Autopian thinker and garrulous commentator on social and governance issues, Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently resigned from the post of Professor at Ashoka University, a private educational institution in Sonepat in Haryana. The resignation has turned into an unnecessary slugfest between the University administration and the admirers of Dr Mehta. The teachers of the University are mostly silent and some say are completely uninterested at what happened. To me, it seems that it is the Left-leaning media friends who are anguished at the fall of yet another bastion of their ideology.
In his letter, Dr Mehta has stated that he was resigning because he was considered a political liability by his University. From the tone and tenor of the letter it doesn’t appear that he was sacked. He resigned perhaps because the University founders didn't show their usual obsequiousness towards him, that he had become so used to when he attended all the conclaves organised by the anti-establishment groups that thrive on opposing each and every step that the Government of the day takes.
Before I dwell upon Dr. Mehta, let me talk about Ashoka University where he first served as a Vice-Chancellor and then self-demoted himself to the position of a Professor.This is a university that charges a fee, for a Bachelors degree in Humanities, that is at least three times more than the fees of other prominent universities in the private sector. And if you run away after hearing the price tag of a course, its team offer all types of scholarships that may cut the fees from 30 to 50 per cent.
I have no complaint about the fees. A private body of educators are free to charge what they need for its sustenance and well-being. My issue is with the pricing ethics. Quote a high price and if someone can pay it, take it. Those who opt to negotiate can get substantial cuts. Doesn't sound very good, does it? I think that an educational institution that hires faculty that has international appeal with a pronounced socialistic leaning can do better with better transparency.
In the academic world, as in others, one can be honest and yet compromise on integrity. You can sell a medicine from your store if the expiry date is a week away. No dishonesty in that. But if you value integrity, you will disclose to the customer that the medicine, though still not beyond the expiry date, has very short life left.
If Dr Mehta has resigned voluntarily, he should be allowed to exercise his choice. If he has been sacked, let us allow the freedom of choice to people who sacked him. They are the one who have sunk their millions
Ashoka University would like to position itself as an Ivy league institution or an OxfordUniversity’s version in India. The real imagery in public mind is that it a rich man's JNU where the faculty is mostly anti-establishment. This, too, is not my concern. It is for the promoters to decide if they wants to be a JNU copycat where moribund ideology occupies a thousand acres of prime land in the heart of India's capital. Ashoka University can also choose to be an equivalent of Indian Institute of Science (IIS) in the chosen field of Humanities. IIS was also started as a private initiative of the Corporate sector leader, the Tata Group, in 1911 and has produced the finest men and women who impacted our motherland in a big way.
Let me now move on to the resignation of Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the Rajasthan-born intellectual who was educated at Shimla, Jaipur, Oxford and Princeton. Dr Mehta's doctorate is in Politics and he been associated with many Indian institutions.
A Serial Quitter
He was a member of National Knowledge Commission in the UPA-I regime but he quit in 2006 as he was against the UPA Government's higher education policy. Why did Mehta quit National Knowledge Commission? Because the Manmohan Singh Government decided to extend reservation policy to the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in Central institutions. Mehta in his resignation said that he was against implementation of OBC quota in higher educational institution as it violated the cardinal principles of institutions in a knowledge-based society.
Dr Mehta, according to the Economics Times, said that introduction of quota violates four principles: 1) They are not based on assessment of effectiveness; 2) They are incompatible with freedom and diversity of institutions; 3) They more thoroughly politicise education process; and 4) They inject an insidious poison which harms the nation in the long run.
To me all the arguments are entirely facetious. If quotas for OBCs are so bad, as Mehta thought they were, why did he not apply the same principle on the quota system that favour reservation to the SC and ST communities of the society?
Incidentally, the law for OBC reservations in Government-owned bodies was implemented in 1992. Why did Mehta accept a position in a Government body if he was against it? It is true that the education quota came into force only in 2006 and Mehta quit, but even when Mehta joined the National Knowledge Commission, he was aware that the OBC quota would be applied to the education sector in the near future.
The fact is that Dr Mehta is a serial quitter. He walks into institutions based upon his reputation as a brilliant social scientist. His many books, that may contain top class thoughts but are limited in their appeal, cast a spell on many eager employers. However, these employers soon find that there is no tangible benefit in employing the man. Almost at the same time, Dr. Mehta's initial enthusiasm too fades away.
A privately-funded university that does not depend upon governmental doles needs to have a top fundraiser at his helm. I am not saying that the Vice-Chancellor should be the chief fundraiser but the fact is that the VC as the executive head of university is responsible for all functional areas and this includes fund-raising
A look at his career will reveal short spells of engagement. Brief spells at Harvard, JNU and now at Ashoka University prove that he likes to stay around for brief periods only. If Mehta is such a brilliant social scientist and packs the intellect of an entire think-tank in his being, then one expects him to stay on, fight on and implement his ideas that benefit the society. Or is it that his brilliance is not matched by his ability to fight? Or, may be his ideas are too utopian?
If Dr Mehta quit a Government body like National Knowledge Commission, then why did he join the UPA's National Security Advisor (NSA) Board? What led to the change of heart? The UPA Government hadn’t repealed the OBC quota when Dr Mehta joined the NSA Board.
Mehta later joined the Executive Council of the prestigious Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) that is situated at the Teen Murti House complex. Again a heavyweight position that comes with very little responsibility and with a substantial stipend.
Why did Dr Mehta quit NMML in 2016? Because he did not like the appointment of a former bureaucrat, Shri Shakti Sinha, as a Director of NMML. He felt that appointment of a former bureaucrat as Director of NNML led to marginalisation of academicians at the institution! So Mehta believes that only academicians can preserve the heritage of important cultural institutions. Is this not a very parochial view that discourages diversity in top decision-making bodies?
On the controversy of PB Mehta's resignation/ouster from the Ashoka University, I would say that I saw it coming for a long time.
Firstly, Mehta's heart was not in academic rigors of teaching profession. As a full-time Professor one has to teach at least five days a week, at least three hours every day. There is a full course to be taught and a Professor has to conduct sessions on professional skills development and many such activities. There are question papers to be framed and answer sheets to be evaluated. But Dr Mehta’s primary love lies in speaking at outside-university events. Nor was his mind occupied with administration of the university when he functioned as Vice-Chancellor.
A privately-funded university that does not depend upon governmental doles needs to have a top fundraiser at his helm. I am not saying that the Vice-Chancellor should be the chief fundraiser but the fact is that the VC as the executive head of university is responsible for all functional areas and this includes fund-raising.
Dr Mehta is a star speaker but is more at ease at fighting the Government of the day at various conferences. I am sure he gets good fees for his intellectual outpourings and he may be fully deserving of that. However, the fact remains that he was not exactly successful as the VC of Ashoka University. He resigned after couple of years and got himself demoted to the position of Professor. Even when he left the office of the VC, he retained his car and his drives. Now which university in North India gives a driver, who is on a University payroll, to a Professor? Mehta's star appeal ensured that even as a Professor, he retained a driver. In his resignation letter, he poignantly pleads that even though he is leaving, his driver should be retained. I appreciate Mehta's genuine goodness in trying to protect the job of a poor man but this also hints that the drivers are not usually attached to Professors. So was Mehta not enjoying more benefits than his equally enlightened peers were? A small point but since Mehta always speaks about high moral it is about values, he too should have adhered to the principle of equality and equity.
Finally, let me deal with the question of Dr Mehta having become a liability on Ashoka University. It is quite possible that the University was finding him very little value-for-money. He was a good brand once, whose mugshot made sense in the University brochure but the novelty value seemed to have faded away. After all, Dr Mehta was everywhere on the YouTube denouncing everything the Government of India did. Two-thirds of the media that seems to be in awe of Brand Modi never gave any space to Mehta’s diatribes. The Brand Mehta was confined to the monthly column of Ramnath Goenka’s Indian Express. And young students do not read newspapers anyway. They read news on the go, on their mobiles and anything that is more than four-minute read is glossed over.
I also find that Dr Mehta talked a lot of half-truths. In one of his seminars, he said that in the BJP-ruled India, the corporate sector was dominated by two business houses. He indirectly named Mukesh Ambani group as one of the two. He said that this group was present in almost all business areas.
I am aghast at Dr Mehta's poor sense of history and his abject lack knowledge of the business world. In his favourite regimes of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv there were Tata and Birla that had the lion's share of business in India. The two put together were in banking, textiles, electronics, vehicles, steel, aluminium, coal, electricity, consumer durables, hospitality and airlines.
India's corporate assets are today so much more evenly distributed. The market capitalisation is not just about the Ambani family. Look at the market wealth created by TCS, Wipro, HCL, Infosys, Tech Mahindra, Vedanta, Kotak Mahindra, HDFC, ICICI, ITC, Bajaj Finance, Axis Bank, Nestle, HUL and many others. It becomes evident that the market gains are spread over so many companies, big and small, new and old. The number of unicorns in India is growing at a furious pace. Where is the concentration of businesses that Mehta talks about? I hope Dr. Mehta knows what a unicorn means!
It is quite possible that the University was finding him very little value-for-money. He was a good brand once, whose mugshot made sense in the University brochure but the novelty value seemed to have faded away. After all, Dr Mehta was everywhere on the YouTube denouncing everything the Government of India did
I say with all earnestness that Dr Mehta is a perpetual gladiator who enjoys engaging with the ruling dispensations as that gives me a sense of achievement. He fancies himself as a self-appointed guardian of all the shinning moral values of culture, governance and freedom. The sad part is that he has steadily been losing credibility and his unending cantankerous swipes at the Government may have embarrassed his Ashoka university benefactors.
I would say in conclusion that if Dr Mehta has resigned voluntarily, he should be allowed to exercise his choice. If he has been sacked, let us allow the freedom of choice to people who sacked him. They are the one who have sunk their millions.
Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta can continue his rantings on the YouTube.
(The writer is a author and columnist, New Delhi)