“The BJP would like to state categorically that we are proud of IITs and IIMs. All over the world, the presence of India is marked by IITs and IIMs,” BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy told reporters, in a telling response to the gathering controversy over Jairam Ramesh’s remarks. Our Minister of Environment had committed the unforgiveable error of doubting the quality of teaching at our sacred temples of higher learning. An attack on IIT or IIM is clearly no less than an attack on India.
IIT/IIM no longer refers to actual institutions but to a sacred fused symbol that represents an entire nation. They are the anointed icons of the cult of middle class aspiration, replacing the musty, neo-colonial public schools of yore. Gone are the days when middle class folks worshipped those glamorous Dosco boys from afar, or sighed enviously over their rarefied Cambridge memoir. Our new role models are the over-achieving IIT/IIM nerds — Chetan Bhagat, Nandan Nilekani, Kanwal Rekhi — who are familiarly middle class like us. And their alma maters are now our new shrines.
Bye, bye, baba log
When Rajiv Gandhi swept into office in 1984, he brought with him a coterie of Doon School buddies. Forty-something corporate types who were toasted by the media as the symbols of a new idealism. Not the kind of do-gooding that motivated khadi-kurta activist types, but based instead on a genteel notion of noblesse oblige. Their fresh-faced sophistication held up as a welcome contrast to the grubby, semi-literate politician, pillaging the nation’s coffers in his underclass greed.
Finance Minister P.Chidambaram walks with Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad Director Bakul Dholakia. Sam Panthaky/AFP
The rest, of course, is history. The baba log coterie self-imploded over the course of the next five years; their leader chased out of office to the chants of, “Rajiv Gandhi chor hai…” That triumphal moment proved instead to be the last hurrah of a brand of old-school elitism that had shaped Indian sensibility for most of the 20th century.
In that old, pre-liberalisation India, the definition of a desirable education was decidedly upper class: start out at Doon School, Sanawar, Cathedral, Modern, et al, followed by three years at St Stephen’s and — hallelujah! — a stint at Oxbridge or the Ivy League. The education offered by these institutions were a luxury in every sense. They did not offer professional degrees or training that would secure its students a livelihood out in the real world.
That low-rent task was left to the AIIMS and IITs and IIMs, which catered to the solidly middle class. The kind of people who had to relentlessly push their kids into the best medical or engineering colleges to secure their future. Back then, an IIT or IIM degree was more a symbol of academic than material achievement. Their graduates dreamed not of making millions but of making it to upper management.
And then everything changed.
First came liberalisation, followed on its heels by a global info-tech revolution that changed the world and our national fortunes. The old India of privileged status quo was replaced by the new India of fast-track upward mobility — at least for the urban, educated middle class. The new tycoons weren’t posh public school-educated, rich kids but Nandan Nilekani, Vinod Khosla, and Narayana Murthy. That IIT degree could now take kids places that their parents could never even dream of. The IIT/IIM/Silicon Valley road to fabulous success became the stuff of legend, of mythic lore that symbolised a reinvented nation. The revenge of the middle class nerd epitomising the triumph of an underdog nation, both once dismissed as declasse wannabes and strivers.
Romancing the nerd
Fast forward to 2004: Chetan Bhagat, the quintessential IIT/IIM grad, publishes his first novel, Five Point Someone. A manuscript, variously rejected by Oxford-returned editors, is finally released by Rupa, and sells a 100,000 copies within a year. Bhagat’s skyrocketing fame elevates the IIM/IIT nerd far beyond the narrow confines of techie stardom. The geek is now a golden boy with the Midas touch: everything he attempts turns literally to gold. As a 2010 Open magazine article observed, “Chetan Bhagat’s other merits may be open to question, but he matters precisely because he sells.”
The until-then humdrum existence of the engineering student — and with the onset of MBA-lit, the B-school kid — becomes the stuff of romantic fiction. Class quizzes, hostel food, campus romances, and annoying professors are endowed with a larger-than-life glamour — the kind that until now was reserved for tony boarding schools. By the time Aamir Khan makes Three Idiots, he is merely burnishing the IIM/IIT halo, confirming the mythic place they now occupy in the multiplex audience’s imagination.
The oh-so-Indian institute
This isn’t to say that the old elite schools are down or out. They’ve merely become subtext, the hidden end-goal that underlies the aspirations that the IIT/IIMs symbolise — the aspiration to make the kind of wealth that will allow the graduates of these institutions to send their kids to their hallowed environs. Or better yet, to conquer as invited guest speakers at some jubilee event. Much like that must-have Birkin bag or membership at the Gymkhana, the top-tier public schools remain the ultimate marker of social status that declares: I’ve arrived!
As symbols, however, they’ve slowly been leached of emotional investment over the past 20 years. No one except their alumni would care as much if Jairam Ramesh took a pot-shot at Doon, Sanawar or even St Stephen’s. But an incautious remark about IIT/IIMs provokes a media firestorm. It becomes a matter of national pride. Hence the BJP’s eagerness to jump on the mera bharat mahaan bandwagon.
The symbol gains its cultural power by positioning itself as a proud, middle class antidote to the closed, members-only club of the elite, a democratic gesture evident in the mass-market literary genre it’s spawned. “Unlike the arcaded corridors of Delhi’s elite colleges, where India’s literary novel was carefully crafted, literature emerging from IIT and IIM is accessible, autobiographical, aspirational and inclusive,” noted Mandira Nayar in The Week. Inclusive precisely because they hold out a possibility that you, dear reader (or your child), too can be one of us. And to question the value of this literature is downright unpatriotic. As the IIT/IIM pop-culture poster boy, Chetan Bhagat, once declared, “It is not Indian if you don’t like Chetan Bhagat.”
A new elitism
The irony, of course, is that the IITs and IIMs are no less exclusive than a snooty boarding school. The chances of the average Indian child attending either of these institutions are just as remote. Reservation quotas aside, their students represent a tiny, hyper-achieving fraction of the population, drawn from families that can afford not just private schooling but also the expensive prep courses that are de rigeur for admission. These kids are already winners in an educational system that summarily marginalises anyone less than brilliant. The education they actually receive in these institutions is mostly besides the point. As Pavan Nigam, IIT graduate and chief technology officer of Healtheon, told Salon: “Anybody who makes it into an IIT, you are now set for life. You might end up in the bottom five percent of your class but you are still set for life.”
The point of an IIT/IIM degree is no different than that of, say, a Doon School education. It’s all about personal branding and network. About going to the “right” school with the “right” people, albeit defined not by wealth but academic achievement. The old-boy IIT or IIM networks are no different from an Old Sanawarian association, and perhaps far more useful and effective.
The blinkered Jairam Ramesh — nattering on about world-class research and facilities — fails to recognise the reason those middle class parents send their kids to these valourised institutes. The IITs and IIMs are not so much temples of higher learning as passports to the very good life: Fat corporate salaries, Silicon Valley startups, lucrative stock options et al. Education in India has always been about making the moolah, the opportunity to move ahead and up the social ladder. The only difference is that this material aspiration is now enshrined as a national virtue. And the hallowed iconography surrounding IIT/IIM reflects this new reality.
“I don’t want him to go to a ratta school. Let him do whatever he wants, art, architecture, political science,” says an old friend, IIT alumna, and CEO of a successful software company. “I want him to enjoy learning. I never got the chance, but now he can.”
Oh, and that’s the other version of ‘I’ve arrived’: My kid doesn’t need to get into IIT or IIM. He can get a degree in Philosophy from Oxford instead. Sometimes, more things change…
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