One of the more beautiful qualities of a democratic republic is its persistent ability to allow the dispossessed a pathway to fame and power. When Abraham Lincoln became the US Presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 1860, not only was his impoverished background vastly different from that his key competitors, his rise to fame was a profound anomaly in a world largely under various forms of monarchic and oligarchic despotism.
China was still under the Ming Dynasty, India was encumbered by upper-class Englishmen, and European politics (both democratic and monarchical) was dominated by its aristocracy. But in the United States, a “railsplitter” from Illinois would become the chief executive of the nation.
Abraham Lincoln’s eventual deification following the successful persecution of the American Civil War held out the promise of democracy. That is why Narendra Modi’s election is so important here in India. That someone so seemingly disadvantaged as a tea vendor, as he has claimed to be, can win the highest political office of the land reinforces an optimism about the democratic system, in spite of its repeated failure in delivering the basics of health and education. Modi’s other failings aside, his emergence from the subaltern to the metropole is a case for admiration and celebration.
Yet, flustered at Modi’s ability to politically side-track them, many centre-left figures have raised issues that oddly serve to shore up his biggest strengths. The latest example is the problem of Modi’s college degree raised by Arvind Kejriwal, abetted inevitably by the sections of Congress and the prime minister's opponents in his own Bharatiya Janata Party.
Some have alleged that the details of Modi’s BA degree from Delhi University are dodgy. The names on the mark sheet and final certificate are different, and so are the dates. The mark sheet was published for the year 1977, while final degree certificate was awarded in 1978.
There is a valid question of whether Modi lied under oath while filing these degrees in his election nomination. If it does turn out after suitable investigation that he was indeed untruthful, he will have some serious explaining to do.
But should it really matter whether Modi has his degrees? Is such a subject really worth the energy and time spent on discussing it?
Blaming Modi for failing to acquire the right qualifications is unwarranted and gratuitous. Modi’s story of overcoming extreme odds and joining the table of power usually reserved for English-speaking elites is perhaps his most important strength. His impressive oratorical skills and policy knowledge without any hint of formal training or institutional pedigree would have only burnished his image as a man who is the product of his choices and effort and not his circumstances. Why the BJP has decided to up the ante in this news cycle by needlessly releasing his certificates is beyond comprehension.
Secondly, acquiring a degree (or not) should never be an indication of intellectual strength. Abraham Lincoln wrote the finest political speeches of the English-speaking world with only one year of formal education, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote the Discovery of India, a brilliantly flawed masterpiece of narrative history, after studying botany and zoology at Cambridge, and George Orwell never went to university but managed to compose the most enduring political essays and novels of the 20th century.
You could add Rabindranath Tagore (college-dropout), Winston Churchill (military school) and Leon Trotsky (never attended university) to this list.
This is not to suggest that we must not judge Modi’s intellectual acumen. It is our absolute right to do so, since Modi has chosen to be the chief executive of a democracy. But judge it on the basis of what he says, writes or does or the kind of advisors he employs, not based on whether he had or never had a BA in Economics and Political Science.
If this issue of educational degree turns out to be a cipher, it will join the list of the other facetious matters that his opponents have deployed to discredit him ‒ like Modi’s marriage or his vote share in the General Election.
For instance, criticising Modi for leaving his wife obscures the fact that Modi was a victim of under-age forced marriage – a practice that liberals would otherwise whole-heartedly condemn. It is callous to blame someone for leaving a marriage he never gave his consent to.
Similarly, arguing that Modi does have a mandate because he did not win the majority of vote share would mean that Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, or David Cameron do not have mandates either.
At the time of punctured manufacturing growth, uncontrollable and combustible right-wing fringe groups, and a Union executive overreach in Uttrakhand, the Opposition could do better if it overcame its narrow obsession with Modi’s degrees, Modi’s suits, Modi’s marriage and his vote share.
Surely India deserves better.
Akshat Khandelwal’s Twitter handle is @akshat_khan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.