Are the ability to govern and the degree one holds independent of each other? This has been a hotly debated topic, both on social and mainstream media, since a key cabinet berth was given to an MP who is not a graduate. In light of this issue, we asked you in the last edition of Weekly Your View* if educational qualification should be a criterion for appointment as a minister. Of our 37 respondents, 70.2% said that it should be a deciding factor while 24.3% felt that it was not mandatory for a minister to be highly qualified. 2 of our poll-takers suggested that educational qualification should be a criterion to judge a politician’s eligibility for a position but in conjunction with other factors such a leadership ability and political insight.
Which of the two opinions is correct is really a question of opinion of what one sees as a minister’s role in a democratic government. Therefore, a good point to start analysing the pros and cons would be to ask not one of the world’s 137 (self-declared) democracies has educational qualification as an eligibility requirement for the post of a minister.
No doubt a well educated minister is more likely to have the skills and knowledge required to grasp complex issues or policy matters presented to him. But in most democratic set ups, a minister is assisted by a bureaucratic apparatus staffed by well educated ciil servants. Governments also gain expert opinions from independent experts, think tanks , academic institutions and official advisory bodies. So in reality the skill set that distinguishes an effective minister is the ability to take the most suitable decisions based on inputs from advisors and several other sources. For a popular leader, which is what an elected representative is in a democracy, that skill set will include the ability to appreciate information and comprehend its significance, reasoning skills and a clear understanding of the nation’s priorities. A minister is a representative of the people and a popular leader, not an expert or a specialist. Her job is to empathise with the citizens and balance their needs with expert opinion presented by her advisors.To perform this duty, one needs understanding of ground realities and political acumen, neither of which can be gained from a college degree.
Secondly, since a minister is an MP, introducing educational qualification as an eligibility criterion for ministership means introducing educational qualification as an eligibility criterion even for contesting in elections. That goes against the spirit of democracy if only because it deprives a majority of the population the right to contest elections. In a country like India, where 36% of the population is illiterate, a minimum educational requirement would go against the representative nature of a democracy.
In matters such as this, history is a great referee. Independent India has had tall political leaders who were poorly educated in a formal stream but were able to set bench marks in administrative ability. K. Kamaraj, a freedom fighter, who is considered to have been a king maker for bringing two Congress prime ministers to power and an outstanding chief minister (of Tamil Nadu), had dropped out of school at the age of 11. Even today there are chief ministers who are not graduates but very strong leaders.
On the other hand, almost all the high profile corruption cases in independent India have been against very well qualified politicians. Unfortunately, higher education equips one neither for governance nor for probity.
If we are afraid that our ministers will be dishonest and inefficient, then the solution lies in limiting their role, and increasing transparency and objectivity in their decision making.