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Arun Shourie: Mediocrity has become the norm

By Mahesh Sarma
March 11, 2010 09:21 IST
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Journalist, author, columnist, editor, politician and administrator, Arun Shourie wears multiple hats with equal ease. Revered and reviled in equal measure for his politics, even detractors admit his intellectual prowess and tenacity.

A veteran of many battles against the authority, Shourie, discusses philosophy, politics and policies in a freewheeling conversation with Mahesh Sarma, editor, Careers360. Excerpts:

You studied at Modern school. Then St Stephen's College. So it wasn't a struggle, right?
I have been very fortunate, meaning I have not had to struggle with poverty so to say. I am the son of a very honest civil servant, a very creative one. But I struggled against authority, which would mean governments, dominant intellectual fashions etc. For instance, when everybody was a socialist, I felt that those controls, and the License Quota Raj is going to cost us a generation and everybody condemned what I wrote at that time. 
To ascribe a certain elitism just because someone is educated in good institutions -- is it right?
Of course not, in fact much of the change is brought about by very small elites. The great masses of India can't produce metal alloys that are needed for rocketry, for missiles, for the Arjun tank. So, we must respect elitism when it is based on merit and competence. Now, mediocrity has become the norm. Intimidation has become argument, and assault has become proof. Because I can assault you therefore I am right.

So, I am much for elitism, which is based on opportunity or everybody, positive help for everybody. And, based entirely on performance and merit. The current, reducing elitism to be a prerogative word has come entirely from this Leftist discourse. Which is, under the guise of equality, you pull down the standards. And anyone who has achieved something, you say, damn fool, elitist.

Somewhere you said that your career has had various happy accidents. What were these accidents?
Being born to my parents, complete accident. Meeting my wife (our aunts knew each other), complete accident. I was called for a tea party at my wife's aunt's place and she was such a dazzlingly beautiful girl that I couldn't take my eyes off her. Similarly meeting Mr Ramnath Goenka, who had been putting up a great fight during the emergency was also a complete accident.

How did you get the Express editor's job?
Emergency passed, I got to know Ramnath Goenka through many episodes. And the Janta Party had come to power and we were staying in Mr Goenka's house in Bangalore. He asked what I was doing and I said, "What do you mean what am I doing? I can't find a job, I am writing a book. He said, 'Stupid, who is going to read your book? No one is going to read it. You are not finding a job, I can't find any young man, you come. I'll tell the editor to give you some big title.' That is my letter of appointment.

So all goods things that happened, happened by accident?
No, being dismissed is also an accident. By 1982, Mrs Gandhi put so much pressure on him to dismiss me. My good friend, Tavleen came one day and asked what I am planning to do now. And I said, 'I don't know'. She said, 'I'll speak to that person, who runs a syndication service so you start writing and he will syndicate it.' There's a very good friend called Lokesh Sharma who was then running that syndication service. So, that led to columns, led to books.

After reading your book I think you wouldn't mind private entrepreneurs coming into education.
Firstly, they will come only if there is profit involved. But, they will not be able to build an institute, an institution of excellence, if they keep interfering and running it as a business. A good model is American institutions; they are all set up by millionaires. Somebody gives a million dollars, someone donates acres of land. But, after that he doesn't interfere, he has that self-restraint to leave it to professionals, each of whom has been selected on the only criteria of their extreme dedication to education.

Exceptions like IISc, TISS, TIFR do exisit but they were all pre-independence institutions.
That is a good point, they have been sustained in that spirit. My regret is that a larger number of Indian industrialists who have done well and set up institutes of excellence in their own industries have not done the same thing in education. I am quite hopeful that the new breed of entrepreneurs are self-made men, who did not have much money to begin with but are now billionaires.

If they are enabled to come into the field of education, they will bring the same spirit into education; that is my plea. If we don't do that, the field will be open to racketeers, they will definitely come in and fill up the vacuum. That is the scene as of now, which happens in every society.

What according to you would be an appropriate policy framework?
The greater freedom to persons of worth to set up educational institutions, is one. But, at the same time strong rating agencies which are not in the hands of anybody, they are free spirits. True rating agencies, regulations but ratings that will put pressure for excellence. Some of those will be corrupted, no doubt.

Racketeers will suborn those who are doing the rating. But, some will arise among them saying 'No, our future depends, even our business future depends on being a credible rating.' Second thing that will improve standards is surfeit of supply. Today, racketeers are prospering, because there is a shortage. That is how regulaters get corrupt.

If you were part of Ministry of HRD, what would be your first move on the regulatory regime?
To clean up the regulators, because that is the most accessible thing that a Minister can first do, UGC, AICTE and all. The main thing would be to encourage a large number of publications and freelancers to monitor their contributions. That would go a long way. Third, to do everything possible to turn our education system to the future. It's not looking far enough, in terms of the syllabi, that's very important.

Probably use technology to get over the shortage of good teachers. That's very possible today and that would be a quick way to multiply quality in India. We can use institutions which are known for excellence to do their corporate social responsibility by becoming places to upgrade teacher quality in their regions.

Is Mr Sibal going in the right direction?
I greatly welcome Kapil Sibal's initiatives. For instance, this move that he has made against deemed universities, it is a wonderful move. But probably it should have been accompanied by much more exposure of the intrinsic worth or worthlessness of some of these institutions. Then, the public opinion would have been created much better. But the objective is a very good one.

Photograph: Jitender Gupta/Outlook Group

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Mahesh Sarma
Careers360 is a complete education and career magazine offering campus and course reviews, career features, scholarships, expert advisories, entrance exam preparation & solved papers, admission alerts and more.