Being “upad” and possessing a flair for drama may not be wrong qualifications for a politician; but Smriti Irani, BJP’s star attraction in the Rajya Sabha over the last two days, has proved that both don’t befit a minister handling India’s higher education.
In August 2014, when she appeared uncertain in telling a degree from a certificate (she claimed that she had an Yale degree while possessing only a six-day course certificate), it was considered nothing but a good laugh. Although it was indeed disconcerting that a person with such naiveté was handling a ministry that’s critical to the future of both the country and its people, many thought of it as a genuine gaffe of an enthusiastic newcomer. Seemingly, her attempted message was that she was good enough to stand up to stalwarts of higher education.
But since then, she has proved herself to be consistency inadequate with a string of flawed decisions and policies: replacing Sanskrit with German in Kendriya Vidyalayas, meddling with the management of IITs, rollback of the four year degree programme in Delhi university, introduction of good governance day, banning Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT Chennai, and poor handling of student agitations in central universities such as Pondicherry and Hyderabad. The latest was the JNU fiasco. To cap it all, she demonstrated in parliament, with examples, that being overbearingly self-assertive and dramatic don’t help.
Her show more or less established that “being unpad” and possessing a “flair for drama” (which she herself quoted in the Parliament as attributes by some people) are in fact really bad qualities for the Human Resources Development (HRD) minister of India.
And the most disturbing part was that she was being defensive about it.
Although Irani’s principal responsibility was to defend her party on the Rohit Vemula tragedy and the IIT-fiasco in the Rajya Sabha, she appeared to have taken it personally to prove that she was smart enough to be India’s Education/HRD minister - a position held by political bigwigs such as Maulana Adbul Kalam Azad, Karan Singh, Narasimha Rao, VP Singh and AB Vajpayee. And what was on display was utter brazenness that betrayed a lack of formal campus life, understanding or scholarship for research, experience of managing educational institutions - let alone IITs and central universities - long term impact of policy, and the skills for cogent debates.
Her proclivity to nationalism, mythology and militarism, and inability to comprehend dialectics can be overlooked because they are among the defining elements of right wing politics anywhere in the world. However quoting from unverified statements, pamphlets, websites and even notes by officials on volatile matters such as religion and cases under investigation showed her naiveté. Had she been exposed to the rigours of research and sensitivities of marginalised people such as Dalits, she wouldn’t have reeled out “facts” as if her points have been proved right. In fact, her statements on the Rohit Vemula tragedy have been disputed, point by point, including by her mother and friends.
In a TV-soap or movies, the prop (a set of papers on her table that she was constantly referring to), stock facial expressions, a clever script, and standard modulation in dialogue-delivery might work because the idea is to create an air of authenticity, but not in a democratic debate. CPM’s Sitaram Yechury, did notice the hidden danger of quoting from unverified sources over matters that are still legally unsettled, and asked the chair to ensure that they are not recorded before verification. In fact, they cannot be final, particularly in Parliament, until they are proven to be true by law because the incidents are still under investigation. Asserting righteousness over them was pure arrogance and theatrics.
She failed on her hyperbole too when BSP’s Mayawati punctured it by asking her to deliver on her promise of giving her head.
Argumentum ad passiones (appeal to emotions) is an age-old technique in communications when one tries to manipulate people’s emotions, particularly in the absence of factual evidence, to win an argument. Advertisers and propagandists do it all the time and most of the time, particularly in popular media and cinema, the audience give in. The technique is to rely on persuasive language and show of emotions so that the audience overlook the scientific validity of the argument.
In his treatise on persuasion, “Rhetorica", Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote: “Emotions cause men to change their opinion in regard to their judgments. As such, emotions have specific causes and effects…Thus, a speaker can employ his understanding as a stimulus for the sought emotion from an audience”. He further said: “The orator persuades by means of his hearers, when they are roused to emotion by his speech; for the judgments we deliver are not the same when we are influenced by joy or sorrow, love or hate.”
So, it’s not surprising that Irani’s RS speech impressed actors such as Rishi Kapoor and Paresh Rawal, but not Yechury, Mayawati and most of the mainstream media. The BJP and the minister’s supporters might think that her logical fallacy has worked, but not Rohit Vemula’s mother and friends.
In the eighties, when ace cricketer Sunil Gavaskar was unable to handle Malcolm Marshall and other fiery quickies of the West Indies, he brazened it out with aggression and saved his career. He could change from classic textbook cricket to risky stroke-play because he was highly skilled and had years of experience behind him. Higher education is something similar - one cannot feign experience and scholarship and brazen it out. It’s not role-play as one sees on TV and cinema, but is the real stuff. History is replete with examples that playing with it is like playing with the country’s existence itself.