Politicians’ educational qualifications seems to be a major issue in India today. On the one hand, Arvind Kejriwal has asked for more evidence that Prime Minister Narendra Modi got his BA degree Delhi University, and on the other, documents pertaining to Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani’s degree are under scrutiny. Whether the ministers of the government of India have diplomas and degrees in their CVs or not, their party, paradoxically, has been more demanding than any other in this domain.

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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Indeed, last year two BJP-ruled states — Haryana and Rajasthan — altered the electoral law governing local bodies in a manner that was unprecedented in India but which has not received a lot of attention.

In March 2015, the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Amendment Act stipulated minimum educational qualifications for citizens who wanted to contest elections at the local level. It required candidates contesting for zila parishads and panchayat samitis to have passed Class X.

Those contesting sarpanch elections have to be Class VIII pass. In the scheduled areas, the eligibility has been fixed at Class V pass.

Similarly, in Haryana, a new law makes it mandatory for a general male candidate to pass Class X and a general woman candidate to pass Class VIII. For a Dalit male candidate passing Class VIII is mandatory and for a Dalit woman passing Class V is required. The law also rules out those who failed to pay arrears to any primary agriculture co-operative society or agriculture co-operative bank and have electricity bill arrears.

Additionally, in both states, candidates can contest only if they have functional toilets at home. In Haryana, these criteria deprive 68 per cent of the Dalit women and 41 per cent of the Dalit men from the right to contest panchayat elections.

These new norms are in contradiction with the philosophy of the Indian Constitution, which allowed every Indian to contest elections in 1952 while the literacy rate was 11 per cent. While the Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece, then hoped that Nehru “would live to confess the failure of universal franchise in India” and while the president of the republic, Rajendra Prasad, was “sceptical about this leap in the dark”, this is what made India the world’s largest democracy.

Yet, the laws under review have been justified by the Supreme Court, which has systematically upheld them on two grounds. First, education has been seen by the judges as a precondition for efficiency. The verdict, by a bench of Justices J. Chelameswar and Abhay Manohar Sapre, about the Haryana law, assumed that education will “enable the candidates to effectively discharge duties of the panchayat”. Second, the same judges have applied a moral viewpoint according to which “it is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad”. This means that educated persons cannot be dishonest.

In South Asia, such arguments had been used only in Pakistan so far. In 2002, Pervez Musharraf, who was not known for his democratic leanings, made it compulsory for the candidates to parliament to be university graduates. This norm, however, was diluted when the degrees given in the Deeni Madaris were recognised as equivalent to those of the university system.

The approach of the Supreme Court judges mentioned above is fundamentally different from the one B.R. Ambedkar articulated during his long career. Ambedkar, in spite of the fact that he had collected more degrees, including PhDs, than most of his contemporaries, and today’s politicians, did not believe that education had to be a criterion in electoral matters. In his memorandum to the Simon Commission (1928), he declared: “Those who insist on literacy as a test and insist upon making it a condition precedent to enfranchisement in my opinion, commit two mistakes. Their first mistake consists in their belief that an illiterate person is necessarily an unintelligent person… Their second mistake lies in supposing that literacy necessarily imports a higher level of intelligence or knowledge than what the illiterate possesses”.

One of the reasons why he made this point was, of course, that he did not think that educated upper caste representatives would use their education to defend the plebeians: “It is no doubt always said to the credit of these communities (the upper castes) that they are intellectually the most powerful communities in India. But it can with equal truth be said that they have never utilised their intellectual powers to the services of the lower classes. On the other hand, they have always despised, disregarded and disowned the masses in belonging to a different strata, if not to a different race than themselves. No class has a right to rule another class, much less a class like the higher classes in India. By their code of conduct, they have behaved as the most exclusive class steeped in its own prejudices and never sharing the aspirations of the masses, with whom they have nothing to do and whose interests are opposed to theirs.”

While almost all the politicians today claim that they are followers of Ambedkar, there is no doubt that his value system has lost its appeal among the ruling elite. But the judiciary’s discourse on the laws that have been passed in Rajasthan and Haryana tells us something more: To contest elections is not a right, or at least that this right is subjected to many conditionalities. That was already evident from the 2003 Supreme Court verdict declaring that the citizens who had more than two children could not contest panchayat elections. In that case, the judges wanted to use the electoral system to promote family planning.

Not only are the laws under review undemocratic — literally speaking, simply because they reduce the size of the demos — but they are also somewhat incoherent. For instance, if a Class V qualification is enough to discharge a member’s function in the case of a Dalit woman, why has a higher qualification been imposed on others?

Secondly, if some minimum qualifications are required at the local level, why are similar eligibility criteria not required for MLAs and MPs who have more complex responsibilities? Not to say anything about ministers.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.