Should It Only Be About Development? Education at the 2019 Indian General Election

by Kushal Sohal | on 24 July 2020

Education is an intrinsically political matter in India. Not only have textbooks appeared liable to falsification and rewriting at political convenience, but education has also emerged critical to political parties’ PR campaigns. This was highlighted by two moments in February 2020. In her budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed that the initiative ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (Save the daughter, Educate the daughter) has ‘yielded tremendous results’ since its inception by the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2015. Statistics, however, show this has been a mere gimmick – a national awareness campaign which signals a ‘step in the right direction’ towards gender equal access to education, as opposed to one that has actually produced a transformation worthy of congratulations. Meanwhile, the Aam Admi Party (AAP) made educational reform a core element of their re-election campaign at the recent Delhi Legislative Assembly elections. The Happiness Curriculum and Entrepreneurship Curriculum is soon to be joined by a ‘Constitution at 70’ campaign, the initial phase of the Deshbakhti (Patriot) Curriculum. Improvement in the quality of teacher training and classroom facilities as well as international recognition combines to suggest that AAP has presided over reform of education within Delhi Government Schools. Yet it too has been critiqued and appears rather quick to shift blame for its failures to fulfill promises due to Delhi’s lack of full statehood status. If we engage in an analysis of the rhetoric across different political party manifestos at the 2019 general election we see that education is often considered little more than a developmentalist project.

The BJP manifesto, ‘Sankalpit Bharat, Sashakt Bharat’ (Determined India, Empowered India) was made up of seventy-five “promises” and the word education featured thirty-five times. A core focus was on development through institution creation. We see this in the promise to set medical colleges in each district of the country by 2024 and establish a ‘University of Foreign Policy’. Whether India’s geopolitical concerns could be debated at such an institution without political interference remains incredibly ambiguous. There is also a desire to create ‘National Institutes of Teachers’ Training’ to address areas of ‘poor quality’ in teaching. This institution creation focus is also seen in a vocational sense. The BJP outlines desires to set up a ‘Music University, Police University, and a Hospitality and Tourism University’. Other pledges included: increasing the number of seats in ‘premier management, engineering and law institutes’, launching a ‘Language Translation Mission’, establishing ‘Atal Tinkering Labs’ across the country to spark curiosity in S.T.E.M. subjects, and the ‘Prime Minister Innovative Learning Programme: DHRUV’. Inspired by Russia’s Sochi school, the ambition of DHRUV is to bring together sixty school students from across different streams – both the sciences and the arts – to grapple with the nation’s most pressing problems including ‘global warming… water conservation’. The reasoning, however, is predominately economic. It is all about pushing India towards becoming a ‘$5 trillion economy‘. The BJP’s approach to education is in tune with a broader developmentalist rhetoric that has appealed to some Indian voters in recent times. The BJP, however, has failed to meet its own investment targets, has withdrawn funds from many public institutions, and politically polarized the nation’s student and academic community as a consequence of responses to protest movements. This suggests that its developmentalist educational rhetoric often goes hand in hand with a polarizing political agenda.

The Indian National Congress produced a twenty-five-point plan on educational matters in its manifesto ‘Congress Will Deliver’. This included a desire to make public schooling free and compulsory from Class I to Class XII; improve regulation of teacher training institutes, employ technological methods to make learning more personalized and interactive; introduce more vocational training and invest in schools for students with ‘special needs.’ There was also the ‘Students Rights Bill’, an ambiguous promise to ‘rebuild’ trust between students and their universities. In line with the demands of many regional parties, the Congress too calls for an increase in investment in education, from approximately 3% to 6% of GDP, and for school education to be transferred back to the State List from the Union List.

States rights in the educational space has long been a topic of debate. We see this in Tamil Nadu in particular where both leading parties, the DMK and AIADMK, have often debated the medium of instruction. While the All-India Trinamol National Congress noted that educational privileges and local employment schemes are open to everybody in West Bengal, the Samajwadi Party called for free cycles for girls, free laptops for poor students, and partnerships with NGOs in order to deliver interactive classes. Though the manifesto itself is lackluster, the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI(M)) has often called for a greater degree of reservation for candidates from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and continues to critique the role of Hind-nationalist functionaries in educational spaces. The CPIM is a big player in Kerala, the most literate state in the country. Whether it be the LDF or the UDF political front in power in Kerala, we often see heavy investment into resources in government schools, teacher training, as well as internet access; the later being particularly important for online schooling during this current pandemic.

In short, reflections on the manifestos of some of India’s leading political parties reveals that education often features as part of broader developmental rhetoric. It is also caught in political debates on constitutional particularities. While there may be a universal push for interactive learning and the creation of more institutes, the question of state rights and what this means for educational reform at the level of schooling seems to also be raised frequently. What is, however, largely absent in educational discourse in political spaces – aside perhaps from in Delhi and in Kerala – is a guiding idea of what constitutes an Indian education. In order to escape rote-learning practices and move more convincingly towards critical thought and a rounded citizenship education, I believe there is a need to recall the ‘spiritually humanist’ tradition of Indian educational thought. Such a turn, of course, would be an incredibly political one – it would be an attempt to counter the power of fake news and the political Hindu right. Yet, should they wish to truly tackle sectarian prejudices, patriarchal discourses, and other social ills, much of India’s political opposition needs to accept that trying to compete with the BJP’s developmentalist rhetoric is not the honest recalibration that is needed.

Suggested Citation: Kushal Sohal. 2020. ‘Should It Only Be About Development? Education at the 2019 Indian General Election‘, Think Pieces Series No. 5. Education.SouthAsia (