Perhaps it is not only the legislators in Pakistan who lie to the election commission about their educational degrees, or rather their fake degrees. Their Indian counterparts seem ready to surpass them with unusual haste and with no legal or constitutional compulsion which Pakistan’s General [retired] Pervez Musharraf subjected his underlings to.
Although, Pakistani legislators no longer produce fake degrees for election commission after 2008, since the mandatory graduation condition was waived to favor Pakistan People Party [PPP] leader Asif Zardari (not a graduate) in his bid to become president. It now seems strange that Indian legislators have begun following their Pakistani counterparts, without any compulsion.
In quick succession, two members of the new cabinet of Indian premier Narendra Modi became the focus of two scandals involving their fake affidavits submitted to the election commission about their supposed educational degrees.
The first was the youngest member of the cabinet and a household name in India, Smriti Irani, who rose to fame as the star of a soap opera featuring family gossip and politics among a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. Irani who has been entrusted with the most important portfolio of Education and Human Resource Development, has been accused of lying about her graduation from university. It seems she is just a high school graduate with average grades.
Like her patron Narendra Modi, Smriti Irani also came from a humble backgroundMansoor Jafar
The second member of the cabinet is Rural Development Minister Gopinath Munde whose qualification is now under scrutiny after it was revealed that he made false claims about his law degree. According to election commission record, he claimed to have achieved a law degree in 1976 from a college in Pune which was established in 1978.
Though Irani initially avoided responding to the flooding criticism in mainstream and social media, Munde right away defended his qualification saying the degree was issued by the Pune University and not by the ILS College. A paper quoted him as saying that since the college is a subsidiary of Pune University, it is not authorized to award the degree certificate.
But, Congress leaders asked in their tweets and comments on social media how a college could award the degree before it was established. But the legislator from Maharashtra has kept quite after his initial response.
Irani has been the subject of a raging debate as to how a high school graduate could be made the minister of a vitally important portfolio such as education, which comes under the domain of Human Resources Development (HRD). The Ministry of HRD deals with primary and secondary education, adult education, literacy, university education, scholarship etc. and used to be called the Education Ministry until 1985. The leaders of opposition Congress, bloggers and analysts have been asking why Modi entrusted such an important ministry to someone who clearly doesn’t have the desired qualification.
Social media is full of all sorts of tit-bits about Smriti Irani’s career which began as a supporting actress and her rise to stardom through extending some favors. Her critics flooded the blogs and social networking websites with comments some of which was unfortunately used as part of a highly sexist commentary. Smriti’s controversy arose when it was found out that her sworn affidavits in the 2004 and 2014 elections do not match. In 2004, she declared herself to be a 1996 batch B.A. graduate from Delhi University, but in 2014 she claimed to have passed 1994 batch B.Com Part 1 from Delhi University (the School of Correspondence).
A number of senior journalists took it is an embarrassment for the country when the Education Minister lies about her own education. Some of them ask if Prime Minister Narendra Modi will take some action or if he will just let this issue be a never-ending embarrassment.
Her critics also raised the issue that during 2004 campaign she lashed out at Modi for his role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots, threatened to go on a fast and even demanded his resignation as the chief minister of Gujarat. But after a few years, she withdrew her words against Modi and expressed sorrow publicly over what she had accused Modi of.
During the 2014 campaign, she responded to her critics by saying she should not have made those statements against Modi who had remained her patron in politics. She spend most of her campaign praising Modi for his vision, his qualities as a politician and his personality as a simple, down to earth man but a shrewd politician who could pull India out of its crises. It looks like Modi has also forgiven and forgotten her outbursts. He demonstrated it publicly when he declared her as his “little sister” during an election rally.
Like her patron Narendra Modi, Smriti Irani also came from a humble background. She was forced to suspend her education and move to Mumbai from her hometown Delhi, in search of livelihood. Before pursuing an acting career, she tried her luck in modeling, unsuccessfully. Assured of her facial and physical beauty, she took a loan of 200,000 Indian rupees from her father to enroll in a beauty pageant contest, but remained a failure.
Under pressure to return the loan, she first did a job at a famous fast food chain as a waitress. She supported herself by modeling in small advertisements and taking up side roles in TV shows from time to time, till finally she was given a lead role in Ekta Kapoor’s famous TV soap opera. But, she had other plans as well. Soon after her successful role, she also began writing and producing TV plays. Soon she launched her political career by joining BJP in 2003.
She is known to be very close to Narendra Modi who gave her ticket in 2004 elections and also made her party’s women wing president. She lost to Congress leader Kapil Sibal from a Delhi seat but was assigned many other important party jobs.
Smriti Irani broke her week long silence and tried to silence her critics by asking them to judge her by her work on the assignment she was handling, and not by her education. Quoted by a TV channel, Irani said “Extraneous circumstances have been created to divert my mind from the work I have been assigned to do. I will humbly request all of you to judge me by my work.”
The popular TV actor-turned-politician also said, “I have been judged by my organization for my capacity to deliver.”
* This article was written before the death of Gopinath Munde on June 3, 2014.
Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar