The opposition in Maharashtra may mock Minister for Education Vinod Tawde for holding a degree from an unrecognised university, but Tawde has dismissed the allegations of bogus with characteristic contempt. “I never claimed it was a recognised university,” he shrugs.
Such nonchalance is not new for Tawde, 51. The MLA from Borivali has courted national headlines almost as frequently as the chief minister since the BJP-Shiv Sena government took charge – first promising to prosecute the All India Bakchod comedians, speaking candidly at a London event about promoting Marathi medium education, giving the Shiv Sena a bad case of nerves by seeking a more rounded and comprehensive study of Shivaji’s life and times.
Tawde hasn’t ever been out of the news for more than a couple of weeks since October 2014, and yet he’s amid a huge PR overdrive – informal chats with journalists, weekly press conferences, meticulous daily press releases, an engaging Twitter handle and Facebook page. Whether it’s a hooch tragedy in Malvani or floods in Mumbai, he’s immediately on television screens, at the spot or in a crowded control room.
He has also issued his share of edicts – on a mandatory prime-time slot daily for Marathi films in Maharashtra’s multiplexes, on the All India Bakchod’s roast, on shopkeepers in Mumbai speaking Marathi, and more. He’s wrested credit for the government’s purchase of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s one-time residence in London.
A senior party colleague says Tawde, known for his blunt style and candid ambition, quite enjoys being seen as a committed right-wing thinker, and also as the ‘doer’ among the cabinet’s top five.
For example, amid the verbal spat between Salman Rushdie and Jnanpith Award winner Balchandra Nemade, it was Tawde who jumped into the fray, opining that perhaps government action was necessary. Ask him about his near-militant Marathi bhasha promotion, and he says he doesn’t see English as a language of knowledge. “It may be a language of employability, but why should it be the language of knowledge?”
That is politically astute positioning, for the crucial Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections are only 19 months away and this would be the BJP’s first ever real shot (even if it remains a very slim chance) to finish with a larger tally than the original Marathi champion, ally Shiv Sena.
Ditto with his posturing on Shivaji, the warrior icon whose legacy the Shiv Sena has fought hard to maintain sole rights to.
Besides pushing hard for the mega statue of the warrior king off the coast of Mumbai in the Arabian Sea, Tawde also mentions Shivaji every time he talks about curriculum changes. “All you know about Shivaji is that he was a warrior, about his shaurya, that he defeated Shaistekhan or killed the much larger Afzal Khan with just a dagger and tiger-claws. But Shivaji was also an administrator par excellence. Why do students not learn about famine control, forest management and other things Shivaji pioneered?” Not even the Shiv Sena has asked this question.
“I’m asolutely proud that I am connected to the RSS ideology,” Tawde says categorically. “But what does the Marathi issue have to do with this?”
Fellow student unionist from their Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad days and now Vile Parle MLA Parag Alavni says it’s possibly Tawde’s stint in student politics that helped develop his unique worldview. Tawde quickly grew from Maharashtra organising secretary to all India secretary, with charge of northern states such as Delhi and Haryana. “You work eight, ten years outside, return in 1995 when your party is in government in 1995, naturally there won’t be a constituency vacant for you,” Alavani reasons.
That didn’t deter Tawde. He missed an opportunity in 2004 when Pramod Mahajan reportedly wanted him to contest from the Mulund assembly seat after Kirit Somaiya was elected to the Lok Sabha, but made it to Maharashtra’s Legislative Council soon after. In 2014, he was elected from Borivali, one of the BJP’s safest seats in Mumbai, nurtured by Gopal Shetty who was elected to Lok Sabha in April last year.
BJP insiders say he spent these years upon his return to Maharashtra buttressing the party in Sena stronghold Konkan, and simultaneously made forays into a key area for Maharashtra’s politicians, sugar. He now controls a private sugar factory in Daund, Pune. Now, even as he espouses Hindutva, Marathi bhasha or swadeshi as the occasion demands, he will follow these up with some bold decisions in the education department.
Ask if Maharashtra will replicate Manohar Lal Khattar’s decision on Bhagavad Gita classes in school and he says there’s simply no need for such controversy. “Is value education not possible without the Gita?” Recounting his own experience as a school student, he says, “We’d just been told how to calculate the light years to the sun, and I stood up to ask how and when this had been calculated for the first time. The teacher told me to sit down, this question was definitely not going to be in the exam.”
Why haven’t previous education ministers thought about this, he asks, when it’s so obvious that public school students are not learning a subject – they’re just learning exam technique.
Just like his reaction to the news about his degree, Tawde despatched a bicycle to congratulate a 15-year-old in Kolhapur who cleared his board exams — the boy scraped through every subject, with exactly 35 marks in each. Obviously, this is not a minister who believes in convention.