“You get a pendrive, you get a pendrives, you all get pendrives!”
The Talkatora Stadium in Delhi, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Pariksha Pe Charcha’ was staged, became a strange mix of tight security and darting multi-coloured light beams Friday. It almost made one expect Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy to burst onto stage and crowd surf. For that matter, it could have been anybody, and the students would have responded with the same deafening enthusiasm – the whole event was choreographed to perfection, from start to finish.
The entire event, however, was more spectacle than substance, resulting in a placated, entertained audience, rather than a thoughtful and insightful future generation of informed citizens.
3 Cheers for Bharat Mata and USB
The lead up to Modi’s grand entrance did not disappoint. BJP’s go-to anchor, Maneesha Dubey, would often launch into long poetic eulogies about how honoured students should feel to be in the presence of our Prime Minister—“Mukut ho tum Bharat mata ka, tumhi Hindustan ho (You are the crown on Mother India, you are India),” she said in a poem dedicated to Modi. “I want everyone in the audience to stand and welcome him with the enthusiasm and respect he deserves!”
Phones flashed, necks craned from behind taller heads, and children dressed in bedazzled costumes hovered back stage, ready in the wings for the nationalistic festival that followed.
While the link between board exams and pride for Mother India perhaps doesn’t exist in any logical framework, when your Prime Minister publishes a book titled ‘Exam Warriors’ a year before the general elections, even stress becomes political.
At one point, the musicians sang “sabse aage honge!…” on loop to an auditorium full of children, and the walls resounded with screams of “Hindustani!”. For five minutes, Talkatora resembled an election rally.
“We have a gift for you! If everyone checks the tags they got at the entrance, you will see that it’s also a USB drive!” said one of the hosts.
The crowd burst into wild applause. Students clapped their friends on the back, congratulating each other at the sheer luck of receiving this priceless giveaway. Digital India got them young.
What about exams?
Modi’s question-answer interaction with students dealt with everything that was easy to talk about. Pariksha pe Charcha is the most inaccurate name for what transpired in that auditorium, because other than giving generic self-help advice sprinkled with humanising personal anecdotes, Modi barely spoke about exams at all.
“The only way to focus is to defocus!” he said, when a student asked about frequent distractions during long study periods.
“If you like to play, play. If you like to sing, sing. Don’t cut out everything or separate yourself from the things that make you happy,” the Prime Minister helpfully said.
While these pieces of advice mean well, and are often welcome coming from a parental authority or an understanding friend, the highest executive authority of a nation must be answerable for why a student commits suicide every hour in India. The country has one of the world’s highest suicide rates for people aged 15 to 29, according to a 2012 Lancet report. Yet the questions almost entirely revolved around the ability, or lack thereof, of a student to cope with stress, rather than address an education system that was clearly failing him/her.
When student Gaurav Singh asked about the pressure of choosing the right career, Modi said, “The root of all problems is that you want to be something. Once and for all decide in your head that I want to do something. Dreams to become something are a guarantee for disappointment in life. Yeh career naam ka shabd.”
Choice-affirming maxims make for wonderful headlines, but when the government has repeatedly cut funding for research and fellowships in the past, and continues to pump money into IITs and IIMs, the choices to ‘dream’ without ‘doctor, lawyer, engineer’ looming over your head are far more limited.
When Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath announced the start of a major government drive to prevent mass-scale cheating in board examinations, a total of 10.56 lakh students dropped out within just four days. A sociologist, Vinod Chandra, told ThePrint: “Cheating is an outcome of improper teaching, and students are only victims of the system, which has over the years forced them to adopt such things.”
Not one student asked a difficult question that extended beyond ‘concentration, self-confidence, parental pressure and competition’. And that is perhaps because they haven’t yet been taught how to identify the real “root of all problems”.
Modi 2019: On Tour
Modi was prepared for everything that came at him, and the questions themselves were spoken with such articulate clarity that I wouldn’t be surprised if the students had been made to practice them in front of a mirror. The only question that had the media quickly typing out tweets is when an 11th grader named Girish Singh said to Modi: “Next year we both have our examinations. I have my 12th boards, and you have the Lok Sabha elections. Are you ready for it or are you nervous?
“This much I think for sure, that if I were your teacher, I would guide you to join journalism,” Modi replied. “Because the ability to ask this kind of roundabout question, only journalists seem to have.”
“I’ve always believed that one should continue to study, and focus entirely on learning, and keep the student inside alive. Exam, results, and marks should be by-products. If you’ve done the work, whatever result will come, will come,” he said. “Even politics I have entered with the same philosophy. That for 1.25 billion Indians I will sacrifice all my time, strength, dedication, and all my mental efforts. Elections will come and go, those are by-products.”
‘Modi’ is perhaps the most political name in India’s lexicon today, yet the man that single-handedly upturned an entire country’s ideological landscape, also claimed that politics didn’t come naturally to him. The ‘main aapka mitr hoon (I am your friend)’ persona did not crack. This was not about politics after all. For once, think of the children.
The show was coming to a close, and with strategic BJP product placements inserted, Modi ticked all the boxes.
He managed to turn an event about board examinations into a book promotion, RSS recruitment drive, election rally, concert, self-help group, high-tea for media houses, and a dedication to Hindustan. Modi 2019 is on tour, and today it stopped by for a PR event in Delhi.