For trust and integrity: why Modi must come clean on his degrees
As a young journalist in the 1990s, I was fascinated by events surrounding US president Bill Clinton. He was young, handsome, dynamic, charismatic and cerebral. Coming from a small state, Arkansas, he emerged victorious in a keenly contested presidential battle against the incumbent president George Bush Sr.
In his second term, this charismatic "young man" was caught in a widely publicised sex scandal involving a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
Impeachment proceedings were launched against Clinton in the Congress - not for his "inappropriate behaviour" in the Oval Office, but for "perjury". That is, the president was charged with lying under oath for trying to hide details of the incident from interrogates.
Clearly, in the eyes of the US lawmakers, perjury on part of the president was deemed more damning than his moral transgression.
Today, a similar situation is developing in India, and the response to it will test our democratic establishment.
Question is being asked whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BA and MA degrees are genuine. The question has been hanging in the air for long, notably since Modi entered the fray as BJP's prime ministerial candidate in 2014. Several RTI requests seeking to solve this conundrum were filed, only for the Delhi University and the Gujarat University, where Modi reportedly completed his BA and MA from, respectively, to reject them
The situation took a dramatic turn when, in an unrelated matter, the Chief Information Commissioner asked Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal why, as an MLA, he should not be treated as public property and information about him made public under the RTI Act.
Arvind said he had no problem if information about him was made public, but asked whether the CIC had the "courage to do the same about Modi". The CIC was furious, and responded by ordering the universities of Delhi and Gujarat to provide information about Modi's degrees. The Prime Minister's Office, meanwhile, was directed to provide his roll numbers and the years in which he had completed his degrees to make it easier for the universities to get the information.
It's over a week since the CIC's order, but neither university has shown any urgency to provide the information. In the meantime, two newspapers have published what they claimed be Modi's BA and MA degree certificates from the two universities. Their authenticity, however, is in serious doubt. The BA certificate is not original; it is a duplicate copy signed by the vice chancellor and the registrar. Coincidentally, both of them have previously been charged with forgery, the vice chancellor in 2002 and the registrar in 2012.
What happened to the original? And why is the vice chancellor, who signed this certificate, saying other records related to the degree can't be traced? It's common knowledge that admission to a post graduate course is possible only after the candidate furnishes bachelors degree.
Surprisingly, the paper which published the BA degree certificate did not vouch for its authenticity; it only quoted the PMO to the effect. This raises questions about the competence of the CIC and the legal tenability of his order.
Further, the PMO is apparently concerned about the safety and "security" of the degree certificates and fears their "accidental loss". It was a big story, but it went without a byline. Also, the story was published in inside pages when, given the significance, it should have made the frontpage. Why it didn't only raises more questions.
Then, there is the technical aspect to it. The certificate should have the roll number on the top left corner. In this case, it's unrecognisable. And without the roll number, one can't easily dig out the original degree from university records. Thus, more doubts about its authenticity.
The raging controversy about the prime minister's educational qualifications is a serious issue. Why then wait for the universities to comply with the CIC order? Why doesn't Modi himself make the documents public and kill all rumours, speculations and insinuations? Modi is social media-savvy, he is quite active on Twitter and Facebook. He should take the records out of his safe, or wherever they are, click pictures and post them online for all to see. The controversy will end immediately. I had, a few days ago, requested the prime minister on Twitter to do just this. I am still awaiting his response. I wonder why.
In the absence of any honest and clear response from Modi, talk is growing loud that the degree certificates that have appeared in the media are fake, and may even have been forged, which is a criminal act. It is also being said Modi had never studied at either university.
All that's known about Modi's academic qualification from available records is that he has done SSC from Shri BN school in Vadnagar, and "pre-science" from MN College in Visnagar. He has stated his educational qualification in election nomination papers as "MA" but there is no documentary proof of it, so far at least.
It can be argued that formal education is not a requirement for becoming prime minister, or even a legislator. Certainly, a degree doesn't guarantee competence, or talent for governance and administration. After all, as history is witness, two of India's greatest rulers, Akbar and Ranjit Singh, didn't even know how to read and write.
What then is the big deal about Modi's degrees? The issue is not about his educational qualifications. It's a question of breach of trust, of the personal integrity of the man holding the most powerful office in the country. In a democracy, how can more than a billion people trust a man who has lied about his educational qualifications under oath?
America is an evolved democracy, and nothing exemplified this better than the country's lawmakers holding to account their popular president for breach of trust. If India fancies developing into a strong mature democracy, then the issue of Modi's degrees can't be taken lightly. The prime minister himself should solve the mystery by producing all relevant records in a legitimate forum or be ready to face the wrath of the people.
Edited by Mehraj D Lone