their homes and ensuring cleanliness in their schools.

Modi told the students that the interaction on Teachers’ Day was also aimed at checking how many schools in the country have infrastructure facilities. “This programme is for students, but I am also mapping the programme to know how many schools got my emails and how many schools have computers," he said.

Prashant K. Nanda contributed to this story.

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