The fact that education matters only in the long run makes it uninteresting for political parties. But in this election, the voice of education can be heard

No matter how categorically a party or candidate might comment on them, the problems of education cannot compete with those of water and electricity supply or the condition of roads. These latter problems affect the daily life of a citizen more elementally than education does. Public perception of a government’s efficiency is based on its ability to manage essential services, police and inflation. Schools and colleges have a rhythm much too slow to merit the attention of our politicians. Socially too, education remains an ambiguous area. If a child does not do well at school, the tendency is to blame the child, not the school or its curriculum. The effects of educational policies — good or bad — take decades to manifest. Political leaders and administrators, like media producers, chase a daily or, at best, a weekly schedule. Even the Planning Commission has been lured by the clarity of short-term prospects. The fact that education matters only in the long run makes it singularly uninteresting for seasoned political parties. No one in politics likes to be called an idealist — the label given to someone who talks about distant implications. No wonder, therefore, that education does not count as a serious election issue.

2014 poll and new voices

In a subtle manner, however, the voice of education can be heard in this Lok Sabha election. It is through the participation of individuals like Medha Patkar, Rajmohan Gandhi and Yogendra Yadav that the power of education is going to make an indirect impact. The party that has fielded them has chosen to ignore political common sense. It has endowed candidacy upon individuals, many of whom had no political aspirations. They are teachers, scientists, lawyers, journalists or simply “social activists” — a category that signifies the vacuum that has been growing around electoral politics since the Emergency. Family politics, class networks and corruption have led to high levels of cynicism. These trends are incompatible with the significant increase in literacy and education. A disequilibrium is clearly visible, and education is pushing it forward.

A few years ago when I was with the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), I invited Medha Patkar to give a lecture on the role of education in creating environmental awareness. She spoke in her characteristic style, using a bottle of mineral water to demonstrate how short-sighted state policies combine with commercial interests and bad technological choices to damage the environment. Her lecture exemplified how inequality can be studied by analysing the availability of different kinds of water. During question time after the lecture, a teacher from Odisha started sobbing. When asked, she said, “Ma’am, I am crying because I want to teach the way you do, but I can’t. You have shown how things are connected. I wish I could also teach like that.”

The anguish of this teacher reveals a major educational story of our times. Education is all about learning, but what is learnt and how it is taught make all the difference. Since the 1990s, India has witnessed a silent crisis in education. While the system expanded and people’s expectations grew, the institutional apparatus was allowed to decay. Commercial interests gained dominance over education and television, giving rise to an ethos in which chicanery gets the better of politics and planning. Contrary forces are at work in this election. On the one side we see a vast number of first-time voters, the majority of whom are also first-generation school-goers. Despite a paucity of resources, a vast stratum of the deprived has pushed the process of curricular reforms that aim at “connecting” things so that the young can make sense of things. On the other side we see a social ethos which, in many parts of the country, seems polarised along class and religious lines. The glamour of a personality cult and glib discussions attempt to hide it.

Role of the media

Elections signify a decisive moment in the journey of democracy. Candidates who aspire to represent citizens must take a credible and holistic view of reality, both past and present. Seen this way, elections have a deeply educative role, even as the outcome of any election depends on the education people have received in schools and colleges. In his book, India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha has noted that in the first Lok Sabha election of 1952, the Election Commission (EC) performed a directly educative function. The EC knew that elections could get reduced to a procedural ritual or farce in a country with a pervasive lack of literacy and very limited education. That has changed to a great extent, and the electorate today is more mature than it was earlier. At the same time, a new threat to the sanctity of elections has emerged. The manufacturing of public opinion has emerged as big business. The rise of commercial television poses a complex challenge to democracy in the kind of society we are. It is not just the specific malaise of paid news about which the Election Commission has expressed its concern. A deeper, more amorphous problem lies in the nature of TV and its commercialised model.

As an image-based medium, TV lends a visual immediacy to ideas and debates. Democracy calls for a relaxed pursuit and exchange of ideas, and TV can provide a reasonable site for such an exchange. But if commercial interests dominate TV, its ability to serve as an educative site gets eroded. This is precisely what has happened to so many Indian channels. The debate format they offer creates the impression of openness, but format alone cannot nurture the spirit and culture of debate. The pressure of time camouflages the compulsions of business. The overarching aim is to entertain the viewer. It is achieved when debates become shrill and sink into incoherent fights. This format suits the prevailing political climate because it sharpens polarities and conveys the message that nothing can be explained. Ultimately, all arguments lose meaning; only faces remain. Thus, politics is reduced to personality choice. Voters get used to the idea that they are dealing with faces and gestures, not ideas and issues.

Political track record

It is hardly surprising that the established political parties have no interest now in educating the public, or in education in general. Neither their politics nor their style of governance reflects such an interest. During its second term in office, the United Progressive Alliance has demonstrated an amazing indifference to education. It left the field to be harvested by commercial interests at will. If we look at the Opposition parties, the States where they rule offer no stories worth any positive notice. Gujarat showed incredible incompetence in producing textbooks (“A textbook case of howlers in Gujarat,” The Hindu, February 26, 2014). In Uttar Pradesh, the distribution of free laptops was treated like an educational innovation. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Madhya Pradesh failed to restore the professional status and dignity of teachers. In Punjab and Maharashtra, smugness and inertia are the hallmarks of educational governance. These States were once regarded as being in the vanguard. Across the spectrum of national and regional parties, the articulation of the educational agenda has got frozen around tired key words, signifying a lack of vision and will. As a social need and national goal, education has become irrelevant to the political process.

Whoever comes to power now will have to stem the fragmentation of policy and focus on institutional recovery. If we are destined to go through another spell of a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, let us hope its concern will be wider than revision of history textbooks. A historian like Rajmohan Gandhi, if he makes it to Parliament, might carry a sobering influence. Some two decades ago, R.K. Narayan alerted Parliament to the insane speed and burden he had noticed in children’s daily life. His maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha triggered curricular reforms which are still unfolding. Let us hope more such interventions will be made in the next Lok Sabha.

(Krishna Kumar is Professor of education at Delhi University and a former Director of NCERT.)

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