The youngest minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet, human resource development minister, Smriti Irani's recent interview with Arnab Goswami on Times Now has raised another round of hullabaloo for the minister. Goswami begins by pointing out to her how she has been looked down upon as a "political lightweight" and one who has always being embroiled in controversies. During the course of the conversation, two seminal issues emerge; first, test of Irani's ability to prove her competence against all kinds of attacks - mostly personal - and second, the opening up of a debate on how educational policies are being determined in our country.
The attacks are not new for Irani. Photographs of her in swimsuit did titillating rounds in the media soon after she was sworn in. Ace academicians and intellectuals commented on her TV career to obfuscate her abilities as an education minister. We look back and find that she has been accused of pandering to powers that be in order to justify her position in politics. All these and many more, merely reveal the subconscious layering of misogyny inherent within the patriarchal psyche. After all, how else can a woman make it, for this male chauvinist world, than by mis/abusing her femininity?
Syllabi in educational institutions are meant to prepare a student not just for exams but for a life beyond classrooms. With studies and research showing the huge gap between education and employability, a culture very intolerant to alternative beliefs, an insensitive and abusive social media which has cost lives of influential thinkers and activists like Khurshid Anwar, there is an urgent need to have a systemic reform in the education system. This reform - the more holistic and comprehensive it is - the better it will serve to create tolerant minds.
I remember as a kid, when we were introduced to NCERT textbooks, the first thing one learnt in laboratory manuals was to experiment, observe and infer. When in college, while the layers of ideological schooling were skinned, one was left to wonder, where is it that we experimented? We were made to believe through brilliant logic and argumentation that Manu Samhita was evil, that Bible or Quran or Ramayana are patriarchal fables. But there was a disconnection here. Where did I read Manu? Where did I read the Bible? It was never a part of my course. It came sifted to me and sieved through a very lopsided version of a western and anglophilic intellectual discourse. I do see a need and an urgent one at that to simply overhaul the mandate of educational foundations.
It is true that for the first time in the history of modern India, the HRD ministry has done something that has traditionally been considered the privilege of an elitist few. The ministry opened itself up to suggestions from common citizens in setting the curriculum for students across the country.
It is important that in a democratic culture like ours, we have a space for intellectual tolerance and dialogue. It is extremely problematic as a democratic nation to show the kind of derision we do in discussing anything intellectual that does not belong to the "left" and/or of the "liberal". Ironically, this treatment comes from the "liberal" clan which is the most authoritarian, totalitarian and almost fascist, in rejecting the overall discourse outside the realms and limits of its ideological "-isms". Today the left in this country is more right wing in its absolute disregard for theory alternate to what it proposes.
It might be true that the ministry receives requests from many organizations not quite 'left' and/or liberal' in their leanings. It might also be true that there have been pressure groups trying to assert their influence on the ministry - but why does it come as a surprise? All those left and liberal intellectuals who swear by Foucault's theorisation on "power" also know of Althusser's ideological state apparatus which explains the impression of dominant ideologies while defining policies and plans. Just as a certain workbook defines the syllabi and curriculum while Congress is in power, so does another while BJP rules the roost. Why is this disproportionate cry in the media then? Why this preferential treatment?
Why is it that the "right" in India has been constantly demonised as only "saffron" and only about "cultural resurgence"? Why is it that we never hear of a debate between the right economics of focusing on building capabilities versus the left which argues for doling out token subsidies and freebies?
As a nation that elects its representatives every five years, it is extremely important that decision making in the country is increasingly decentralised. It is pivotal that citizens involve themselves beyond mere participation to meaningfully engage and influence the various stages of policy cycle - agenda setting, policy development, policy implementation and policy evaluation. In a country that constitutionally mandates and grants freedom of speech and expression as a basic fundamental right, this engagement will invariably have inputs from citizens all across the ideological spectrum. Are we to deny this space to those who think differently from us, however revolting to our intellectual consciousness?
Smriti Irani's fidelity to constitutional norms and due processes, her dexterity to listen to the pulse but also step back, neither dictating nor being dictated, has led to some historic moments - the FYUP and DU impasse being broken, for instance. In the words of Smriti herself, for a "political non-entity" who is not a "Cinderella", transforming education as a ministry of "political friction" to "political consensus" at the young age of 39 is a task that only a "tough nut" can crack.
It is important that in a reaction to the first ever interview by the much written about HRD minister, we give Irani's views their due and not label and stereotype a woman making it so far. Let us debate and dismiss rather than wax rhetoric, be averse to dialogue and asphyxiate anything which is not "left" and not "liberal".