The utter discomfiture of India’s Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani over her unclear educational qualifications is comedy gold. However, there is a rule of comedy—not true but I just made it up—that says “Don’t joke about things that beg you to be joked about.” In other words, if you see comedy gold sitting in your path like coiled up turd, don’t step into it. The smart thing to do is to walk past it. I intend to do just that and instead write a serious analysis of Irani’s predicament.
If I were Smriti Irani—one shudders at the thought—I would be unapologetic about my thin or suspect formal education. I would argue that if my lack of formal education has got me this far , you can only imagine where I might have ended up with a real degree from Yale. The reference to Yale has a context because Irani claimed during a conference in New Delhi on August 10 that she has a degree from Yale University. It turns out it is not a degree but a certificate for attending a six-day course on leadership whose topics, according to the Economic Times newspaper, included “nuclear non-proliferation, the democracy movement in the Arab world, women’s empowerment, elections theory and practices, political and economic developments in China, campaign finance reform, the environmental impact of shale gas development, Afghanistan and Pakistan after 2014, pharmaceutical innovation and patent law, and climate change mitigation.” Eleven Indian Members of Parliament (MPs), including Irani, attended the course in 2013.
Simple arithmetic would suggest that if 11 MPs spent six days at an average of ten hours a day talking about subjects as heavy as the ones mentioned here, they would have spent 60 hours between them. Going by the Economic Times list there were ten serious themes which meant each one of them may have got six hours. Of those six hours, Yale moderators would have conservatively taken about an hour to set the stage for discussions. So five hours between 11 MPs comes to a little over 27 (27.27 to be more precise) minutes per subject per MP. Now multiply 27 by the ten subjects at hand and you get a total of four and half hours per MP for the entire course. I may have erred on the high side of the number of hours per day such courses require participants to spend but let’s be generous here.
In case you do not fully grasp what four and a half hours feel like, let me just say that it is just about the time it might have taken Irani’s soap opera avatar Tulsi Virani to raise one eyebrow in ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ or one of her obedient daughters-in-law to put a streak of sindoor in the parting of her hair.
My point is this is an unwinnable argument for Irani because she is trying to win it the wrong way. It is fairly simple to establish what her educational qualifications are. She knows what she knows about what she actually studied. Instead of trying to sell a Yale certificate as a degree, she should simply come clean on what degrees, if any, she completed or attempted. Of all the things that cause embarrassment and shame in life, not having a formal university degree is relatively minor. I would be more embarrassed about playing Tulsi Virani but that’s me.
She seems to be digging deeper into the hole by spinning a Yale certificate for a six-day course (four and half hours if you accept my calculation). The easier thing would be to state facts as they are and move on. Asking her challengers to file public interest litigation is not the most graceful way for a politician and the country’s human resources development minister to settle the issue. It is obvious that she is terribly irritated at doubts persisting about the veracity of her academic qualifications. The Yale certificate is unlikely to quell those.
As an aside, let me mention that the kind of course she took is part of public relations outreach that major universities maintain to engage those they think are or could one day become influential in their countries. Such courses mean nothing in terms or their academic consequence other than helping the participants focus for a short duration. Sure, at its conclusion an ornate certificate with the university’s official seal and insignia is awarded but it is not like graduation.
It is entirely possible that Irani, knowing the broadcast media’s appetite for the sensational, is mocking it and deliberately throwing scraps of read meat. I doubt that.