The Roadblock to India’s “Tryst with Destiny,” Part 2 of 2

I held off on completing this post – a direct follow-on to my last one – until the Indian elections ended. The 700 million strong electorate returned to power the current Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, with a stronger plurality of votes than anyone has obtained in a long time. This means India should have a stable, reformist government for the next few years, led by a technocrat with integrity.

One reform that won’t be on Dr. Singh’s radar is the dismantling of the “Iron Triangle.” It won’t be because it is important, but in the face of many, many other issues, not urgent. Yet, it is this Iron Triangle which keeps more people like Dr. Singh from wielding power and driving change that will benefit the country at large.

The “pervasive mindset effect” of the Iron Triangle initiates this problem. I had just completed my eight standard (grade) when my father called me back from the playground. Did I want to be an engineer or a doctor? I chose the former to avoid dissecting cockroaches (an 8th grade requirement). My friends, all good students, had similar conversations. Only one smart kid among the 220 boys in my class opted out of the sciences; today he is a well known Indian author and journalist. Years later, at the premier Birla Institute of Technology and Science, a computer took on my father’s role: it directed students with high Grade Point Averages to engineering or science, those with moderate GPAs into management; and those with low GPAs into English or economics.

Mahatma Gandhi decision to involve college students in India’s freedom struggle reinforces the problem. Unlike the “Young Republicans” or “Young Democrats” chapters on US campuses, Indian National Congress-affiliated students took to the streets, demonstrated, and went to prison. After independence, every political party set up student chapters and extended their battles into campuses. Students who aspired to be scientists, doctors and engineers typically did not join; they had too much work. But those who cared little for an education did so. They organized strikes that shut down the universities regularly. Because strikes showed a person’s ability to organize people, these people were welcomed by the political parties.

The rigidity of the educational system exacerbates the problem. For example, the famed Indian Institutes of Technology do not admit anyone older than 25 for their bachelor’s programs. The premier Indian Institutes of Management do not (they used to in my youth), but their heavy focus on academic qualifications assures that most entrants lack significant real world experience. Few mid-career Indian professionals can emulate US General David Patraeus, who took a leave of absence to do a Ph.D. at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; his thesis on successful fighting of insurgencies (seemingly!) helped turn the tide in Iraq. Multitudes of such ridiculous restrictions create a system which pigeon-holes people in professions which do not interest them and for which they have little aptitude or passion.

The consequences of this Iron Triangle are the range of problems other observers blame for holding India back. The best of the best in my generation left the country; the best of the best in today’s generation by and large, eschew the difficult and essential task of nation-building. In the US, some successful executives move – at least for a few years – into senior government positions; though this practice is not without its problems, these pale into insignificance when compared opportunities lost because of the lack of such movements in India. Sure, half a dozen people have made such jumps and have helped the country, but they are exceptions, not the rule.

A reformist government would reform higher education in order to demolish the Iron Triangle. Reducing rigidity will be simplest, though it will require vision. For example, the curriculum at IIT Madras trains students more rigorously in engineering than MIT or CalTech do, but gives them little chance to learn about life – or ironically, how society affects technology. Will someone replace a few science and engineering courses with music, art and poetry?

Changing the science-focused mindset will be harder and require even greater vision. In the 1970s, it made sense for my father to limit my choices. Today India needs to make the Liberal Arts an area of study that will attract the best and the brightest. (Good news: IIT-M has recently begun an Arts program.) It must create Schools of Law on the model of the IITs, IIMs and the premier private universities (like BITS).

De-politicizing the universities will be hardest, but essential. The government might have to figure out how to ban political activity (as opposed to studying political science) on campuses. This recommendation is greatly at odds with my liberal view of life, but how else can India stop the least deserving from becoming the most powerful?

The good news is that Indians are stepping up to the plate. Infosys Co-Chairman Nadan Nilekani recently publicly asked the new government to reform education. Two successful business people – ABN AMRO Bank CEO Meera Sanyal and an IIM-Ahmedabad graduate and entrepreneur Sarath Babu – were candidates in the recent election. All three’s views of what needs changing may differ sharply from mine, but that’s immaterial. What is material is that people to whom education mattered are turning their attention to the body politic. If you don’t think their efforts are important, simply consider this: how long would India’s recent rapid growth as a business powerhouse last if an ill-educated politician successfully managed to eliminate English from its premier universities?

Category: Business Environment, Politics | Tags: , , , 3 comments »

3 Responses to “The Roadblock to India’s “Tryst with Destiny,” Part 2 of 2”

  1. snmukherjee

    my personal views are immeterial in this caste ridden, politically volatile bunch of uneducated/and educated peoples. but i must say that education is a big factor for india to progress, not self seekers for the family’s future (getting everybody of the family to the posts of ministers).
    But Dr. Singh and his ministers will, i am sure, get out of the strangle hold, tho it is difficult to get the caste system out of the politics.
    the person who wanted english out of this country’s education system, forgot that the west bengal stopped english upto the 5th standard of their school education, with consequence that the state’s young people fell far behind the other states in all fields of activities, except die hard politics.

  2. Prakash

    Dear Doctor Mukherjee,
    I have some queries. Kindly help me.
    1. May know what is the Iron Triangle? Where can I find more info about it?
    2. I am reading your book and am stuck at chapter 5. On page 113 to 127, the heading on Right hand pages is chapter 7 “Brightening the twnkle our faded star” is not the same as chapter 5 heading. And heading for chapter 7 is “Make Technology Matter”
    3.is the content in pages 113-127 related to chapter 7?
    I eagerly await your response.
    It’s a fantastic book, Spider’s Strategy.
    Warm rgds.Prakash.22 Jun 2009

  3. Amit Mukherjee

    Hello Prakash,
    Thanks for your kind words.
    Your second and third questions: Unfortunately, you got a damaged copy of the book. The Indian printers made a binding mistake and bound a chapter from an unrelated book in place of the real chapter 5. The publisher had assured me that every affected copy had been removed, but that’s obviously not correct. My apologies. The easiest thing to do would be to take it back to the retailer and get an exchange. The retailers should know of the problem.

    Your first question: I just called the three interlocking problems I identified in this and the past post as “The Iron Triangle” because collectively, they are a difficult problem to break through.

    Thanks for your interest … I will start posting again soon.


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