Modi’s middle class muddle: Failure to amend flawed RTE Act shows NDA’s disconnect with its most articulate supporters

The Times of India
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As the Modi government approaches its second anniversary in office, it’s time to ask an increasingly obvious question. Is BJP alienating many of the vocal middle class supporters who helped power it to office?

On social media and email lists, as well as in person, once ardent fans now complain bitterly about the government. Unsurprisingly, their reasons span a wide spectrum – from government fiddling with provident fund rules, to the lack of privatisation, to flip-flops on Pakistan. But those chafing share a common grouse: that BJP appears tone deaf to their particular concerns.

Arguably no issue illustrates this disconnect between politics and policy better than the failure to fix possibly UPA’s single worst law: the 2009 Right to Education Act. The Modi government’s inaction illustrates a deeper malaise in the party – a lack of original ideas, a weak bench of leaders, and an overreliance on bureaucrats. As one prominent BJP-leaning intellectual said to me in exasperation, “this is an IAS government supported from outside by BJP”.

On the face of it, amending RTE ought to have been high on Modi’s to-do list. Animus towards the law unites two disparate groups that broadly backed BJP two years ago.

For many market liberals, RTE symbolises Congress’s faith in heavy-handed, top-down policies that pay lip service to idealism while hurting precisely those people they are meant to help. For a small but strident group of Hindu activists, the law has become synonymous with India’s flawed brand of secularism, which hobbles Hindu-run institutions with debilitating regulations while cheerfully waiving them for those run by religious minorities.

According to Geeta Kingdon, a professor at the University of London, RTE is dragging Indian education backward. It emphasises inputs such as playgrounds and laboratories over learning outcomes. By outlawing detention of students before eighth grade, the law effectively delinks advancement from educational achievement.

According to NGO Pratham’s highly regarded Annual Status of Education Report, between 2010 and 2014 the percentage of rural children in grade four capable of double-digit subtraction dropped from 58% to 40%. Fourth-graders able to read a first grade text fell from 68% to 56%.

In effect, RTE has recreated the dreaded licence-permit raj in education. School administrators need to worry more about pleasing bureaucrats – who have the power to shut down schools for non-compliance with a list of onerous and often unrealistic requirements – than about attracting students by improving the quality of instruction.

Hardest hit have been small, private schools that educate poor students at affordable rates. The National Independent Schools Alliance estimates that more than 5,500 schools have been forced to close since the law came into effect six years ago. At least another 15,000 have been threatened with closure. Some schools survive only by paying inspectors to look the other way at their inability to meet rigid requirements such as a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 30 or a minimum bachelor of education qualification to teach sixth grade.

Thanks to India’s populist discourse, few politicians would risk a frontal assault on RTE for fear of being labelled “anti-education”. Instead, the Centre for Civil Society, a New Delhi-based thinktank, proposes a “Right to Learning” law that would emphasise actual learning outcomes for children rather than a disembodied vision of what a school ought to look like. A new approach could also include skilling for trades such as carpentry and welding to make graduating students more employable in the real world.

Ironically, Modi’s Gujarat was once widely praised for dodging the RTE bullet. Regulators in the state effectively turned the law upside down by assessing most of a school’s performance by how much its students learnt rather than by whether the school complied with a lengthy list of required inputs. Those leading the fight against RTE had naturally hoped that with Modi in charge India would embrace the Gujarat model.

Instead the government has appointed a five-person committee – four of them retired bureaucrats – to come up with a new education policy, due at the end of this month. Few experts who track this issue believe Modi will embrace the deep-rooted education reform India needs.

Unfortunately, this absence of policy nous reflects a pattern. Lacking the intellectual infrastructure to think through policies on its own, BJP often just toes the Congress line, even when this explicitly goes against the party’s own stand in opposition and outrages its supporters. Last year, Communications and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad backed UPA’s hated Article 66A curbing internet freedom. By initially baulking at One Rank One Pension for soldiers, the government needlessly upset another core group of supporters. The finance ministry lurches each month from one tax snafu to the next.

Nor is BJP exactly brimming with administrative talent. Few can match Smriti Irani’s eloquence as a party spokesperson. But, to put it gently, she has not exactly distinguished herself as minister for human resources development.

The political ramifications of this brush off to middle class supporters remains to be seen. Perhaps those who view politics through the prism of policy, rather than identity, simply lack the numbers to matter. Nonetheless, only a foolish party willfully alienates its most vocal and articulate backers. The sooner BJP gets off this bewildering path, the greater its odds of winning them back.