27/02/2016 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Smriti Irani Vs. Pallam Raju: A Tale Of Two HRD Ministers

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 5: Smriti Irani, Minister of Human Resource Development during the National Teacher Awards distribution ceremony 2014 at Vigyan Bhawan on September 5, 2015 in New Delhi, India. Instituted in 1958, the National Award to Teachers are given away by the President of India on 5th September (Teacher's Day) every year to give public recognition to meritorious teachers working in primary, middle and secondary schools. Altogether there are 374 awards out of which 20 awards are reserved for Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic teachers. Each State/Union Territory/Organization has an earmarked quota based on the number of teachers. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

I have had the pleasure of meeting Mallipudi Mangapati Pallam Raju (HRD Minister 2012-2014) on several occasions in the last year. The first time I met him, he politely asked me if I could help him with some research for a 30-minute TV panel discussion on what to expect in Budget 2015, which was scheduled four days later. For starters, I was surprised by the fact he was looking to prepare for a straightforward panel discussion four days in advance. With hard-fought discussions dominating our television screens on a daily basis, politicians and spokespersons seldom have the emotional or physical bandwidth to think beyond the breaking news of the day.

We sat down at a table and I began to send him some of the interesting and relevant news stories I had come across. I assumed that he'd be looking to make a number of points admonishing the current HRD Minister and hence I sent him some reading material that had several political arguments alleging the mishandling of the HRD Ministry under Smriti Irani.

While criticising Smriti Irani has always been fashionable, [Raju] didn't have one thing negative to say about her.

Surprisingly, he wasn't very happy with the material I had sent him. He told me quite frankly that he wasn't comfortable winning brownie points by making unsubstantiated rhetorical arguments and I should only send him reading materials that were backed by solid data. Thereafter, every table or data I sent him, he would promptly reconfirm the source.

I have spent a number of years in the legislative research domain and it was the first time I had heard somebody tell me that the political arguments didn't matter, that it was the numbers that were required. And while criticising Smriti Irani has always been fashionable, he didn't have one thing negative to say about her. He was only interested in understanding how the ministry was performing.

That's a rarity among Congress politicians. When you speak to Congress MPs who were ministers in the UPA 1 and 2 and ask them about how PM Modi or the minister who has replaced them is performing, their immediate reaction is always dismissive. They tell you how the current minister has no clue of what he/she is doing and then go on to describe the golden days of their administration. Pallam Raju was refreshingly different.

I am a huge admirer of Smriti Irani's oratorical abilities... However, the big problem is often the content.

Impressed by his maturity, I went on to ask him some questions about his tenure as the HRD Minister. He told me about the projects he felt strongly about like the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), which was set up to provide higher education to deserving students, fellowships and scholarships that were given to students via the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) scheme, his interest in polytechnic education etc. I was also very curious to understand the equation he shared with Shashi Tharoor, the minister of state in the HRD. He told me how Tharoor would focus more on higher education as that was his strength and he would concentrate on primary education and skilling initiatives.

Watching Smriti Irani's fiery speech in Parliament the other day, I was reminded of my interaction with Pallam Raju. Would the current crises have been handled any better if Pallam Raju and Shashi Tharoor were running the HRD Ministry? It's almost impossible to tell. However, we can safely assume that they wouldn't be creating a dramatic ruckus in Parliament like Smriti Irani.

I must confess that I am a huge admirer of Smriti Irani's oratorical abilities. I cringe every time I hear somebody call her anpad. She is possibly the finest orator in the Cabinet and when she speaks, you find yourself listening in rapt attention. She speaks in English and Hindi fluently and if you notice carefully, you'll never hear her stutter with uhmnn or ohhs. Her diction is almost flawless.

The Parliament is not the set of a television opera. If she has to make such speeches, she is more than welcome to do it in Amethi or on Arnab's show.

However, the big problem is often the content. In every discussion on an issue that is the concern of the HRD Ministry, she has seldom displayed enough maturity to carefully analyse an issue and provide straightforward answers. Instead, her arguments are often always politically motivated and rhetorical. Sample one-liners from the speech in question:

Mujhe sooli par chadhana chahte ho... Amethi ladne ki saza doge mujhe? (You wish to hang me, punish me for contesting from Amethi?)

• I am not certifying your patriotism but don't demean mine. I have my idea of India, don't demean it.

• A mother who gives birth cannot take lives.

• Some people say children have committed mistakes and we should forgive them. In JNU some children have been mobilised against the state.

• One pamphlet in JNU hails Mahishasur and says Durga, a sex worker, was hired to kill him. Is anybody willing to take this discourse to the streets of Calcutta? Who, I want to know, is ready to talk about it in the streets of Calcutta, the Marxists?

• If any VC appointed during UPA regime says I have attempted saffronisation of education, I will quit politics.

This was not the first time she was making a speech like this. On the discussion for demands for grants for the HRD Ministry, she chose to spend most of her time taking unnecessary pot-shots at Sugata Bose and Shashi Tharoor instead of addressing the more pressing issues that were raised by a number of MPs across party lines. She gets political even in responses during question hour, when there is no need for it whatsoever. Question hour is meant to be generally collegial in nature.

Furthermore, her interpretation of facts and logic is often wrong or grossly inappropriate. Her latest speech on the nationalism saga and Rohith Vemula is riddled with factual inaccuracies. And on the issue of logical inconsistency, when quizzed why no Indian University featured in the Top 200, her answer was "a large section of research work is done in vernacular languages, whereas global rankings only consider research in English." There could nothing farther from the truth.

The HRD Minister is not going to give us our promised acchhe din. Meherbani karke, hamare purane din lauta do -- just give me my old days back.

The Parliament is not the set of a television opera. If she has to make such speeches, she is more than welcome to do it in Amethi or on Arnab's show. However, with PM Modi tweeting her speech (and it getting 11,000 re-tweets), this might just the beginning of a new unleashing of tempestuous speeches over the next few years.

And while Pallam Raju might still be choosing to play the wait and watch game, the verdict on Smriti Irani is out. If the last 22 months are any indication of the next three years, the HRD Minister is not going to give us our promised acchhe din. Meherbani karke, hamare purane din lauta do -- please, just give me my old days back.

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