Opinion | Education should be India’s most important electoral issue

Photo: HT

You may be 18, scrambling to get into a college or hunting for a course that can help you get a job quickly. You may be a young parent, worried about your child’s admission to school or feeling helpless with the poor attention given to her in school. You may be middle aged, getting crushed by the struggle to pay high fees for your children or afflicted by deep anxiety about what they are learning. You may be older, ruminating over how education took you from the bylanes of a small dusty kasba (locality) to the plush gated community you now live in, with both children earning millions. Or you may be a concerned citizen of any age, worried about the state of Indian education, knowing that good education is the foundation of a good society and a sound democracy.

Whoever you are, you know that education is one of the most important issues for you and this country. But why do you forget that when you cast your vote? Unless we hold our politicians to account on education, how will education improve? How will this most important of issues ever get addressed unless the people who aspire to govern this country know that you will reward or punish them decisively for what they do on education?

We know our own selves—not fully, but somewhat. So, we know that paeans to the “wise Indian voter” are more a homage to what we wish we were and not what we really are. In reality, our decision-making during elections is quasi-rational, quasi-emotional and quite impulsive. It is driven partly by a best-effort assessment of the effects of governance on our lives, partly by emotional responses to appeals to our identity and our primeval fears, and partly by our immediate conditions and social influences. Our prefrontal cortex and amygdala-hippocampus are locked in constant combat in all decision-making, and so also during voting. This is just a “scientificy” way of saying that our voting decision is human, unlike that of the feted mythical “wise voter”.

We know intuitively—something that is also suggested by scientific research—that we can improve our decision-making by deliberate effort. For example, tools such as check-lists and frameworks can help in some ways, So, here is a check-list to help you consider education in your voting decision.

One, assess which party gives what kind of importance to education. Does their manifesto have a detailed section on education? Do the parties’ key leaders ever talk about education in their speeches? Can those leaders say anything specific about education? And do they say those things often? Trivialities like “we will distribute laptops” don’t count; laptops are not education. Nor do banalities, like “we are very committed to education”.

Two, assess the parties’ basic approach to education. Are they clearly committing that they will substantially raise public expenditure on education? And will invest in and improve the public education system? And will ensure that every child and young person gets high-quality education? “Every child and young person” is the key here—not merely high quality. Ensuring equity forces education systems to be high-quality.

Three, assess the track record of these parties over the past 5-10 years. Most parties have been in power, if not at the centre then in the states. Did they improve anything in education during their tenure? Don’t get misled by superficial matters; did they make real efforts to improve the life and learning of each student in the public (government) schools and colleges?

Four, assess the candidates that you must choose from—through education. Their educational background doesn’t matter, but whether they are truthful about it does. If they or their family members “own” and run education institutions, be very suspicious. It is unlikely that such people will have any real commitment to improving education for all. The few exceptions can be identified by the reputation of their institutions—commercially oriented or truly educationally committed. Most will be the former, and then you vote for their owners at the peril of everyone’s education.

Five, assess the candidates that you have to choose from—on education. Grill them on how they will improve public education. Don’t bother about private institutions; if they ensure that public institutions improve, all institutions will improve. Ask them a few things about their constituency. How many anganwadis, schools and colleges are there? By when will all schools and colleges have a good teacher for each class and each subject? Don’t give any weight to their excuses if they say that many of these are state subject matters—Members of Parliament have the clout to make a real difference.

Six, if they are incumbents, you must ask them why they have not delivered on all this and throw them out. If they have, vote for them.

If you don’t like this list, please make your own. Use it and remind yourself everyday that education is one of the most important things for you, your family, your friends, your community and this country. Those at stratospheric levels of power listen to you on this one occasion. Force politicians to take responsibility of education.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.