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To the manner born?

St Stephen's,the elite Delhi college with pretensions to being the Oxford of India,has added another feather in its cap.

Written by Coomi Kapoor | New Delhi |
June 4, 2009 4:28:16 pm

St Stephen’s,the elite Delhi college with pretensions to being the Oxford of India,has added another feather in its cap. Media reports have highlighted the fact that there are five Stephanians who are ministers in Manmohan Singh’s government: Kapil Sibal,Virbhadra Singh,Salman Khursheed,Shashi Tharoor and Sachin Pilot. This is cited as proof of the role played by the college in instilling leadership qualities in its students. But I can’t help being cynical and wondering whether it is a bit of the chicken and egg syndrome.

Is the college responsible for moulding its students so that they tend to distinguish themselves in later life? Or does the college admit students,not so much on the basis of their marks or potential,but on the basis of their family background? Were the students going to make it big in later life anyway,regardless of which college they went to? For instance,at least four of the five ministers,Singh,Sibal,Khursheed and Pilot ,are from distinguished families which would have given them a head start in a political career in any case.

Why just St Stephen’s,even posh schools such as Doon School and Mayo College have a disproportionate representation in Parliament compared to the neighbourhood schools that the aam aadmi’s children attend. I mentioned in my Inside Track column a fortnight ago that there would be more Doon School alumni in the fifteenth Lok Sabha than those from any other school.

The alumni include newly-elected parliamentarians,Kalikesh Singh Deo,R P N Singh ,Rahul Gandhi,Kamal Nath,Jyotiraditya Scindia,Jitin Prasada,Udayan Raje Bhosale and Dushyant Singh. I immediately got a response from a reader pointing out that Mayo College,Ajmer,also has eight alumni in the new Lok Sabha including,Jaswant Singh,Dileep Singh Judeo,Deepender Hooda,Kumar Ijjeyaraj Singh of Kota and Jitendra Singh of Alwar.

Now considering that the ex-royalty of India and blue blooded political dynasties favour both public schools,this is not surprising. Royals and political dynasties,after all,have a better chance of making it in politics. For the same reason another of our elite schools,the Cathedral and John Connon School,Mumbai,has many of the country’s top CEOs and film stars as its alumni. This is not because of its excellent faculty in commerce and drama,but because leading industrialists based in India’s commercial capital and the cream of Bollywood tend to send their offspring to the school.

To revert to St Stephen’s,when I first came to Delhi from Mumbai decades ago,the clubby,exclusive world of St Stephen’s came as a bit of a culture shock. Mumbai is so much more egalitarian and less pretentious than Delhi and students tend to pick colleges depending on whether they are located close to their neighbourhood or offer courses of their choice.

They do not opt for a college simply on the basis of the snob value,never mind if you are not interested in the subject you would be studying. I had a hard time convincing my fellow reporters in the newspaper,who tended to proudly drop the name of their college whenever possible,that in Mumbai we really had not heard of St Stephen’s.

In the old days in the Capital,the overwhelming proportion of the power elite of the country,from diplomats to senior bureaucrats and top journalists,had studied at the college and it was indeed a powerful network. An IFS officer from a provincial college in Andhra Pradesh recalls that as probationers they were all taken to meet the Foreign Secretary.

The Foreign Secretary’s first question was “All those from St Stephen’s please raise your hands.” He confined his subsequent remarks almost exclusively to them. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan as Foreign Minister in 1978,his host,General Zia ul Haq made exactly the same request to the visiting Indian delegation. “All those from St Stephen’s,please raise your hand.” And this is why St Stephen’s raises so many hackles. The sense of superiority of Stephanians stems to a great extent from trying to make everyone else feel inferior. As a result,a lot of students from Delhi University unnecessarily have a chip on their shoulder over the fact that they never made it to the college.

Fortunately today’s selection procedures for government service are far more broad-based and not confined to a few educational establishments focusing to a great extent on an outdated liberal arts curriculum. For this we must thank institutions such as the IITs ,the leading commerce colleges,medical colleges and progressive women’s colleges which are entirely merit- based in their admission procedure and where the family background of a student is irrelevant. And it really doesn’t matter if you can’t figure out which is the fish knife and which the soup spoon.

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