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Cong scores a self-goal in Smriti row

New Delhi, May 28: In power, the Congress fell short on communication. Out of power, it has overdone it and gifted the BJP a shield to deflect discomfiture over Smriti Irani, the new human resource development minister.

The Congress’s communications chief Ajay Maken had yesterday taunted Smriti for not being a graduate. A backlash erupted on the party today, led by the BJP that sought details of the qualifications of the Nehru-Gandhis.

The BJP also used the chance to paper over the inconvenient detail that the first shot was actually fired by a backer of Narendra Modi.

But the brawl dredged up apparent inconsistencies in the declaration of educational qualification by Smriti in her election affidavits in 2004 and 2014. Politically, the issue is academic since Smriti lost both elections and she cannot be disqualified even if it is proven that one of the affidavits was misleading. The Congress claimed there would be legal consequences.

But Smriti is a full-fledged cabinet minister and questions will be asked about the authenticity of the affidavits till she comes up with an explanation. Smriti’s office said she would not interact with the media for three days.

As a candidate in 2004 elections from Chandni Chowk in Delhi, Smriti had declared that she had a Bachelor of Arts degree. “B.A. 1996 Delhi University (School of Correspondence),” says the entry in the column concerned.

In the same column of the affidavit for the 2014 elections from Amethi, Smriti has said: “Bachelor of Commerce Part-1, School of Open Learning (Correspondence), University of Delhi-1994” after clearing Class XII in 1993. A university professor said Part-1 refers to one year of the three-year BCom programme.

In 2012, the Supreme Court had ruled that false disclosures in an affidavit could be a ground for rejection of a candidate’s nomination.

The educational qualification became an issue when Madhu Kishwar, an academic and supporter of Modi before the general election, tweeted: “Smriti Irani merely class 12 pass. Went to bcm fashion model on to tv serial bahu. Is this qualification enf 4 India’s Education Minister?”

Making what now looks like a tactical blunder, Maken then added his own uncharitable tweet. “What a Cabinet of Modi? HRD Minister (Looking after Education) Smriti Irani is not even a graduate! Look at her affidavit at ECI site pg 11!”

Several academicians had yesterday pointed out that educational qualification was not a prerequisite for becoming a minister. Professor Yashpal, former University Grants Commission chairperson, had said: “You do not choose politicians on the basis of degrees. There is no need to make a campaign about her qualification.”

N.R. Madhava Menon, a legal educator, said the mere fact that somebody was highly qualified did not qualify him to become a minister.

Had Maken kept quiet, the Congress could have enjoyed the sight of the BJP stewing in its own juice. But the BJP smelt blood — and instead of clearing the air on the discrepancy — asked the Congress for the degrees of Sonia.

BJP leader and Union minister Uma Bharati said: “I want to ask them (Congress) ‘what are the educational qualifications of Sonia Gandhi’, because she has headed the UPA and gave directions to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh? The entire UPA government would stand with folded hands outside her door. So Sonia Gandhi, who ran the UPA government, what are her qualifications?”

The BJP also portrayed the Congress as a bad loser. “Congress leaders should now stop using abusive words against BJP leaders. The Congress should respect the mandate of the people,” BJP spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said.

Asked whether Sonia has a degree, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said: “She is not a minister.”

From the information available in the public domain, it does not appear that Sonia, Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi had degrees (see chart). However, Rahul Gandhi holds an MPhil in development economics from Trinity College, University of Cambridge.

Forced on the backfoot, the Congress is now contending that they meant no personal affront to Smriti and the question was about the discrepancy in her two affidavits, not education.

Singhvi said: “There is nothing personal about it. We are not raising questions about her education qualification. There is distortion in the affidavits she filed in 2004 as it says she did her BA in 1996. The 2014 affidavit says Bachelor of Commerce Part-I in 1994. This is a criminal offence and can attract electoral consequences.”

But Supreme Court lawyer M.N Krishnamani said: “If a candidate wins an election and has given a false affidavit, the defeated candidates can challenge it in court of law. The matter can be adjudicated and the person may be punished depending on the nature of the offence. But if the person loses the election, the affidavit is inconsequential, even if it has false information.”

Singhvi tried to control the damage by saying: “There are three other ministers in Modi government who are fifth- or eighth-class pass. We have not raised questions about them. Sonia Gandhi and these three are not heading the HRD ministry. The issue is choosing the minister for HRD where you have to head the boards of IITs and IIMs. Such illustrious leaders like Maulana Azad, Siddharth Shankar Ray, Nurul Hassan, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Karan Singh, Arjun Singh, V.P. Singh and Murli Manohar Joshi have held that position.”

But Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh tweeted: “Educational qualification of a minister/PM is not the issue. But Modi chose Smriti Irani over Dr Murli Manohar Joshi is the issue.”

Ironically, the Congress had accused Joshi of “saffronising” education when the BJP was in power between 1999 and 2004.

The Congress leadership, which identified poor communication as one of the main reasons for this unprecedented rout, continues to blunder on this front.

While it chose to take up a frivolous matter, it ignored several inflammatory tweets by a senior BJP leader who is also a minister.

The qualifications of ministers and parliamentarians have never been a big issue in India. In the first Lok Sabha, 112 MPs were under-matriculate and 88 matriculate. In the second, 120 under-matriculate and 90 matriculate, in third, fourth and fifth, these numbers were 141 and 87, 54 and 101 and 119 and 82, respectively.

The percentage of graduate MPs in 1952 was 58. Even in the last Lok Sabha, there were 10 under-matriculate, 10 matriculate and nine undergraduate MPs. Good education is desirable but Parliament has space for representatives from diverse socio-economic and educational backgrounds.