From where I sit - The hogwash manifesto

April 30, 2009

No election in India was ever lost for want of a manifesto. In fact, as a friend put it, many thinking Indians treat manifestos as "hogwash - the wash within which the political hogs bathe themselves in order to suggest they are clean".

And yet, as India gears up for its national elections, media scrutiny makes it seem as if they are documents of serious intent.

If Hindu nationalism was expected to be the focus of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) manifesto, it must have disappointed. While it retains a nationalist flavour, food and farmers are more prominent in the document.

Of course, that does not mean much. Within days of the manifesto's release, L.K. Advani, leader of the BJP, wrote to religious leaders pledging to consult them on policy matters if he became Prime Minister.

What would this mean for higher education? At the very least, if the next Government is formed by the BJP, one can expect it to revive what it began in 1999: more funding for astrology and incentives to open departments for the study of karam kand (Hindu ritual).

The silence of the Congress Party, which leads the present coalition Government, on the autonomy of higher education institutions is also ominous.

In its 2004 manifesto, when it was the main opposition party, Congress cast itself as the defender of university autonomy, but this is not mentioned today. This should have set the alarm bells ringing for academics, so why are they silent?

Actually, they began ringing less than two months ago when the Congress-led Government appointed 15 vice-chancellors for India's newly created Central Universities.

It took only two sittings for a government-appointed search committee to dispose of 1,500 applications, even though the universities are still in a "virtual" state - 12 of them have no buildings or faculty.

Since any talk of autonomy would be embarrassing in the aftermath of those appointments, the Congress must have thought it politic to drop it altogether. If it leads the next Government, more political appointments can be expected.

Curiously enough, what Congress has dropped the BJP has picked up, stating that it would give full autonomy to universities. But surely academics have not forgotten the vehemence of the attack that Murli Manohar Prasad Joshi, the BJP's Minister for Higher Education, launched against the Institutes of Technology some years ago?

Educational spending is an issue on which the parties are in agreement. Both promise to raise it to 6 per cent of gross domestic product. How do we explain this convergence? As a kind of ritual chanting, sceptics would say.

Favourite numbers have existed throughout history. The number 7 had a global appeal: China was made up of seven provinces, Persia was divided into seven satrapies, and the seventh day was sacred for Christian nations.

In India, 18 is traditionally a favourite - there are 18 puranas (holy books of the Hindus) - but the number 6 is slowly catching up.

In 1964-66, the Government's Kothari Commission suggested that the state should set aside 6 per cent of GDP for education. Since then, everyone has continued to pay obeisance to this figure.

Can someone explain why this number continues to be the cherished target, even though nothing close to it is ever spent on education?

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