Should Prime Minister Narendra Modi have gone on national TV to address school children on Guru Divas or, if you so prefer, Teacher’s Day? The answer to this seemingly innocuous but inevitably politicised question will naturally depend on who you ask.
To parents who see school education as the cumbersome waiting period before a child gets into an American university and life in the First World, Modi’s interaction was simply a waste of time. After all, as a Modi-hater tweeted, why clutter a child’s mind with politics? In any case, the sceptics will pronounce, what worthwhile message can a neta—and one who didn’t go to Cambridge like Chacha Nehru and Rahul baba—deliver to our young citizens? The more paranoid ones will perhaps go to the extent of describing the entire exercise as RSS-inspired “brainwashing” of impressionable minds.
I suspect the answers will be a little different if you were to ask members of the ‘aspirational classes’—the ones who set aside a disproportionate share of their annual income for their children’s education. They would perhaps feel a certain pride if their child’s Kendriya Viddyalaya had been selected for the national hook-up. And, if by chance, their son or daughter had been pre- selected to ask one of those (no doubt rehearsed and somewhat stylised) questions to the PM, they will be walking on air for the next three months.
Yes, Modi’s televised Guru Diwas interaction did trigger a controversy. Most things Modi does—including beating the drum in Tokyo and gifting the Bhagwad Gita to the Japanese Emperor—becomes a subject of some acrimony. That’s something Modi will have to live with and I daresay he actually enjoys the toofan he generates. But political posturing apart, was the Guru Diwas engagement something worthwhile. And should it be repeated next year?
My answer to both questions is a categorical Yes.
Leaving aside the presumptuousness of the assertion that no PM apart from Jawaharlal Nehru has the right and the credentials to engage with India’s school goers, the point to note is that the larger message of Modi was laudable.
First, he tried to impress upon the children the importance of belonging to a national community. To my mind, however, there is something quite appealing in every ( or, at least, most) school children sharing a common experience in an atmosphere of collective unison. There is a big difference between children watching Modi’s interaction from home and them experiencing it as part of a collective. The extension of the collegiate spirit into a national spirit is what the programme intended. To that extent, it will form an important part of a child’s larger school experience. Indeed, next year Modi should endeavour to have the interaction outside Delhi, maybe at a school in Arunachal Pradesh.
Secondly, much of what Modi said was devoted to values and national priorities: having a lifelong respect for teachers, motivating parents into sending girls to school, developing the reading habit, mastering all available technology, saving power and avoiding waste, mastering skills and, most important, enjoying the exhilaration of being young. The term ‘value education’ has been rubbished by the votaries of progressive education who believe that children mustn’t be taught, only encouraged to discover. With his formidable national standing and political clout, Modi has attempted to link good schooling with good citizenship.
Finally, in attaching so much importance to Guru Diwas, Modi sought to confer on school teachers a large measure of professional pride. Yes, teachers have a litany of complaints—some legitimate and others that smack of a trade union mentality. In time the government will have to persuade state governments and private institutions to be more mindful of their legitimate needs. But this will be enormously facilitated if the old-fashioned respect for the guru becomes the social consensus once again.
In the process of easing himself into his prime ministerial responsibilities, Modi, it would seem, is conferring on politics an additional dimension. Right from the Red Fort speech on August 15 to his intervention last Friday afternoon, he has been stressing aspects of governance that appear to have bypassed India’s political class. According to conventional logic, the construction of toilets (especially for women), the enrolment of girls in schools, and the promise to clean up India’s physical space don’t constitute politics. Modi is borrowing a leaf from Mahatma Gandhi’s enlargement of the political space through the “constructive programme” and positioning himself as something more than just a political leader engaged in competitive electoral politics.
The transition of Modi in less than a year has been remarkable. In September 2013, he was just the first among equals in the BJP; by end-May of this after his resounding electoral victory he became the unchallenged leader of his party and coalition; by the end of 2014, he would have transformed himself into a PM who is also the country’s acknowledged leader. What we are witnessing is not merely the transformation of Narendra Modi but a decisive shift in the meaning of political leadership. The Modi who will present himself for re-election in 2019 will be a very different man than the individual who was the candidate for the top job in 2014. The change promises to be very exciting.
Sunday Pioneer, September 7, 2014