Debating Elections, Debating Development

Ram Puniyani

The ongoing elections have created turmoil and churning in the society at an unprecedented level. Media, social sites and whatever platforms are there, are full of the intense debate about the so called ‘Gujarat Model’ the failures of the UPA II and related issues. While there may be few who are sitting on the fence, a large numbers has made up their mind one way or the other. To ensure that most people vote Election Commission wrote to all the educational heads to appeal to their students to vote.

In tune with this and also to generate debate around these issues, Fr. Frazer Mascaranhas, Principal of Mumbai’s well known St Xavier’s College, wrote to his students through his official college email, and his letter was also put up on the website of the college. The letter took a subtly nuanced and balanced approach to forthcoming elections and raised doubts about the claims of ‘Gujarat Model’ of development. It criticized the Gujarat growth model for being conducive merely for big businesses and pointed out the slide in the Human Development Index and the poor quality of health and education in Gujarat. This emphasized that where quality of life is concerned, the state has not done well. While initially most of the society through barrage of propaganda started believing in this propaganda, by now most the statistics from Planning Commission and Nationals Sample survey show that this was a mere inflated propaganda for electoral gains and did not reflect the reality of Gujarat.

At the same time the email brought to the notice of students the positive phenomenon which has taken place in the society during last ten years, the schemes and policies of great social significance, which have been undermined and not propagated properly. The email then praises the Rojgar Yojana and the Food Security Act as they enhance the wellbeing of citizens. It also commends the Right to Information act. It concluded ‘”The prospect of an alliance of corporate capital and communal forces coming to power constitutes a real threat to the future of our secular democracy. Support people who pledge to work to take Human Development Indicators higher and who commit themselves to a pluralistic culture in diverse India.” The high point of the mail was “No magic wand or divine miracles will come to the aid of the Indian people. Their reasoned choice of individuals and political parties, who promise to work for a real quality of life for all, will see India prosper or flounder on the precipice. Choose well!”

It can be said that the chief of the institution was not only exhorting the students to vote but also laying bare the issues which are the core one’s in these elections. It is true that Mascaranhas as a good educator outlined the central concerns of the society, the type of development and the needs of the society.

The whole hell broke loose. Many students of the college said that they are not going to be swayed by any opinion, will weigh it on their own and use their own judgment in voting. Some of them also pointed out that their institution has taught them the culture of healthy debate and this mail from their principal is a part of that. But the BJP presented it as a opinion against them, against their Prime Ministerial candidate and complained to the Election Commission, unmindful of the fact that EC cannot advise those who are not in the electoral battle. Still the pressure mounted on the Principal was immense. He was attacked by saying that such a thing should not have gone from Institute’s mail, he could have written from his personal email. They accused that it is like using the official position in expressing one’s political positions. While some faculty upheld what their principal had done, there were few critical voices also. Amongst the academic community also some teachers/principals voiced their opposition to this. The pressure on the principal was so immense that his letter had to be taken off the Institute’s web site.

What is the ethical and moral position in such matters? We have seen all the television channels broadcasting the Sri Ram Memorial Oration at Sri Ram College of Commerce (DU) by Modi live last year. Also one recalls many newspapers had carried full-page ads of the SRM University’s convocation ceremony where Modi was the chief guest. At the same time one has not heard any criticism of the plans by Modi’s to take chopper tours of BHU and Kashi Vidyapeeth. There have been many well publicized endorsements of Modi by prominent personalities. Many a Babas and Matas have been endorsing Modi in public. This group is heading many and educational institutions. Baba Ramdev has Patanjali University and Gurukul in Rewari. Sri Sri Ravishanker’s Vidya Mandir trust runs 44 Vidya Mandirs 39 Bal Mandirs, Institute of Management Studies amongst other. Mata Amritanand Mayi has the National network of Amrita Vidyalayam. Surely many wrongs don’t make a right. As such what should be the norm is very important. While Fr. Frazer has not endorsed any political party, he has merely raised the issues, though one can see that the logic of his argument does go against one party.

In our democracy can we bypass such debates in the academic institutions? While teaching about Nationalism, will we not have to compare and contrast between Democratic Secular Nationalism and religious nationalism, Indian Nationalism versus Hindu nationalism? While talking about issues will we not have to talk about underlying complexities? We do need to nurture our institutions around healthy debate sans the heat and partisanship. We need to go beyond the propaganda and encourage our students to unravel the truth under the heap of propaganda.

There is another interesting aspect of this email. Mascarenhas, being a religious priest is saying that ‘No magic wand or divine miracles will come to the aid of the Indian people’, this at a time when Narendra Modi is claiming that God has chosen him to lead the country. Modi is in line with some of the recent happenings in the world when God was invoked, George Bush invoked God in invasion of Afghanistan and Tony Blair did the same in the context of attacking Iraq!


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