What comes to mind when you hear the word “eminent” ? Most reasonable people would associate eminence with someone that has attained a level of achievement far beyond others through years of hard work, has a proven and demonstrable track-record of excellence and has unquestioned integrity. Think Abdul Kalam, Mother Teresa, Sachin Tendulkar, Lata Mangeshkar, Ravi Shankar. Each of them got to the stature of eminence through years of dedicated pursuit of a craft.
But that’s not what the Indian government interprets as eminence. Recently, the government recognised a ghost University–one that does not even exist- as an Institute of Eminence. The Jio Institute is the proposed educational venture of Mr Ambani, India’s richest man and a major donor to the BJP, India’s ruling party. The institute is still in the concept stage-it has no buildings, no students, no faculty, no library, no administrators. And yet the government decided to grant it the honour of an Institute of Eminence. When confronted with this absurdity and cronyism, the government tried to weasel its way out by saying that what they had given Jio was a 3-year “ letter of intent”, meaning that Ambani and his team had three years to put up the buildings, graduate and place students, hire top-notch faculty and get them to publish high-level research.
Absurdity has a limit, but this takes the cake. Even Ambani’s wealth couldn’t do all that in three years. There are some things money can’t buy–educational excellence is one of them.
Anyone who follows Indian politics knows that money talks, especially with ten months to go for the next national election. This is an excellent case study of how it talks. In most countries, a government’s certification of excellence or eminence wouldn’t mean anything. Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Yale, Cambridge are globally recognised as universities of eminence not because they have a certificate from the government but because the marketplace grants them that honour. Employers recognise their graduates with top salaries, Nobel committees acclaim their scholars with awards, and the top journals acknowledge the quality of their faculty by publishing their research. In the free world of ideas and knowledge, government recognition carries absolutely no weight. None of the world’s top universities has a government tag of eminence, and none would want one.
But in India, since the government is so deeply entrenched in all facets of life, including higher education where it has no business, medals from the government can be helpful to an institution in improving enrollment, getting land at preferential rates, and for the myriad other bureaucratic clearances, permits and licences. And so Mr Ambani, who is an expert at playing this game, worked the levers of political power to get the government to grant his yet-to-be-conceived institute the tag of eminence by pushing for a category called “greenfield institutes of eminence.” This would allow the government to pretend transparency by granting his on-paper institute the moniker of expected excellence.
If you have ever wondered why India is such a corrupt country, the answer stares you in the face. India’s corruption starts at the top. It is so blatant and so open that the average citizen has come to accept it as a regular and acceptable practice. This is the darker side of India’s jugaad-thinking–the circumvention and bypassing of obstacles–to subvert rules, flout laws and reward political cronies. The need to take shortcuts, to avoid the hard grind that excellence requires, is precisely what keeps India from achieving superiority in many fields despite the benefit of numbers. Countries with populations of less than 5 million are playing in the World Cup of soccer while India with 1250 million people languishes at the bottom with a world ranking of 96th.
Imagine what a young Indian, observing this institute of eminence charade, must think–meritocracy doesn’t matter, money does. By choosing Jio Institute, the government has watered down the entire concept of Institutes of Eminence. I doubt if any of the truly outstanding institutes like the Indian School of Business–which surprisingly wasn’t one of the institutes picked despite its world-class reputation–would ever apply for this tag again. It is almost meaningless now that ‘eminence’ has been so badly compromised.
Mr Ambani too should know that sometimes things have a way of boomeranging in unexpected ways. In his desperate need to circumvent the process, he risks creating the impression that his other businesses may also be compromised. If he can bend the rules on quality for something as sacred as education how can he be trusted with his other products? Decent people don’t like cheaters, and this resentment may carry over to other Jio products.
And while I do not doubt that given his resources Mr Ambani could one day create an institute of eminence –many top US universities were started by wealthy people–he should be required to earn his stripes. Currently, the Jio institute is only intent–it is neither a real institute nor is it eminent. And by rewarding intention rather than action, this government has reinforced its image of being high on promise and woefully low on action.