Teacher’s Day seems to bring out the poetry in Narendra Modi’s soul. The rest of the year, his communication can be masterful but unrelentingly prosaic. And his silences echo harshly. On Friday, however, when the prime minister spoke to about 800 schoolchildren from nine states, he interspersed his observations on pedagogy with engaging reminiscences of his own childhood that conveyed an easy, self-deprecating humility. In the course of his conversation with the students, he succeeded in dispelling the impression of cold implacability that he often conveys to the Opposition, and came across as a warm, accessible leader. For instance, when asked about his favourite games when he was a child, he responded: “Everyone knows the games that politicians play.” But then, he also spoke of climbing trees, kho-kho and kabaddi.
With this annual interaction, Modi has all but left behind the tokenism that Teacher’s Day had come to represent and brought the educational system into sharp focus. He spoke of his ideal teacher, an unnamed anganwadi worker who, instead of trading in her worn-out sari for a steel bowl, cut it into handkerchiefs that the children in her anganwadi could use. He suggested that such small inputs could bring about a revolution in education. His exhortation that volunteering could supplement formal schooling should be heeded. Nonprofit organisations have used the method for decades to help those who cannot access formal schooling, like workers. Modi suggests that it could be applied not only institutionally but also at the personal level. For instance, householders could commit time to teach the domestic staff.
While this may seem utopian, thinking out loud urges an imaginative approach to education, which has taken a drearily commercial and goal-oriented slant over the years. The prime minister is right to castigate Indian parents for forcing children into engineering and medicine, and in urging them to persist in following the heart. He also announced a software framework by which parents, teachers and friends will be able to evaluate schoolchildren, and help them find the right career.
In its second year, the prime minister’s intervention on Teacher’s Day has cemented an interesting trend, and it even seems to have brought the president on board, who also addressed students on the same day. One only wishes that the trouble the PM takes to reach out to schoolgoing children were as visible in his communications throughout the year. By all accounts, Modi’s government has come to be seen as inflexible and uncaring about contrary opinion. This has seriously impacted the work of Parliament and threatens to cramp public criticism, which is part of the checks and balances of democracy. If the prime minister reached out as readily to political opponents as he does to schoolchildren, the polity would be the better for it.