Wednesday, March 29, 2006

From Cambridge to Harvard : a Political Journey

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are lobbying to establish a 'Rajiv Gandhi chair' at Harvard University. TOI reports:

Congress president Sonia Gandhi has, of late, broached the subject with Harvard officials, the second time she has done so in five years...

Outgoing Harvard President Lawrence Summers remarked during his India visit last week that the university was planning to set up several chairs to honour distinguished Indians. India is of course far hotter today than it was 5 years ago. But, these things take time as many details need to be worked out.

"There are ... many strings attached in the establishment of a chair like the endowment the donor is ready to give, the department the chair needs to be established in, whether it is a bound or an unbound chair and how much control would each partner have in admission/nomination process," a source told TOI.

Demystified, if the chair is a 'bound' one, only an Indian student can be admitted/ nominated to it. Politically speaking, that would make the most sense. The chair is likely to be in the public health area.

For a moment, I wondered where the endowment (running into several million dollars) would come from. Surely the Gandhi family can't officially fork out that kind of money. Then I realised there would be plenty of industrialists who'd gladly step forward and volunteer funds. Certainly they wouldn't let go of such a golden opportunity to get into Mrs G's good books!

Now don't get me wrong. I think Rajiv Gandhi was a young and fairly dynamic prime minister. He did what he could, given his inexperience. He paid the price for some of his mistakes.

What I find strange is this: the assertion by TOI that "former PM Rajiv Gandhi may soon have a presence inside Harvard... an institution with which the family has had a long association".

Pray, what association? The paper notes that "Rajiv Gandhi was not an alumnus of Harvard - he studied engineering at Cambridge - but he had his son, Rahul, admitted at Harvard in 1990".

Also, the former PM had spent three days on the campus in Boston during the process to enrol Rahul for a masters in economics. Earlier in 1987, he had delivered a talk attended by Harvard's dons on India and its democracy.

Perhaps that qualifies as a 'long association' in political circles.

Of course one does not need to justify instituting a chair at Harvard by any kind of association. The Gandhi-Nehru family was an Oxbridge educated one, like most of the elite during the British Raj. But today, it makes a lot more sense to ally with a university like Harvard in a country like America. Because it is a Harvard and not an Oxford or Cambridge which wields more influence on public policy and global academic thought.

Even the venerable Amartya Sen has shifted base from Cambridge to Harvard...

The value of 'education'
Another interesting point to note is that the TOI now tactfully refers to Rahul 'taking admission in Harvard'. This is a shift from the earlier description of Rahul as a 'Harvard graduate'. A point which was hotly refuted by many .

As was Rahul's claim to the EC of being an M Phil from Trinity College, Cambridge.

Secondly, even Rajiv is now described as 'having studied engineering at Cambridge', acknowledging that he did not actually graduate. Which is the actual fact.

Now I find this intriguing because the Gandhi-Nehru family history depicts in a sense the 'value of education' declining over generations.

Motilal Nehru
Born 1861, Motilal Nehru was born in Delhi, to a Kashmiri Brahmin family. He became one of the first generation of young Indians to receive Western-style college education. He attended Muir College at Agra, but failed to appear for the final year B.A examinations. He then enlisted as a vakil in the English courts... became a barrister and settled in the city of Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Motilal Nehru became a noted lawyer. Education combined with his own hunger to succeed brought him success - and wealth.

Jawaharlal Nehru Born 1889, Jawaharlal was educated in the finest Indian schools of the time, Nehru returned from education in England at Harrow, Trinity College, Cambridge and the Inner Temple to practice law before following his father into politics.

Jawaharlal was a man with a thirst for learning throughout his life. He was also a man of letters who wrote many excellent books including 'Discovery of India'.

Indira Gandhi
Born 1917. Indira attended prominent Indian, European and British schools like Santiniketan and Oxford, but her weak academic performance prevented her from obtaining a degree.

Looking at her life-history you get a feeling she had a troubled childhood (father in jail, mother ill). Mother Kamala Nehru passed away when she was just 17. So her lack of application to studies may have had more to do with other issues than actual lack of grey cells. She later proved to be an an extremely sharp woman - at an EQ level for sure but even on 'intelligence'. She was nobody's fool.

Rajiv Gandhi
Born 1944. He finished his high school education from The Doon School and attended college at the Imperial College London and Cambridge University (but did not receive a degree from either university).

He chose to become an airline pilot until brother Sanjay died and he was anointed the heir apparent.

Rahul Gandhi
Born 1970, Rahul went to St. Columba's School in New Delhi. He was later home-schooled for security reasons. Rahul entered St. Stephen's College but after a year he left for Harvard. His academic pursuits are shrouded in secrecy.

During the parliamentary elections in 2004, Gandhi said that he had received an MPhil in Development Economics from Cambridge University, but where he received his BA has never been disclosed.

The point I am trying to make?
Motilal used education to become a 'sahib' or equivalent of yuppie in British days. Law was the ladder to social mobility, just as IIT/ IIM is today.

Jawaharlal had the best of everything and could have comforrtably led the yuppie life as a lawyer himself. But he chose to join the freedom struggle instead.

Indira grew up at a time when the value of a British education was suspect. A time when the struggle against the Raj was reaching its peak.

Rajiv was born into a world where he was the Prime minister's grandson. Education cannot buy a higher status than that.

In both Indira and Rajiv's cases, there were no parents to nurture and nag them into studying hard and 'making a future'. For one, the parents were busy with their own problems. And secondly, the parents had already created a 'future' for the kids which did not really depend on having a certain level of education.

Finally, we come to Rahul. When you come from a family where your grandmother and father have both dropped out of college and still been successful you don't think of it as a 'failure'.

Besides, there are extenuating circumstances. I don't know what happened at Stephen's but w.r.t. Harvard let us acknowledge that he joined in Sept 1990 and his father was blown to bits in May 1991. I wouldn't blame him for dropping out - and even being unable to return.

What I would like, however, is that at some future date he come clean about his academic record. And also, whether or not he ever gets a single degree, that he strives to be an open-minded person with a thirst for knowledge and different points of view.

That his lack of formal education should not make him insecure. That he should build a team of people far better educated than him and use them to advise him on expert matters.

As Anatole France once put it: An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't.

If more politicians followed that rule we'd be a far more robust country!


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  3. Hi Rashmi,

    I agree with you. Whether Rahul has a degree or not, is not going to have any drastic effect on his future political career. If he is ever going to lead the Congress, for which he is apparently been groomed for, it makes more sense to come clean on his qualifications. As you pointed out, dropping out hasn't been a hindrance for a successful political career. The people who actually vote are the ones who actually rule the nation. So the people who rule the Indian nation are predominantly from the villages and semi-urban areas. For them, the deciding factor for voting to Congress is nothing but “the Gandhi tag”. For the lobbyists, they will bet on the winning horse. The rest who don’t vote, just don’t have to care. So, it makes more sense even in a political point of view to come clean on his qualifications and portray himself as a straight forward individual. People appreciate clear thinking as seen in Bush’s re-election only because he was successful in communicating his policies in clear light than Kerry could. So to start with, an introspection and realization of his strengths and more importantly his weaknesses would do a lot good for him and the nation as a whole.

  4. The other question is did he actually work with Porter's consulting firm in London, the Monitor Group?

    Some reports quote him having worked in an investment bank...some at a computer firm...and others at Monitor.

    Although I won't put it past Porter to take him on to get access to Indian politicians ...even Chelsea Clinton got selected by McKinsey (or was it BCG?)

  5. "Motilal used education to become a 'sahib' or equivalent of yuppie in British days. Law was the ladder to social mobility, just as IIT/ IIM is today."
    this is an utterly rubbish statement... there are a lot of respectable professions through which a person can climb the social ladder... what matters how well you do... kiran m. shaw is no iit/iim grad but she is way above.. having an iit/iim degree is not the be all and end all... kindly make responsible statements in the future..

  6. Nice and a different story.

    One thought. Could it be possible that an erudite education or more truly learning to Indira (like that of her father) would have turned her into a far more balanced (less insecure) a personality??

    She is someone who is acknowledged as one with a great brain and also not a bad heart but had some very strong traits which weren't positive. Can a more thorough grounding at school/college level change that??

  7. Does indian junta care about education/credibility of their leaders? Hardly!!
    Infact if sonia gandhi can be (s)elected as a PM, anyone can run for the post (Only eligibility needed is that the person should have Gandhi surname and of course, shrewd and wicked character!!)

    I dont think Rahul gandhi needs to worry about anything. He has a great career ahead of himself -- esp when he is born to such a *sacrificing* mother!
    Maybe its time to send the Gandhis to Axeland!! " Just a prey away "


  8. hi,
    pretty interesting blog collection. Got to know about it pretty late, but late than never.
    enjoyed reading them.

  9. Hi,
    Agree with one of the comments that making it to an IIT/IIM is not the only way to acquire "social mobility". There are thousands of other professionals , who are not from the IITs or IIMs, but from other reputed instis as also self -made entrepreneurs who are definetly socially mobile. I feel you have been hanging on to the IIM crutch for far too long, don't you have any other achievements apart from having done an MBA from an IIM in the early 90s?

  10. Nice read. To add to it, I had a professor who went to Oxford at the same time when Rajiv and Sanjay were there. According to him, both Rajiv and Sanjay, failed academically, and for the first time in Oxford they were not thrown out just because of their family lienage.

    Rahul might not come clean on his education, as the times have changed since his grandmom and dad's days . Nowadays, there is a huge middleclass who value education (this is the impression media has created), and a debate might spur on Rahul's image.

    Who knows, there might well be a peer pressure from the likes of Pilots and Scindhias...

  11. Rightly said indian politicians don't need any academic education. Examples are plenty that even illiterate people made it high up, so, there should be no worry for new gandhi. But really, it highlights his insecurity by keeping a secret about his academics. People don't care abotu it but still if you try to hide it then offcourse people start doubting that you may be hiding many more things.
    For Nitin Pai and freespirit, read again, Rashmi is talking about education brands, not about education. She has already taken a safe stance and there is no point in growling like indian opposition. IIT/IIM are 'regarded as best education institutes', its your wish you personally count them or not. Do you really think, in colonial times, studing in western style schools made too much of difference?

  12. I would have to disagree with you on one point: IIT/IIM's are not merely ladders to social mobility, as you put it...I have cleared the IIT-JEE mains exam, and let me tell you, if you look at it merely as a ticket to a fat salary, you will not get get through, you need to want it badly enough, at a fundamental level...I am not sure about the IIMs, but looking at my friends who are preparing for CAT, I do not believe that is the case...these are people who have genuine reasons for wanting to study management...

  13. I agree with Mr. Nitin Pai. There are many who are from smaller universities and are perhaps more successful than most who run around with an IIT/IIM tag. And honestly, IIT/IIMs arent the end of the world and they are definitely not the ladder to 'social mobility' in India. Pls open your eyes. There are thousands of Indians with a Harvard/Wharton MBA degree and these happen to be top schools in the world. Now, pls dont even start comparing IIM to these universities.

  14. guyz ...the IIT/IIM context was a metaphor for 'being set'irrespective of the long term consequences..of course thr were othr roads to sucess evn in those dayz but being a barrister or a lawyer would b guranteeing social standing...admit it ..evn iim n iitian have standing

  15. Thanks for throwing light on the "degree truth" about Gandhis..

  16. I was following the Rahul Gandhi academic qualifications story during last election. What hurts is not the fact that Rahul couldn't perform academically. It is tough to do so when you don't belong to the lower or middle classes of India rather to the ruling aristocractic class of India. He couldn't get a BA but got a M.Phil. WoW. That makes a mockery of all the young students who are prespiring long hours to make a career. He didn't drop out of Harvard rather couldn't pass the exams. That increases my respect for Harvard and casts doubt on Cambridge.

    The bit that really pains me is that his spin doctors are still running that story.

    The very fact that someone so deceitful could be so close to power is a matter of concern. Shouldn't we get alarmed. This is all the more reason to start supporting the young turks in India who have started on their own, be it "Paritran" or "BharatUday" and many others.

  17. HI Rashmi,

    Good post.

    Folks.. the focus here is NOT whether IIT/IIMs or Some other qualifications are the way to social mobility.. its just a metaphor. And its not wrong anyways.

    @ freespirit - Its nice to have difference in opinion. But, what do you know about responsibility? Making a statement makes one irresponsible? Which world are you from? Stop attacking people and learn to focus on the issue.

    @ psp59 - Please wake up. Only harvard/Wharton is good and IIMs are not even comaparable is a colonial hangover. Think about it. Did you study in an IIM or IIT/IIsc? Don't start unnecesary issues.

    If any body think otherwise, pleaselet me know.


  18. nice article ..there r some overextended arguments ..but overall a really good analysis

  19. IIPM is keen on establishing a Rajiv Gandhi Chair at IIPM Delhi. It will be occupied by none other than Arindam Chaudhuri. More details on:


  20. good

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  23. A small request. It would be nice if you could post atleast one comment in each blog of yours clarifying some of the important points raised by the readers. I know its not possible to reoly to each comment. But I can clearly see a trend in the issues raised by most of the commenters. Like in the brouhaha caused by your casual statements on IIM C. You just kept mum. Dont know why. If the comments section is ON, one response from the blogger per article summarising some of the issues raised makes more sense. Big deal?
    If you cannot interact with your readers, switch if OFF.

  24. Mr Satheesh,
    Pls go check the world B-School rankings. IIM doesnt figure in the top 50.
    I am not questioning the quality of these institutions and the students. They are the best of the lot. But I am questioning the statement made in this post.

    "Folks.. the focus here is NOT whether IIT/IIMs or Some other qualifications are the way to social mobility.. its just a metaphor. And its not wrong anyways."

    The focus is not about any specific university but a 100 level writing course will tell you to not make a claim like 'IIT/IIM being ladder to social mobility' with out sufficient evidence backing it.
    Moreover, assuming that a position is the only one acceptable within a society is wrong. Any writer who says such a thing is trying to enforce dogmatism - a false arguement.

    No, i am not from IIT/IIM. My school is ranked higher than any IIM or IIT but I dont intend to use that to make any point here.

  25. Nice long post but I think using a report/reports from TOI and then refuting them one by one was a bit of a waste of time. No self-respecting person in India reads(or believes) TOI anymore,anyway.

    Great blog you got here - Keep it coming!!

  26. absolutely bogus, not the article but the response abt IIT/IIM statement.... it seems as if some ppl get annoyed just by the mention of IIT&IIM.... guys, take it easy, wht she means is that LAW degree was once a launching pad for politics etc. and was 'respected' in social circles like the present IIT/IIMs degree holders.
    Rashmi, its really smart of you to not reply to comments, it'll me a big mess !


  27. It takes an inteeligent mind to resist the education.

  28. i disliked the gandhi-nehru family, after the degree waala chakkar i hate them even more.

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