Why is Narendra Modi always ridiculing the world’s most prestigious university?

No sweat.
No sweat.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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When Narendra Modi first posited “Harvard” against “hard work”, the circumstances were rather different. During the 2014 general election campaign, then finance minister P Chidambaram said that Modi’s knowledge of economics would fit on a postage stamp. Campaigning near Chennai, the then-Gujarat chief minister contrasted his humble background and record of achievement with Chidambaram’s arrogance and foreign qualifications, saying that hard work, not Harvard, was needed to develop the country

Three years later, prime minister Modi has dusted off the line for use against a new set of critics: Economists Amartya Sen and Larry Summers, both professors at Harvard and critics of his demonetisation policy. Speaking of himself (characteristically, in the third person) on Wednesday, he said “a poor man’s son who through his hard work is trying to improve the economy” stood vindicated over “people at Harvard.”

Modi’s repeated use of this line can be attributed, in part, to his weakness—or that of his speechwriters—for puns. But it also provokes two questions: Can “Harvard” and “hard work” really be opposed? And what signals is the prime minister, intentionally or unintentionally, broadcasting by ridiculing arguably the world’s most prestigious university?

Hard work at Harvard

Every undergraduate at Harvard soon discovers that “hard work” is relative. In part, this depends on one’s choice of concentration (what Harvard calls majors): if measured in hours, quantitative subjects require much more than the humanities.

Yet it is equally possible, in any field, to have a rigorous education. And the easier courses are undemanding only by Harvard’s own standards: a “soft” reading load is around 150 pages per course per week. With four courses a semester at minimum, this is 600 pages a week: vastly more than is expected of BA students at any Indian university.

If one looks beyond the classroom, the opposition between Harvard and hard work is even less credible. For one thing, Harvard students—American ones above all—have had to work hard over several years just to get there. And the culture of the place venerates achievement and effort for their own sake. Life at Harvard is frenetic—it is less a question of whether one works hard than what one chooses to work hard at.

Students load up on extracurricular activities, seeking to occupy every minute of the day at the expense of sleep, and often sanity. Those who opt for a lighter course load typically do so not to relax but to free up more time for extracurricular activities that they approach with the focus and professionalism of full-time paid employment.

This culture of effort and achievement is embodied by professor Amartya Sen, whose detractors may criticise his scholarship, political views or handling of institutions but can certainly not accuse him of indolence—well into his 80s, Sen is as driven and energetic as ever, teaching and writing amidst a global travel schedule that would impress even the prime minister.

College connections

Modi’s claim that “hard work is more powerful than Harvard” is a non-sequitur (or mere nonsense), but the line’s continued deployment is revealing, and perhaps a little worrying. It is revealing of his enduring self-image as the outsider who has risen up through enterprise and native wit—as opposed to an elite class with money, connections and foreign degrees—and his belief that this image continues to resonate with the public.

It is also just the latest instance of Modi’s alternating between prime minister mode and campaign mode. The former, as exemplified by his Twitter log and his radio address Mann ki Baat, attempts the anodyne route to statesmanship. The latter is the Modi who openly practices religious polarisation and attacks his opponents ad hominem, rather than on their ideas.

Modi’s relationship to universities is much more complicated, of course, than a simple dichotomy between an autodidact and an educated elite. The prime minister’s own professed qualifications—a BA through correspondence from Delhi University and an MA in “entire political science” from Gujarat University—continue to be the subjects of controversy. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have refused to address the legitimate questions about these degrees that have been asked by opposition politicians and concerned citizens.

They have responded with angry defensiveness, when not trying to shut down these inquiries altogether. The information commissioner who ruled that Modi’s Delhi University degree should be made available to an RTI applicant was swiftly relieved of the human resources development portfolio. The same man who markets himself as a self-taught outsider—proof that formal education is overrated—is keen to avoid close scrutiny of his own educational history.

What it implies

Modi’s scepticism towards the elite knowledge that is formed and taught at western universities like Harvard is shared by many in the Sangh Parivar, including S Gurumurthy, one of the intellectual architects of demonetisation. But this scepticism is often opportunistic: the prime minister and his supporters are happy to receive and brandish Ivy League support when it is forthcoming, such as Columbia University professors Jagdish Bhagwati and Suresh Sundaresan.

The vice-chairman of Niti Aayog, Arvind Panagariya, did his PhD at Princeton and was until recently a professor at Columbia as well. And the prime minister’s lack of regard for Harvard is not shared by all his ministerial colleagues. Two of my own contemporaries at Harvard were the sons of current BJP ministers, one of whom is himself a graduate of Harvard Business School.

In 2014, Modi had a point, even if crudely expressed: elite qualifications do not automatically lead to a competent administration or sound economic policy. The UPA governments were full of the holders of fancy degrees (including three Harvard graduates), but that did not prevent the corruption and economic mismanagement that led voters to throw out the UPA in spectacular fashion in 2014.

Three years later, the original point is no longer relevant. And by attacking “people at Harvard”, Modi makes clear that his target is not a political opponent, but economists at the university. It is one thing to tell voters that you are the product of hard work, quite another to dismiss the value of elite knowledge altogether.

There is an element here of Gurumurthy-style intellectual xenophobia; of the notion that Indians have little or nothing to learn from the West. What is even more worrying is the possibility that the prime minister continues to believe that his own success shows that great universities have little value. His two choices of human resources development minister have shown neither the appetite nor the capacity for the task of revitalising India’s universities.

In an era of unprecedented international competition and increasing automation, our government should be looking to learn from Harvard and its kind, rather than ridicule them. Hundreds of millions of Indians see education as the most effective route to social mobility; nearly three years into his term, there is no evidence that the prime minister agrees.

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