Decisions in the field of education are usually quite illegible to the public eye. Some of them look inconsequential. Others look so obviously correct that no one bothers to examine them. Their political consequences, therefore, are rare and insignificant. That is one big reason why education has little value as an election issue.
Consider the recent decision — taken with genuine political consensus — about diluting the no-detention policy of the Right to Education Act. Politicians of just about every hue supported it. In the media, too, there was little criticism. Though it is a retrograde step, it looks as if it was the right thing to do. People find it obviously correct in light of their own childhood memories. One recalls being scared in childhood of failing in exams. This popular memory reinforces the commonsense logic that we all worked hard because we were afraid of failing. This logic is a shortcut to the conclusion that children will stop working hard if the fear of failing is erased. So, now one can happily take the final step: Learning standards are low (as dubious surveys have repeatedly proved) because the no-detention policy has taken the fear factor off learning. These quick conclusions become axiomatic if you are deliberating on children of the poor. Old, nicely entrenched middle-class images of the poor suggest that their children will take learning seriously only if the school injects into their minds a hefty, preferably daily, dose of fear.
This example demonstrates why bad decisions taken in education carry little political cost. Now we can address a question often asked before elections: If education is so important for development, why doesn’t it make a difference to the outcome of elections? There are several reasons, and we have sampled just one of them. Let us turn to the others. Education presents an elusive terrain to voters. They respond to chronic shortages of electricity or bad roads. Urban voters feel good about a party during whose regime the water supply improved. This kind of reaction does not happen in the case of poorly-maintained schools or high failure rate in examination. You can’t think of an election in which an education-related demand brought voters together. Nor can you think of an election in which the neglect or mismanagement of education led to a party’s defeat. In election after election, one gets the impression that schools and colleges, no matter how badly they are maintained, just do not matter in elections. The status of education as an election issue is far, far lower than that of bijli, sadak, pani and naukri (electricity, road, water and employment).
Yet, political parties seldom fail to include education in their election manifestoes. The promises made are often grandiose, offering a new national policy on education, increase in expenditure, improved infrastructure, accountability among teachers, and so on. But when these promises are not fulfilled, no one seems to use the vote as a means to punish a party or candidate. Apparently, people don’t expect much change or improvement in education. There is widespread acceptance of the state’s failure on the education front. Acceptance is also reflected in the general willingness to turn to privately-run institutions when state institutions fail to satisfy. This point looks a lot sharper as a statement than it is in social reality. Search for private alternatives is part of a long unfolding of common distrust in state institutions and the legitimate feeling that no individual can have a say in how these are run.
Another reason why education carries little value as an election issue lies in its nature as a long-range area of governance. Improvement in any component of education calls for sustained, long-term effort. The fruit takes many years — certainly more than five — to come into view. By then, public memory phases out the origin of these effects. The media doesn’t help either. The din of election has little room for analysing a ruling party’s performance in education because it is hard to sift older continuities from recently taken steps.
Another reason why education seldom figures in an election debate is its confusing placement between the Centre and the states. The “concurrent” status education holds between the two is not new. Most people find the distribution and overlap of responsibilities quite confusing. In reality, too, the responsibilities of the two sides are far from clearly divided. Even on radical measures like the RTE, the roles of the Centre and the states remain unclear. Who, exactly, is responsible for the slowing down of the RTE momentum is hard to pin down and explain to voters, especially in the Hindi belt. Given the nature of election-time ethos in our country, anything that sounds complex loses out. That alone may suffice to disqualify education as an election issue. It offers unlimited scope for confusion and obfuscation. Little is known outside about what is happening inside schools and classrooms. Tall claims can be made without much fear of contestation. The fact that governments have chosen to ignore basic issues afflicting the system of education is nicely concealed in the glamour of technology-based “solutions”.
In the secondary education slab, the division between Centre and states conceals the class divide. The higher income groups are served by a Central Board of Examination (CBSE) while the rest of society sends its children to schools affiliated to state boards, Delhi being a major exception to this pattern. Pass percentage differs quite sharply between the CBSE and state boards. Millions fail in the latter boards, arousing little interest in Delhi and the national media. As for higher education, it remains both opaque and irrelevant for the majority of children never make it to a college. So, if a regime has actively damaged institutions of higher learning, the matter cannot bring much political loss. Moreover, higher education is perceived primarily in terms of its degree-dispensing role. To be told that it has an intellectual purpose, too, makes little sense to an average parent-voter.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 15, 2019, under the title ‘Why education doesn’t become a poll issue’. The writer is a former director of NCERT.