Nobel laureate and eminent economist Amartya Sen might have a point when he complains about academic institutions being susceptible to political interference in India. But to claim that the government’s apparent decision to not recommend extending his tenure as chancellor of Nalanda University is a purely political, vindictive move glosses over Sen’s actual record at the institution, which was less than blemishless.

“Academic governance in India remains so deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling government, when it chooses to make political use of the special provisions,” Sen wrote as he withdrew his candidacy for a second term as chancellor, after it became clear, according to him, that the government had decided “not to have me.”

The political motivations of the government in wanting to remove him might seem obvious. Sen is known to have been close to the previous government and even said publicly last year that he would not like to see Narendra Modi as his prime minister. And there are indications that the actual way the Modi government attempted to handle things at Nalanda was problematic, with abrupt attempts to reconstitute the board and a failure to properly communicate. On both these issues, the Nobel laureate might have a point, even though it is quietly ignored that his initial appointment by the United Progressive Alliance government was also a political decision.

Yet any extension of profile for Sen would have to cover his performance over the course of Nalanda's short history, and on this front, the 82-year-old is standing on thinner ground.

Controversies from the beginning

From the very beginning, the Nalanda project ran into trouble. Conceived as a way of reviving an age-old institution that had once been the world's first university, the project initially garnered lots of interest from East Asian countries with links to India. Parliament passed a law in 2010 to set up the university with the assistance of the Nalanda Mentor Group, which included a number of other nations that were a part of the project, meaning the Ministry of External Affairs rather than the Human Resource Development Ministry was put in charge of what should have been one of India's most important educational institutions.

Even before the act had been signed by the president and notified, however, MEA appeared to have appointed a Vice Chancellor to run the university. The person picked was Dr Gopa Sabharwal, from Delhi University, who was immediately given a salary of Rs 5.06 lakh per month, double that of DU's own VC. Sabharwal did not meet the mandatory qualifications usually expected of central and state university VCs and she also appointed Dr Anjana Sharma, an associate professor at DU, as Officer on Special Duty at a salary of Rs 3.3 lakh without the requisite public notice.

Bihar Times would later report on Sabarhwhal and Sharma bringing in two others from DU, Nayanjot Lahiri and Upinder Singh, who also happens to be the daughter of former prime minister Manmohan Singh. Although both are eminent scholars well established in their fields, the process of appointment and proximity to Sen and the government at the time only added to the overall impression at Nalanda. Then there was a question over whether the university would be headquartered in Bihar, near the original Nalanda as originally envisioned, or in New Delhi, from where for a time Sabharwal preferred to operate out of.

Lots of other little issues came up. To assure independence at the university, it was notified as an "international" rather than a Central one, meaning it wouldn't be regulated quite the same. There was question of whether Sen effectively appointed himself as chancellor of the university. And a mini controversy erupted after former president APJ Abdul Kalam, who many credit with having pushed the Nalanda idea, chose not to be involved with the project saying it should be taken up by people who could devote all their time to being in Bihar.

Stumbling start

Sen has explained much of this as being part of the red tape of beginning any major project in India. The convoluted nature of the project itself, being a government of India project that nevertheless involves 16 other countries and a complex legal structure, meant that funding for the project was difficult to settle and setting up was not easy. Yet even after all of that was accomplished things weren't quite great.

More than 1,000 students apparently applied to the university, only 15 were picked and of those, only nine turned up on the first day of operations last year. Sen himself didn't turn up on the inaugural day, with some speculation suggesting the poor enrolment had kept him away. Classes for now are being conducted at a convention centre with work on an actual campus expected to begin sometime this year.

In a sense the current troubles, with indications that the government meddled with the board of the university and is now playing politics with the appointments, aren't exactly anything novel for Nalanda. They're just a continuation of the controversies that have dogged the project from the beginning.