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Why Defence Minister Rajnath, not education minister, chaired meet with states on board exams

The meeting took place virtually Sunday, and also featured Union ministers Prakash Javadekar and Smriti Irani, who have both handled the education portfolio in the past.

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New Delhi: With Centre-state relations hitting a new low in recent times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is relying on Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to build consensus on the Class 12 board examinations, a ticklish issue involving millions of students and their families. That was why the PM sought out the defence minister to preside over a meeting of state education ministers, with Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ and his predecessors Prakash Javadekar and Smriti Irani almost making ‘guest appearances’, ThePrint has learnt.

The meeting was held to discuss various options for holding Class 12 board exams and entrance exams such as JEE and NEET.

A senior BJP leader told ThePrint: “It’s not about a lack of confidence in the Union Education Minister’s abilities. As some chief ministers were also going to attend the meeting and the issue of examination is so sensitive, the PM thought a senior leader like Rajnath Singh would be better suited to reach a consensus.”

Centre-State relations are currently marked by blame game and acrimony, with many chief ministers in non-BJP-ruled states, including Hemant Soren of Jharkhand, Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, Uddhav Thackeray of Maharashtra and Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan, among others, training their guns on the prime minister. Modi had leant on Rajnath Singh earlier too — to try to break the stalemate with agitating farmers over the controversial farm laws.

ThePrint’s attempts to get comments from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Education through calls and text messages did not elicit a response by the time of publication of this report.

Also read: No final call on Class 12 exams at Modi govt’s high-level meet. States told to suggest options

Consensus-building exercise

The BJP leader quoted above explained that the meeting on board exams was to be a consensus-building exercise, and having Rajnath Singh ensured that the meeting took place smoothly and did not get diverted to other issues.

“A decision had to be taken quickly as it is related to board exams and it was felt necessary that everyone should be on board. The government felt Rajnath Singh, with his expertise and experience, should chair it,” the leader said.

A second leader told ThePrint that PM Modi was briefed about all the options regarding board exams on 21 May, following which, it was decided that a meeting should be held with all the stakeholders and Rajnath Singh should chair it.

“He was the UP education minister (1991-92) and his track record has been excellent. He has been a teacher, and hence, he understands the nuances too. The government didn’t want any bickering in the meeting as there were ministers and even CMs from opposition states, and wanted someone whose ideas would be taken in a positive manner,” the second leader said.

“Any delay would jeopardise the future of the students, and the way Rajnath Singh held consultations with the farmers’ unions, it was felt that he should chair the meeting and take everyone on board,” he added.

A third BJP leader said the decision on conducting the exams has to be taken chiefly by the states, and hence, it was important that the consultation started on a positive note.

“Union Ministers Smriti Irani and Prakash Javadekar were also called (for the virtual meeting) as they have served as HRD ministers in the past (before the ministry was renamed Ministry of Education). But by announcing that Rajnath Singh would chair the meeting, the government wanted to send a message that it was to be a consensus-building exercise and not a routine exercise,” this leader said.

Wider consultation was needed

Sources in the Ministry of Education ThePrint spoke to said the circumstances were such that they did not want to take a decision all by themselves, and wanted a wider consultation, including drawing on the expertise of former education ministers.

Referring to the Covid-19 situation in the country, a ministry source said: “The circumstances are such that the ministry did not want to take a call on its own. This decision required wider consultation and hence other senior ministers — Prakash Javadekar and Smriti Irani — were a part of the meeting so that an informed decision can be taken. We wanted to draw from their experience… Javadekar and Irani understand how such situations can be dealt with. It was required that everyone’s experience is used right now.”

Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ has chaired many important meetings on this subject in the past, including one that took place last Monday with all the states to discuss options for board exams. This time, a wider consultation was needed, another source said.

“The education ministry always consults the maximum number of stakeholders before taking a decision, and that’s the reason senior cabinet ministers attended the Sunday meeting,” the second source said.

According to the sources, the decision on board exams will be taken in the next few days.

“The education ministry, in consultation with the PMO, will take a decision as all the states have given their suggestions already. It is likely to be ‘option B’, under which exams of 90-minute duration will be held, in multiple-choice questions format,” the second source said.

(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)

Also read: When will new academic session at colleges & universities begin? No word yet from UGC, govt


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