Indian politics proves that lack of formal education doesn’t hinder progress, but policy matters need deeper engagement


How educated does a leader have to be and what is the consequence of lack of intellectual exposure? The Congress is making fun of the fact that Union minister Smriti Irani did not go to college. She joined a correspondence course but did not complete it, which could mean she had no interest in furthering her education.

Irani is smart, and her lack of formal education does not appear to have hindered her progress. But one can judge her quality only from her policy interventions, which not many of us have any idea about. There is no shame in not having gone to college, but Irani got into trouble because she had made misleading — if not outright false — claims of having studied at Yale University.

One could highlight that the Congress’ dynasty is not particularly qualified either in the educational sense. Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi went to England to study at Cambridge, but he failed his exams and did not get a degree. His brother Sanjay failed to graduate even from high school, after which he dropped out to take up a course in automobile repairs. It is shocking that such a person had so much power and allowed a big say in policy by his mother.

 Indian politics proves that lack of formal education doesnt hinder progress, but policy matters need deeper engagement

File image of Union Minister Smriti Irani. PTI

Maneka Gandhi, Sanjay’s wife, married him when she was 18, and therefore, she does not have a proper education either. Her qualifications submitted to the Lok Sabha say she only went to school.

Sonia Gandhi did not have a college education either. Her studies ended at the age of 18, and she also married early. Indira Gandhi, too, did not have a degree.

However, Rahul Gandhi’s political detractors may call him ‘Pappu’, but he seems academically bright. He has a Masters in Philosophy in Development Economics from Trinity College, Cambridge — his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru’s alma mater. Nehru graduated with a third class and was not a good student, making Rahul the most educated individual in the Gandhi family.

The most famous Prime Minister of Britain Winston Churchill did not go to college and did not have a formal education. This is remarkable as he was both a historian and a novelist and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Another British prime minister who left school at 16 and did not go to college was John Major, whom older readers will remember as Margaret Thatcher’s successor.

As many as 11 British prime ministers were not college graduates.

Coming back to India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi left home and his wife at the age of 17 and did not go to college. He pursued a correspondence course, though there is controversy over the authenticity of the documents he produced on this. Despite his lack of formal education, his political skills are obvious. However, there is one crucial flaw — he does not engage deeply with policy material the way Manmohan Singh or Barack Obama did.

In one of his interviews, Modi had described how he works: “Three or four days after I became Chief Minister of Gujarat, the chief secretary came to me. He brought a heap of files this tall (gesturing about three feet high). They must have weighed 15 or 20 kilograms. The peon left them on my table. The chief secretary sat and told me, ‘This is the file for Narmada.’ I can remember Narmada, but there were three other files. The chief secretary said, ‘These are on Gujarat’s vital and sensitive issues. Take the time out to read them. You may need to speak on and take a position on these issues and address them at any time.'”

“I kept looking up and down at the height of the stack three or four times. I told, ‘You leave these here and we shall meet in a few days.'”

“I did not open these files. They stayed where they were. A voice told me that I could not work through academics study (sic). I can’t do that. That voice came from within. I told the three officers who were working with me that ‘the chief secretary had given these to me. I will not be able to read so much. First, you people make me understand what masala (sic) the files contain. If I begin to read all this material, there will be no end to it. It is not in my nature (prakruti) to read files.'”

“Three or four days later, the chief secretary returned. I told him: ‘Tell me what the important things are in these files.’ He did so and I said, ‘This much is sufficient for me, you can take the files back.’ Sine then, I have never had to be briefed on these issues, and it’s been 13 years.”

“I had such an ability that I was able to grasp the granularity of the issues. Such things left an impact on the officers. I don’t argue. I am a good listener. Don’t go by my reputation outside. I listen a lot. I can say today that if in my development, reading played a 30 percent role, then listening had a 70 percent role. What I hear, I analyse and classify the ‘maal‘ (sic) in various boxes in my mind. This takes me no time, and when needed, I can retrieve it. I have been able to develop this extra method (vidha).”

“Even today, if my officers show me some paper, I say: ‘Tell me what’s in it in two minutes. For me two minutes is sufficient for a 10-page document. This skill is something I have developed.'”

Unfortunately, this is not appropriate when you’re running a large and complex nation. One hopes that in his second term, Modi spends more time reading serious policy material even if it bores him or is against his nature.