A school for scandal and eminence

N. Gopalaswami is not only a believer in astrology, but also a practitioner of it. Don’t know if he ever used his soothsayer skills for divining the results of the polls which he oversaw as India’s election boss.

He learnt the ‘science’ of jyotish from a south Delhi academy, while serving as home secretary. He already had a master’s in chemistry. Not sure which of these qualified him to head a panel of dons tasked with spotting 10 institutions that could be groomed to Ivy League glory. Gopalaswami and the dons have performed an act that satvik jyotishis are loathe to do. They have made the birthchart of an unborn child. They have declared the Jio Institute, which the Ambanis are yet to father, as an institution of eminence. When trolled, they said it has the ‘potential’ to be eminent.

Hail the creation of a garbha shrimant, or damn the move as a case of pre-natal merit determination, but Arvind Panagaria, who vice-headed the NITI Ayog, has dubbed Modi a “courageous leader” for this act of eugenics. Any PM “would think twice or thrice” before announcing something like this, says Panagaria. He means it as a compliment!

Illustration: Bhaskaran

Successive PMs have been pretty peeved that India that is Bharat, which once hosted Taxila and Nalanda, doesn’t have a world class university today. Manmohan Singh, who had enough degrees to give a complex to every PM till the end of this century, worried about this day in and day out. So, in 2005, his finance minister P. Chidambaram promised to “make a beginning with one institution”, and gave Rs 100 crore to IISc to try and get “ranked alongside Oxford and Cambridge or Harvard and Stanford.” The next year, PC put his pennies and paise in the three grandmother institutions—the universities of Calcutta, Madras and Mumbai which had turned 150—and another Rs 100 crore in the Punjab Agricultural University.

Thus it went on every year—G.B. Pant, Tamil Nadu and Mahatma Phule farm universities, Mysore, Delhi, Aligarh Muslim and Banaras Hindu and several more. But excellence eluded them like the Holy Grail.

The Modi regime found that this naming-and-faming wasn’t getting them anywhere. So, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley divided the kitty into small bundles and began funding all and sundry, and the mandarins began coining acronyms. Thus they created 36 centres of excellence under the scheme training and research in frontier areas of science & technology (FAST), 30 centres of excellence under technical education quality improvement programme (TEQIP), one research park, 15 universities with potential for excellence (UPE), 21 centres with potential for excellence in particular areas (CPEPA), 172 colleges with potential for excellence (CPE), and 14 colleges of excellence (CE).

By last year, they got tired of acronyms, dumped excellence, and began a hunt for eminence, semantically a nobler goal. They tasked Gopalaswami and Co to name 10 public and 10 private institutes which could achieve eminence.

From among 144 applicants, the team found only IISc, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi (no one would quarrel) in the public sector, BITS Pilani and Manipal Academy (no quarrel again) in the private sector, and Jio in the unborn sector (all quarrel).

Gopalaswami says, Jio has been selected because the Ambanis have promised to do well in the college. By the same logic, would Jio be giving grades and degrees on the basis of what its students promise?

Gentlemen, the sacred mantra that ought to resonate in the groves of academe is: perform or perish. Not promise or perish.

Indeed, Shakespeare wrote, “Some are born great; some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” But the Bard put the words in the mouth of Malvolio, a self-obsessed clown in Twelfth Night.