On 4 December 2019, Sachin Pilot (Deputy Chief Minister of Rajasthan) visited LSE to speak to students. While at LSE, he sat down with Tom Wilkinson (LSE) to discuss the role students can play in Indian politics, the recent student protests and the future of the Congress Party.
In your spearheading of the Congress victory in Rajasthan in December 2018, what was the role of students and young people in your campaign?
I think a great amount of the change we saw in the last election came from the younger generation of the voting population in Rajasthan. I think working through and with younger minds is important, because I think they have much more at stake in the future. Their aspirations and their role in today’s government and governance is very important.
University students and the entire eco-system of the university, the faculty etc., are all thinking people. It’s important to have them on board for any changes you want to bring about whether it’s political or societal. I got a lot of support from the younger generation. Some of them were not even students. But younger people are more susceptible to change, and are not so accepting of the status quo – we wanted to build on that during my campaign.
Private education in India is unaffordable for many ordinary Indians and affordable universities are often under resourced. Is there any light on the horizon for the millions of Indian youth wanting a higher education?
There are two sides of the story. There are very prestigious cutting-edge institutions that were started fifty or seventy years ago, such as the IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and the IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management). Their research areas have done well. Higher education is generally beyond the reach of most, but the ones that we have created, those institutions have invariably done well. We have also tried to make it inexpensive as far as the government is concerned.
Because, as you know, not all education is controlled by the government. There are lots of private players who are now playing a major role. So, it’s a situation where you want to have an abundant supply, but you don’t want to compromise on quality. There are stringent rules about private players investing in universities and creating colleges…in the last fifteen years there’s been some top-notch private institutions coming into play.
Largely, I think it’s the government that has established universities and colleges in the field of medicine, science, research and management. The government has done a fair amount and tried to keep a cap on how expensive it can be. It won’t be right to say that it’s completely unaffordable, but the capacities are small – and we must expand that dramatically.
The thousands of students that have been campaigning against a huge increase in accommodation fees have brought one of India’s best universities at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where I spent time last year as a visiting research scholar, to a standstill and there has been serious student-police violence. What do you make of this political situation?
I think it’s very distressing – the events that are unfolding on campus and outside campus between the JNU students who are protesting against the fee hike and the hostel hike. One can’t make the argument that it has to be self-serving and it can’t be subsidised because JNU has produced some of the best bureaucrats, politicians and scholars in recent times. It’s an institution that has made a name for itself around the world. I think the far more important part is the low-income student groups who go there would not get this quality of education anywhere in the world or even in India for that cost. They genuinely can’t afford it.
One can make the argument that its last hike was done twenty or thirty years ago but the principle behind governments subsiding education (it’s not just in India but anywhere in the world) are clear, and JNU has left a mark because of the quality that it has produced. I don’t think that the government should really have let it go that far. They really had to listen to the students who were demanding nothing but a reasonable and practical way of functioning. There were lots of clauses added and hidden elements in the fee hike, and some of these families and their kids can’t really afford it. I see that India being a country that is socialist in nature, there is no reason why they should impose such a hike and such a huge increase in one swift go. Especially when the sentiment is so against it. There was no reason for the government to try to bulldoze its way through, and ultimately, they’ve had to row back most of it anyway. They could have avoided the whole commotion.
Thinking about the way this government is transforming Indian politics, do you think the assault on JNU by the BJP says something quite important about the change in Indian politics?
You can take a political meaning out of what has happened, because I think some of the ruling party members have categorically and directly attacked the students for what they stand for. I don’t think it’s correct for any ruling dispensation to make a student body or a university or an institution the target of its government, because once you govern, you should govern an entire country, including students at institutions that don’t comply with your ideology. In a democracy, you should be able to live, if not happily, then at least meaningfully with people whose views don’t agree with yours. It’s been seen as if the government is against what the students stand for and that’s never a good sign for a healthy politick. In a country like ours, there should not be moments of standing off against each other.
You’re right. The impression one gets is that it has been done because of the ideology that the university [JNU] represents, because in student politics there isn’t an alignment with what the government of India thinks. It may not be in alignment with my views, but I still respect their views and their opinions. If we do not accept them, we must respect their view.
Students from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) are protesting and striking about the appointment of a Sanskrit literature professor at another great Indian university Banaras Hindu University (BHU) because he is a Muslim. What do you make of the role of the ABVP on campuses across India?
I am sad that this has even become an issue. The fact that a person belongs to a particular religion should be stopped from teaching Sanskrit, or any other subject, is completely against the grain of what we stand for.
The fact that we are a Republic with a constitution that guarantees that every citizen has equal rights, it’s saddening to think that this has become an issue. In fact, we should be embracing this man who is clearly qualified to teach those courses in Sanskrit when he is a Muslim by religion. I think its an epitome of what India is. Here you have a Muslim-born individual whose exceedingly qualified to teach Sanskrit in that university. We must embrace that. His religious orientation has no bearing on what he is teaching. It’s outrageous that this has become an issue. This is not the way India should be moving forward.
You are a senior leader of the Indian National Congress. What are the fortunes of Congress these days?
Let me put it this way: we have won two elections in a row, we have lost two elections in a row. Politics is not just about winning elections, it’s about striving and working for what you believe in. So, the Congress Party has obviously got much less than what it had expected, but it’s not the end of the day. You still must go on fighting for what you believe in. Our time will come.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
This interview was conducted on 4 December 2019.
Sachin Pilot (@SachinPilot) is Deputy Chief Minister of Rajasthan.