Edited and updated version of the post.
I had the great fortune to be invited as an audience member to a live interaction with Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani last evening, televised live on Aaj Tak. I say “great fortune” because despite the fact that I walked out of this “interaction” in speechless disgust around an hour into the programme, I probably learned more about the state of politics and media in this country in one evening than I could have from years of academic study. And the irrelevance of academics was exactly what was on display last evening, never mind that the topic of the interaction was the state of higher education in the country.
I reached the venue – the auditorium of Khalsa College, Delhi University – at about 5.15 pm for a 5.30 pm programme. The mood was surprisingly charged, even electric for what I imagined would be a sober discussion on somewhat boring topics like syllabus formation, university infrastructure, promotions and pensions, the points system, and most importantly, the changes proposed under the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS). The auditorium was already packed – not so much with teachers and students – but with a large number of ABVP activists, BJP volunteers, and committed party supporters from within and outside the University. Nothing wrong with having a politically committed section dominating the audience of course. But if the resultant mix is innocently termed “the public” – the term the anchor used was “janta” – then that constitutes the first point of deception. I took a seat in the second row as instructed, surrounded by triumphant, pumped-up BJP supporters shaking hands with each other, suddenly feeling small and irrelevant, having come prepared with questions on Delhi University. At one point, turning to speak to the person next to me, I encountered a gentleman who introduced himself only as a “social worker” and asked me to elaborate on the problems with the university. As I began to list them however, he cut me short with a wave of a hand to say the government will prevail over all of them, and turned back to gaze admiringly at the life-sized posters of Modi all around us. I realised the person knew absolutely nothing about the University or teaching as a profession, and couldn’t care less.
Two anchors from Aaj Tak – Anjana Om Kashyap and Ashok Singhal – were on stage, interacting intermittently with the audience. At one point, Kashyap turned to the audience and said she was aware that there were many eminent professors in the first two rows who had been invited by Aaj Tak, but that she would begin the interaction with the Minister first with general questions on politics, and then move on to the topic of the evening – higher education. Nobody seemed happy with this, but having little choice, we vaguely nodded our assent. In walked Irani, striding up confidently on to the stage. Without so much as acknowledging the audience or making eye contact, she began to banter with the anchors, saying she only had half an hour and had not agreed to two hours, etc. While this time bargaining was going on, the crowd began to settle down somewhat, and the cameras began to roll. As planned and announced, Kashyap began with politics, asking Irani about her Twitter war with Rahul Gandhi and with her frequent visits to Amethi. As far as I or anybody who cares deeply about what is happening to Delhi University and other universities in the country was concerned, THAT WAS THE END OF THE EVENING.