The Great Question We Never Ask In An Election – by Keshava Guha


Let’s begin with a quiz question. Which was the last Indian state government to lose re-election because of its failure to deliver good schools? Read on for the answer. 

On Thursday, Assembly election results will be declared in five Indian states. In geographic, cultural, and developmental terms, these states could not be more different. They include one of India’s richest (Goa), and one of its poorest (Uttar Pradesh); a Sikh-majority state (Punjab), and one with no majority religion (Manipur). With the partial exception of UP, the campaigns have all been dominated by state-specific matters.

What they have in common is less the issues that are being discussed than the issues that aren’t. Most notably: Education. Yet, only weeks ago, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Education was front-page news. Not for what was being taught or learnt there, but for whether Muslim girls ought to be allowed to go to college in a hijab.

Education, especially school education, may be our Republic’s most enduring and most damaging failure. It is sometimes claimed that Narendra Modi does not value Education because he himself didn’t need it, that his is the government of “hard work, not Harvard”. This claim is used to explain his previous choices of HRD minister, his unwillingness to increase central education funding (as opposed to, for instance, spending on infrastructure) and his conspicuous willingness to sacrifice the interests of students at the altar of fighting Covid-19.

All this may be true, but as so often, we over-attribute to an individual psyche what is in fact a collective pathology. Narendra Modi may be an autodidact, but the Indian state neglected Education when it was run by products of Harrow and Doon School. When free India celebrated its golden jubilee in 1997, there were actually more illiterate Indians than there had been 50 years earlier.

Contrast this with the achievements of China, where literacy increased from 20% in 1950 to over 95% today, or Vietnam, where Ho Chi Minh’s “call for literacy” led to a population that was 90% illiterate in 1945 achieving near-universal literacy in two decades.

By the crude measure of literacy, we have done better since 2000. But even before the pandemic, broader measures of learning outcomes – such as the ASER report  revealed a school system that had stagnated at a level of criminal insufficiency.

Modi’s immediate predecessor as PM – a man every bit as self-made, although rather quieter about it – knows better than anyone the capacity of Education to elevate a life. But Manmohan Singh’s government’s signature policy, the Right to Education Act, was an ill-conceived, input-focused legislation that, as experts warned at the time, failed to improve learning outcomes. 

All this was true before 2020. But for the majority of India’s children, the pandemic has meant two years not of learning stagnation, but of learning theft. They have been deprived both of what they would have learned in these years as well as of what they learned in the preceding. And the deprivation has been appallingly unequal.

To the quiz I opened with: the answer, of course, is no government, ever. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Modi, the Indian state is uninterested in running good schools, and India’s electorates show no sign of challenging that uninterest. Two decades ago we were told that voter expectations had grown: that from RKM (roti, kapda, makaan) the voter had graduated to demanding BSP (Bijli, sadak, paani). The next step, to SSN (shiksha, swasth, naukri), seems as elusive as ever.

And yet, across class and community, Indians are obsessed with Education. From the south Mumbai family paying thousands of dollars to an American admissions counsellor to the families that sell their land to send their child to Kota, most Indians see Education as the best route to social mobility, or at least securing their current position.

How can one square our education obsession at the family level with the absence of Education from our politics? One possible answer is that Education is representative of our wider tendency to privatise public goods. This may be down to zero-sum thinking (my child’s gain is, by definition, someone else’s loss in a world of scarce seats) or to a chronic lack of faith in the state’s ability to deliver services. But the net result is a country in which those that can afford it – often those that can ill-afford it – seek out private health, private security, private drinking water, private oxygen. 

The pandemic temporarily reversed the privatisation of our schools because so many families could no longer afford fees or were unwilling to pay for online-only classes. But once Covid is more securely behind us, the original trend will be restored. In many states, a majority of students have left the state system. Soon that majority will be national.

Narendra Modi has perfected what his former Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian calls “the new welfarism” or “the public provision of essential private goods.” The new welfarism now forms a central plank of the Prime Minister’s political platform, as well as of Yogi Adityanath’s. Education, like breathable air, is another matter. By far, the largest population of Indians affected by toxic air pollution live in Uttar Pradesh. Yet the fact that air pollution and learning outcomes are not political issues in Uttar Pradesh never provokes comment. Government, Opposition, and media take it as a given.

In Education, as in other things, our print and broadcast media reflect the class interests of their audience (India’s richest 5 to 10%), not any broader conception of public interest. Recall the energy devoted in Kapil Sibal’s time as HRD Minister to the question of whether the CBSE should do away with its Class X exam, a question affecting a small minority of India’s students. English-language press coverage of the 2022 Union Budget was more exercised by the tax on crypto than on the allocations for Health and Education. ASER figures be damned, our elites are often heard to remark that our education system must be the world’s best; after all, it produced Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella.

Politicians cannot be counted on to prioritise Education unless voters demand it. Improving learning outcomes is a slow business, unlikely to yield tangible results with an Assembly term. The rare Indian Chief Minister who improves schools receives little credit either from the voter or posterity. Take K Kamaraj, whose focus on school education, in complete contrast to his Congress contemporaries, yielded extraordinary long-term benefits for Tamil Nadu. Kamaraj ought to be held up as an exemplar for all Indian Chief Ministers. Instead, he is merely another victim of one narrative that says the only important Congress leaders are named Nehru or Gandhi, and another that nothing good happened in Tamil Nadu before 1967.

Or take north India’s great education success story, Himachal Pradesh. When was the last time you heard a politician say we should be more like Himachal? At a national level, we have convinced ourselves that we have nothing to learn from other countries. At the state level, we think we have nothing to learn from other states.

Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia deserve credit for explicitly seeking to politicise the quality of government schools. Their claims have not always stood up to scrutiny, but they are alone among Indian state governments in actually inviting that scrutiny.

The hijab controversy revealed us to be a society that cares more about what students are wearing to school or college than what they’re learning there. The most compelling reasons to care about public education are patriotic and human: the desire to see all our fellow citizens given the chance to realise their capabilities. It ought to be obvious that our aim should always be to find a way for our children to study. Instead, many of us would actually prefer for some of them to stay at home because it will give us a chance to say, Look at you backward Muslims, you won’t educate your daughters. 

In describing the pandemic’s effects on education, I used the term “learning theft”, not “learning loss”, because the loss was not fated but chosen: by governments that put students last, and by voters that let them get away with it. The grim likelihood is that for tens of millions of our children, the theft is likely to be permanent – and all we are likely to be able to offer them are free rations and cheap data. 

(Keshava Guha is a writer of literary and political journalism, and the author of ‘Accidental Magic’.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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