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BYE BYE, NANNY STATE
- The Indian middle class has broken with the third world mentality

India may or may not be shining, depending on your mindset, patriotism and voting preference, but there are interesting ways in which public discourse has elevated itself from third world depths. Just compare the debates on education in two very different societies — the United Kingdom and India.

Last week, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, very narrowly averted a parliamentary defeat on the issue of top-up fees for university students. Confronted by the need to find an extra £ 8 billion to keep standards in higher education intact, the government wanted to give universities the right to increase tuition fees for home students from £ 1,500 to a maximum of £ 3,000. The increase was to be funded through student loans on very generous terms.

Despite the decades of Thatcherite rectification, Britain is in many ways still a high tax, nanny state. Consequently, the Labour government’s proposal was fiercely resisted as an attempt to pit excellence against opportunity and it took every ounce of Blair’s persuasive skills to steer the proposal through the House of Commons. Even then, it was greeted with all-round despair, as if another pillar of British existence had been demolished.

Had India’s pugnacious human resource development minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, been British, on the other hand, he would have been lauded as another folk hero. His decision to slash the fees charged to students at the elite Indian Institutes of Management from Rs 1.5 lakh to a modest Rs 30,000 should have ideally been greeted with populist tub-thumping, particularly in an election year. Instead, Joshi has been pilloried — not least by the students and the faculty — for adding to the burden of the exchequer. With a public interest litigation before the courts challenging Joshi’s fee cut, there is a move within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to persuade the prime minister to intervene and stay the decision.

Regardless of the outcome of the IIM fees controversy, the debate over the issue is very revealing and may suggest directions in which the political discourse may shift in the coming years.

On the face of it, Joshi’s initiative is completely in line with the culture of sops and subsidies that has marked traditional politics. The IIMs, the minister has asserted, are created out of government funds. So, every IIM should be accountable to the government and in turn to the people of India who have paid for the creation of these IIMs. In addition, he has also pressed for the Indianization of the IIM curriculum, arguing that at present it is excessively geared to the needs of multinational organizations. In short, Joshi feels the IIMs should be producing Indian managers rather than global managers.

Tragically for Joshi, his populism has not cut much ice. The middle classes — the BJP’s core social constituency — have been incensed by what they perceive as an attempt to undermine centres of excellence. Worse, they perceive it as an assault on the functional autonomy of successful institutions. At a time when the BJP feels it is riding the crest of a feel-good factor, Joshi’s initiative, it is felt, will help sour the mood.

At the heart of this middle-class outrage is the shifting philosophy on the role of the government. For the past six years, the National Democratic Alliance government has attempted to change the philosophy of governance from state intervention to state facilitation. Beginning with the progressive dismantling of the licence-permit-quota raj that marked the Congress’s shortage economy and stretching to the cautious privatization of the public sector, the trend is towards the rollback of the state. Joshi’s move runs counter to this philosophy. Where government should be retreating, he is assuming the mantle of Indira Gandhi and Nurul Hasan and increasing the role of the state. It has not made him popular.

Secondly, one of the pillars of the India Shining campaign is the country’s newly acquired global competitiveness. Unlike the past when a section of the BJP saw globalization as a serious threat to the sovereignty and identity of India, the present mood is different. Increasingly, globalization is being viewed as a colossal opportunity for India. At the heart of this new optimism is the belief that the future lies in strengthening India’s knowledge economy. At a recent gathering, a senior cabinet minister pressed for bold measures which can catapult India into becoming the university to the world.

Joshi has argued that the present 1:5 teacher-student ratio of the IIMs should be raised to 1:10. He has sought to modify the curriculum to suit Indian realities. Both these proposals go against the prevailing mood of tailoring the Indian economy to meet global requirements. If IIMs, or so the argument goes, meet the highest global standards, the thrust should be to keep them that way rather than make them more obviously Indian. In a curious sort of way, the IIM debate suggests that Indian nationalism is no longer seen to be synonymous with Indian exceptionalism. Joshi, unfortunately, has made exceptionalism his brand identity.

Finally, the IIM controversy has pointed to a change in middle-class perception on questions of subsidy, taxation and public services. Joshi has sought to increase the level of government dependence of the IIM by lowering fees and putting a cap on the corpus of reserves. In short, assuming that the minister does not want standards and facilities to decline, the extent of government subsidy to the IIMs is set to increase. Theoretically, this should have led to middle-class jubilation. But, instead, there is all-round wariness. Parents, it would seem, would rather cash their savings or avail of loans for their children, than risk their future prospects to be compromised by a levelling-down process.

It is worth dwelling on this point. In Britain, one of the points of contention was Blair’s stubborn refusal to meet the deficit in higher education costs from the general tax. He pressed for a rational regime of user charges. This approach corresponds to the NDA government’s philosophy of a low tax regime coupled with user charges for services like water, electricity and education. Indeed, this is at the heart of the battle between good governance and what is regarded as good politics. In the IIM battle, middle-class opinion seems decisively ranged against the conventional view of good politics. This is heartening and suggests future possibilities.

A few decades ago, the middle class was regarded as one of the catchment areas of socialist populism. The so-called progressive politicians of yesteryear like Indira Gandhi and Jyoti Basu, used the politics of envy to nurture societies built on inefficiencies, mediocrity and deprivation. That economic model ran out of steam by the mid-Seventies, although it was another three decades before it was formally junked. Today, India’s middle classes are impatient for change. They detect opportunities and want to demolish the numerous roadblocks of the past. The mood is fiercely euphoric. The middle class has broken emotionally with the third world mentality. Like the advertisement, their dil maange more. Whereas Britain symbolizes tired capitalism, India displays all the energies of ascendant capitalism. That is the real difference between the two debates on education.

Blair, it would seem, would have been at home in India. Joshi, on the other hand, is more of a Briton than he imagines.

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