Merit is a declining consideration in Indian v-c appointments

Leaders’ claims that their appointments owe nothing to their political affiliations are wide of the mark, says an observer

May 29, 2024
A cattle race in  Kerala
Source: iStock/Binoy MB

Earlier this month, in the middle of India’s general elections, 181 current and former vice-chancellors submitted an indignant open letter in which they hit out at the former Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi for claiming that the appointment of vice-chancellors is made “solely on the basis of affiliation with some organisation rather than on the basis of merit and qualification”.

Their umbrage is, at best, only partly justified, however.

As Apoorvanand, a professor at the University of Delhi, noted, “What Rahul Gandhi said is an open secret in the academic world.” The appointment of vice-chancellors is almost always related to their affiliation with the political party that is in power – which, since 2014, has been the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).

That is because of the political influence that is baked into the appointment process at public universities. The final call is made by the university’s chancellor, who is either the president of India (for central universities) or the governor (for state universities). The political party in power tends to have the upper hand in getting its choice of candidate elected as president. In turn, the president gets to appoint governors on the advice of the prime minister and his ministers.

Hence, the ruling party’s control over the selection of the president of India and state governors gives it near complete say over the appointment of vice-chancellors. Since 2014, the BJP has appointed its preferred candidates at all central universities and other higher education institutions funded by the central government.

Until recently, the central government’s influence over some premier public institutions was more limited. For instance, the Indian Institute of Management Act, 2017 mandated that directors of these institution must be appointed by a board of governors, with the government having a limited say in the process. However, this changed with the Indian Institute of Management (Amendment) Act, 2023, under which the president of India was made the visitor of each IIM, with powers to appoint directors.

At the state level, things can get complicated when the governor belongs to one party and the state government is formed by another party. In the recent past, courts have been forced to intervene in battles between state governments of other political parties and BJP governors over the appointment of vice-chancellors.

Given this context, it is dishonest of the 181 signatories of the open letter – titled “Torchbearers being torched” – to deny Gandhi’s allegations so vociferously. The signatories know that it is not true, as they claim, that the selection of vice-chancellors is “completely based on academic and administrative prowess”. While they may have a point in insisting that appointments are not “solely on the basis of affiliation with some organisation”, as Gandhi claimed, scrutiny of the qualifications and political connections of the 181 signatories themselves would show that in a fairly large number of cases, merit trails political connections by some margin.

On the other hand, while Gandhi’s claims, made in the middle of an election campaign, suggest that this is a new phenomenon, the fact is that political connections have always mattered in the appointment of vice-chancellors. Not too long ago, the Congress party was in power and it did more or less the same things as Gandhi has accused the BJP of doing.

Yet it is plausible to argue that considerations of merit have fallen further behind considerations of political affiliation since the BJP came to power. That may simply be because, as the historian Ramchandra Guha has argued, “right-wing intellectuals run thin on the ground” in India, leaving the BJP with little choice of candidates among its own supporters. But the objective merit of such a small pool of candidates is inevitably compromised.

Moreover, political connections and nepotism are reportedly becoming increasingly important in faculty appointments as well, especially at premier public institutions. Writing about the University of Delhi, Mukul Kesavan, another staunch critic of the Modi government, notes that “faculty recruitment consists of packing departments with committed bhakts [that is, those who subscribe to the ideology of the Hindu right] or pliable opportunists”.

So it is hard to deny that political connections often and increasingly trump merit at India’s universities. And the negative effects of that on the country’s aspirations to improve the quality of its higher education system seem inevitable.

The author prefers to remain anonymous.

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