That Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government loves to speak in binaries is no secret. Case in point: the discourse of anti-nationals versus patriots, parroted by ministers, party workers, student leaders and many common citizens at the drop of a hat these days. But the PM, too, has a weakness for polarities, and a good turn of phrase, as he has often betrayed in his public speeches, since the time he was the chief minister of Gujarat.
His latest barb, delivered while campaigning for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, involves recycling one of his earlier phrases, Harvard versus "hard work", which he first used at a rally in Tamil Nadu in 2014. The point he was making back then remains the same as now: compared to the armchair intellectuals who sit in foreign universities (Harvard being more of a metonymy for the general evil signified by these places of higher education than a specific target) and expound on public policy-makers, Modi himself has risen to his current political station in life through sheer hard work. QED: hard work - 1, Harvard - 0.
Like his earlier remark, the PM's latest attack is not particularly addressed to an individual, but one doesn't need a Harvard degree to be able to guess the possible suspects.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who came down severely on the Modi government's decision to demonetise high-value currency in November last year, is associated with the university for several years. The former finance minister, P Chidambaram, another vocal critic of demonetisation, is also an alumnus. Manmohan Singh, Modi's predecessor, who has a doctorate from Oxford, didn't mince words about his disapproval of the note ban either. But the latest GDP numbers tell a different story.
Reports show that in spite of such a drastic and unpopular change in monetary policy, India has managed to grow more than the rate predicted by seasoned economists, including the three named above. "Well-known intellectuals from Harvard and Oxford, who have been at key positions in the Indian economic system, had said the GDP would go down by two per cent, some others said it would go down by four per cent," PM Modi said. In the circumstances, it doesn't take much to connect the dots and get to the source of his gloating.
But that was not all. The prime minister then went to play his favourite game of Us versus Them. "On one hand, there are these intellectuals who talk about Harvard," he said, "and on the other, there is this son of a poor mother, who is trying to change the economy of the country through hard work."
The PM's pride in his humble origins is widely flaunted, most of all by him. From the claim that he was once a tea-seller to testimonies of his selfless service to the nation, putting it before his family, anecdotal and apocryphal examples abound. Apart from biographies, there is even a comic book, Bal Narendra, devoted to his boyhood antics, for younger readers, who may not be clued into media reports of the PM's glories.
Modi taking credit for his rise to self-made eminence, devoid of any illustrious pedigree or a privileged background, seems only fair. But to dismiss the beneficiaries of a better education in the same breath, while singing his own praises, is not only unbecoming of a politician, let alone the leader of a nation, but also smacks of anti-intellectualism.
The "Harvard vs hard work" analogy doesn't send out the message that there is as much dignity in working hard as in getting a good educational degree. Rather, it seems to mock those educated abroad as opposed to those who remain and toil at home. The targets of Modi's mockery, as it happens, all come from middle-class families, who went on to prove their academic mettle at institutes of global excellence. Worse still, by dissociating 'hard work' from 'Harvard', the PM seems to suggest that earning a good degree from an Ivy League university doesn't involve the former.
The aspiration to get the best education or to contribute to the knowledge economy is no less honourable than the desire to serve the public through an active political career. In a society where a sizeable section of the population is increasingly putting a premium on education to improve their lives, belittling academic training is not only antithetical to the aspirations of millions but could also prove counter-productive to the government's long-term interests.
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