During the past seven years, the Modi government in this particular sector succumbed to parochialism of another kind. The Left-leaning insularity came to be replaced by Right-wing blinkeredness.

The appointment of the formidable Dharmendra Pradhan as the new Education Minister is a clear indication that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants an end to the backseat driving in the functioning of this major ministry. There has been an increasing feeling, with comparatively weak ministers in the saddle, about too much ‘outside interference’ in functioning of the educational institution under the aegis of the Central government.

The Modi government in 2014 had inherited a rich legacy of education institutions, thanks to the vision of late Human Resource Development (HRD) Arjun Singh and his successor Kapil Sibal, a bouquet of central universities was created across the country which added handsomely to the list of already existing institutions built before and after Independence. Despite the infrastructure, it also remains a fact that education in our country largely remained hostage to the whims and fancies of the Left-leaning ideologues. Over the years there was an increasing desire to break education free from Left-leaning ideological parochialism.

Unfortunately, during the past seven years, the Modi government in this particular sector succumbed to parochialism of another kind. The Left-leaning insularity came to be replaced by Right-wing blinkeredness. The change has been for the worse, as during the Congress and coalition governments, an attempt was always made to create a countervail to the Left’s dominance; however, in the past seven years the so-called czars of cultural nationalism have had a free run.

Unfortunately, the implementation of the agenda of cultural nationalism has been limited to the appointment of the devotees of these czars, blessed with academic mediocrity, to plum positions. Expectedly, many of these appointees miserably failed to rise to the challenges of the office and ended up in situations which brought disrepute to the government. Charges of misuse of office and financial impropriety were levelled against several of these incumbents and some of them also dismissed from office.

This is the opportune moment for the Modi government to expand its ideological base beyond the limited cadres to those, as the late Arun Jaitley would say, waiting to be converted. This ideological blinkeredness so far has left the ministry in pitiable situation with Pradhan’s predecessor, Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’, being forced to cancel twice the conference of the Vice-Chancellors as 20 out of 40 central universities have been headless for past several months. These include prestigious universities like JNU, BHU, Delhi University and Hyderabad University.

Some of the other Central universities without its top functionary for more than a year are Central Universities of Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Jammu, Manipur, Hari Singh Gour University Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Hyderabad, South Bihar University, the North East Hill University, Rajasthan, Kashmir, the Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad and the Guru Ghasidas Central University in Bilaspur. How does a government which announces the New Education Policy (NEP) with so much fanfare seeks to implement it if the educational institutions remain in a dysfunctional state?

In an interaction with the heads of the IITs and IISc, earlier this week, Prime Minister Modi said that the country’s higher educational and technical institutions need to prepare the youth for continuous disruptions and changes, keeping in mind the fourth industrial revolution. This is easier said than done. Prime Minister Modi is setting very high benchmarks for such centres of higher education and it’s for his government to ensure that these institutions have sufficient talent to execute his plans.

Supplementing to what the Prime Minister said, Pradhan at the same deliberation enunciated his plans saying that the government is committed to making students and the youth the primary stakeholders in propelling India towards an equitable knowledge society and that would foster an environment for creating a future-ready India. The minister saying that the government was committed to inculcating a culture of innovation, encouraging research, entrepreneurship and developing futuristic solutions in higher education, all sounds very good but the challenge lies in the implementation of this vision.

Implementation needs an efficient human resource structure, which unfortunately is non-existent as of now. The delay in affecting appointments of the Vice-Chancellors have had a cascading effect, with the recruitment of other teaching and non-teaching manpower of the universities and most of the colleges and institutions affiliated to them getting stalled. This has ended in giving the impression that education was not the Modi government’s priority, which Pradhan would now need work to alter.

The pandemic and its aftermath have thrown new challenges before the Education Ministry. The migration of the teaching-learning community to the digital platforms has to be real. The digital divide and digital deficit are real time challenges facing the education sector as it has given a huge advantage to the students residing in the urban sector. The seekers of education from rural India, living in lodges and hostels, have been forced to return to their pastoral hearths, which are mostly out of digital networks.

Pradhan’s immediate predecessor gave an impression of micro-managing even things which ordinarily should have been left to the officials. Once again recalling from a lecture by Jaitley, where he had said that camera likes sad pictures and working for the sake of camera could be counter-productive. Education is one area where diverse talent is available in plenty and one can use them provided one looks beyond the cadres and allows talents to function and flourish.

The vision of the Modi government and its implementation would need participation of not just educated but a knowledgeable population. Having come up through students’ politics, Pradhan is best placed to identify with the needs of the post-pandemic world. Challenges posed by Covid-19 to our economy and society can only be overcome by having such an education system, to use the Pradhan’s words, which is committed to inculcating a culture of innovation, encouraging research, entrepreneurship and developing futuristic solutions.

With these challenges and the promise to implement the New Education Policy, Pradhan has a clear roadmap to follow for his ministry. There still is ample time and the minister has a proven track record to carry the officialdom and other stakeholders together. Maybe he can change the perception of the Modi government not being serious about education.

The writer is a political commentator and president, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice. The views expressed are personal.