Imminent eminence

Ambani's egg

Another parlour trick?

Many prizes, such as the Nobel, can't be conferred posthumously, not even on the very recently dead. However, India's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, has often been awarded to dead people to recognize distinction that might have been unjustly overlooked in the past. The classic omission, of course, was Dr Ambedkar, ignored by every political dispensation (principally the Congress system but also the Janata coalition) till 1990 when V.P. Singh's short-lived government tried to make amends.

It isn't clear that this afterthought was appropriate. It was arguably better that Ambedkar remained sans Ratna in the company of Tagore, Gandhi and Periyar, than honoured and consigned to the company of Gulzarilal Nanda, Vinoba Bhave, Purushottam Das Tandon, Rajiv Gandhi, V.V. Giri and Sachin Tendulkar. India giving Ambedkar the Bharat Ratna is like France giving Voltaire the Légion d'honneur; a republic shouldn't fold members of its pantheon into its honours system unless it wants to seem presumptuous and absurd.

But at least there is a case to be made for posthumous honours. Recent reports in India, though, have forced its citizens to reckon with another sort of disembodied distinction. Having honoured the deeds of the dead, the Indian State has decided to formally acknowledge the achievements of the unborn.

This is of a piece with Narendra Modi's pioneering style where he rushes in where no man has been before. He renamed Christmas the first time it came around on his watch. Then he showed us his special parlour trick on prime time: how to make everyone's money disappear. For his new act, his government has decided to give educational 'institutions of eminence' freedom to do pretty much what they want.

This in itself isn't a novel policy; the privatization of education, the unmanacling of universities from the dead hand of the State, has been a staple of liberalizing reformers for some years now. Kapil Sibal, the worst education minister in the history of the republic, nearly destroyed Delhi University in his bid to re-make public universities in the blurry image of American liberal arts education. It isn't clear whether this mad determination to fix a university system that wasn't broken was a deliberate bid to destroy Delhi University or just a bungled experiment, but the net result was a loss of reputation for India's best public university at the very moment when expensive private universities were selling themselves to rich parents as boutique alternatives to it.

The UPA's defunding of higher education has been accelerated by the NDA; on this, if nothing else, these political fronts are agreed. By dismantling the University Grants Commission, higher education's regulatory body, and 'freeing' selected colleges and universities from its jurisdiction, the present government hopes to create a brave new ecology where a few hundred hothouse flowers bloom outside the government's regulatory framework.

To indicate that the State is still concerned about standards, the Modi government has linked educational independence to the 'eminence' of an institution. To certify an institution as eminent is a way of signaling that this unprecedented freedom is being conferred on the tried-and-tested and true: universities and colleges that have track records as centres of excellence and can, therefore, be trusted to be responsible captains of their own fate.

The integrity of this process can be measured by the fact that one of these six eminent institutions doesn't have a track record on which it can be judged. The Jio Institute has no faculty, no student body, no campus, no actual courses; this is because it doesn't exist outside its sponsor's head. It is eminent because Mukesh Ambani says it will be and the government of India agrees with his chequebook. Here eminence is not a function of past performance, it is a function of potential where potential is equal to money.

Shashi Tharoor recently claimed to have coined the word 'prepone'. The merit of that claim is an argument for another day but Tharoor is right about the usefulness of the word. The orthodox antonyms for postpone, 'brought forward' or 'advanced', are ponderous and sound alien to the desi ear. In this spirit, what should the appropriate Indian antonym for posthumous recognition be? If a posthumous prize is an extreme form of after-the-fact recognition, what term should we use for before-the-fact eminence?

Going by the logic of posthumous recognition, the first term that suggests itself for the Jio Institute's very particular distinction is 'prenatal'. If posthumous applies to honours conferred after the death of a distinguished person, prenatal properly describes honours granted before the birth of an eminent person or institution. Thus, a newspaper reporting on the choice of the Jio Institute (still a twinkle in a tycoon's eye) might simply write 'The Jio Institute has been prenatally honoured for its eminence."

But amusing as the term is, it doesn't actually fit Jio's case. A prenatal state suggests an unborn child. In its gynaecological meaning, prenatal refers to the period of pregnancy. Prenatal eminence in the business of higher education might be reasonably used to describe an evolving campus with excellent infrastructure, an ambitious faculty recruitment programme and an innovative course structure that hasn't yet opened its doors for the actual business of teaching and learning and research. Ambani's institute isn't just unborn, it just isn't. It exists as an intention in the way that someone might intend to have a child without actually being pregnant. Hailing the eminence of the Jio Institute is like pinning a medal on an unfertilized egg or unmated spermatozoon. To choose the Jio Institute for its eminence in its current state is, therefore, to confer on it an ovular (or seminal) distinction.

To honour an egg because it's gilded by Croesus is, of course, the Adani-Ambani syndrome in action, an instance of this government's willingness to pander to plutocrats. Ambani is the tip of the iceberg; the government is also bending over backwards to help Vedanta's fantasy university achieve seminal eminence. But to limit our criticism to the State is to obscure a larger corruption. It isn't the government's propensity to bend the knee to money that is the problem, it is our willingness to follow suit.

When this government announced its 'Adopt a Heritage' scheme whereby corporations with no experience in conservation or tourism were to be given charge of India's defining monuments, several commentators and many citizens supported the initiative because they were ideologically committed to the idea that successful businessmen were uniquely equipped to set India right regardless of experience or expertise. (Predictably, the one billionaire who has actually committed a large part of his time and fortune to education and his university, the Azim Premji University, figures nowhere in this specious conversation about eminence.)

The eager suspension of disbelief in the presence of money, this willing surrender to the idea that India's deliverance in everything from tourism to education will come from protean entrepreneurs, these are forms of magical thinking that debase our policy conversations. The government's grovelling attribution of eminence to a paper institution dreamt up by a billionaire is the absurd but logical end-point of this slavishness.



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