The reins of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) have been prised from the hands of Smriti Irani and entrusted to Prakash Javadekar. How he will handle the job is now the subject of a fair amount of speculation. Let's start with his recent track record. In his stint at the helm of the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MEFCC), he took some steps that riled activists and environmentalists. In addition, reports of his support to the Adani Group, by way of waiving a ₹200 crore fine, have also surfaced to some criticism. In his new role, though, Javadekar is making the right noises: he says he is proud of his past as a student activist and claims he is a believer in using dialogue to resolve conflicts in academia.
While Javadekar's agenda is likely to be similar to Irani's he will have to play his cards more carefully...
What will be interesting to observe is how he will be able to face the challenges that threw his predecessor for a loop even as she allegedly tried to comply with her duty of serving the saffron agenda.
The Question Of RSS-affiliated Appointments
In her regime, Irani appointed many RSS affiliates and Hindutva supporters (including Gajendra Chauhan, Inder Mohan Kapahy, Baldev Sharma and Y Sudershan Rao) at various high posts in academic bodies and educational institutions. Javadekar, who has served as a member of the Standing Committee on Human Resources and Development from 2010-12, is expected to be more mature in his appointment decisions so as to avoid backlash. While his agenda is likely to be similar to Irani's he will have to play his cards more carefully and prioritize policy promotion.
A More Measured Approach To Getting The 'Job Done'
When in the MEFCC, Javadekar brought in some controversial amendments which curtailed the power of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) and diluted some basic norms related to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). This resulted in the faster project clearances, but at the price of environmental protection. He may need to take a more measured approach to "getting the job done" in the MHRD. For one, the ministry is already in the limelight thanks to the controversial actions of Smriti Irani and any more bad publicity at the moment would be highly undesirable.
Policies That Go Beyond Populism?
Smriti Irani recently launched the Vidyanjali Volunteering Program, which though it ticked off certain populist boxes failed to take into account the ground realities and needs of the Indian education system. The program allowed for anyone, without any professional know-how, to take up the charge of teaching on a volunteering basis. If she had spent time going through the reports of various panels and committees in the past, she would have known that a lack of well-qualified teachers to impart quality education is one of the major problems that the nation is experiencing in the sphere of human resource development.
It'll require a lot from Javadekar to make the country believe that he'll take a path that's radically different from that of his predecessor.
It is hoped that Javadekar will take a more responsible stance while framing policies and programs in the education sector, although he does have a track record of ignoring expert opinions during the EIA processes while he was in the MEFCC. Even those which were considered were never given equal publicity by the Ministry in its reports and official website. This style of functioning, however, might be damaging for Javadekar if attempted in the MHRD.
Challenges Straight From Irani's Table
Javadekar's execution of a "world-class universities" program and solving the tussle between the MHRD and the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) over it would be his first major challenge. Irani entered into a conflict with the PMO on the issue of autonomy granted to universities under the "world-class universities" program, displaying a rather arrogant and immature political attitude at times. Javadekar will have to execute this program, and it is crucial he does so smoothly given the media buzz around it.
In his recent public interactions, the new HRD Minister has categorically asserted that he plans to resolve bubbling conflicts through discussions with all parties involved. The ongoing student agitations on issues ranging from the Rohit Act to the Non-NET UGC Fellowship, however, could prove challenging, and he may have to keep some of his ideological leanings aside. Meanwhile, Javadekar could earn some brownie points from educationists by agreeing to impart autonomy to the IIMs across the country, and undo some of the damage done by the controversies related to the saffronization of IITs.
But seeing his past, right now it's all suspicion that's floating in the air. It'll require a lot from Javadekar to make the country believe that he'll take a path that's radically different from that of his predecessor. What's more likely is that he'll work in the same direction, but in a smarter way than Irani, in order to foster a neo-liberal educational policy in the country.