When Prime Minister Narendra Modi barrels around India to support allies running for state government elections, his war cry is: “Ab ki bar double engine ki sarkar” or This time, a double-engine government. At face value, this means having the BJP at the centre together with BJP governments in every one of India’s 28 states. State residents are promised that two engines pulling together will deliver twice the power.
But the true meaning of Modi’s double engine metaphor transcends India’s state-level electoral politics. It’s actually about reinventing national ideology, culture, and education. To understand why India presently stands so high on the world stage — and also how it could crash down — let’s peek inside the two engines. The lessons for Pakistan are immediate and obvious.
The first engine pulls India along the road to prosperity and modernity. It has sent Indian spacecraft winging to the moon and Mars, placed India’s IT and pharmaceutical companies among the world’s largest, filled America’s best universities with professors who are graduates of Indian universities, and created some of the world’s biggest business empires. Several top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are Indian.
President Joe Biden recently quipped that “Indian Americans are taking over this country”. He could have meant Britain as well where Rishi Sunak is its new prime minister with personal wealth surpassing that of the newly crowned King Charles III. Sunak’s Bangalore-based father-in-law is the founder of Infosys; this Indian IT company’s market capitalisation recently crossed a staggering $100 billion.
These are substantial, undeniable achievements that hubris-filled Hindu nationalists say derive from their greatness as an ancient civilisation. But wait! China has done still better. And, though far smaller, many emergent countries of East Asia — Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore — also boast of better performance than India’s.
In every case, the secret of success is well-known — strong systems of education that create skills, knowledge, attitudes and social behaviours suited for modern times. Together with that, a strong work ethic in the labour force. Stated differently, high national achievement springs naturally from the quickness with which a country universalises or ‘Westernises’ its education and creates positive attitudes towards work.
Here’s how India grew into the present. Empowered by the scientific and industrial revolutions, Britain colonised India and sought to spread Western education and values. Conservative Hindus emphatically rejected this modernisation but reformist movements such as Brahmo Samaj under Ram Mohan Roy and others made deep inroads.
By 1947 under Jawaharlal Nehru — an avowed Hindu atheist devoted to the ‘scientific temper’ — India was already intellectually equipped to enter the modern world. For the next 50 years, India’s education sought to create a pluralist, secular, scientifically minded society. It reaps rich harvests to the present day — which the BJP happily appropriates as its own.
But Hindu nationalists now want India’s goals and self-image drastically revised. Modi’s second engine, fuelled by febrile imaginations, pushes India towards emulating some kind of Hindu rashtra from an idyllic past. My friend Prof Badri Raina, now retired from Delhi University, says that “this backward engine would have us believe that in ancient times we had knowledge of plastic surgery, aeronautics, satellite vision, even as streams of foaming white milk flowed down our plains, and golden birds perched on the branches of trees”.
What if the likes of Roy and Nehru had never existed? Under engine #2 India’s education would have been Sanskrit-based with English only barely understood. Post-independence India would have become a garbage dump for every kind of crackpot science. Medical research would have focused on medicines made from cow urine and cow dung, the celibacy of peacocks would be under intense scrutiny, astrology would be taught in place of astronomy, and there would be Vedic mathematics instead of actual mathematics.
Let’s turn now to subcontinental Muslims and then to Pakistan.
Two hundred years ago, it was crystal clear that the dull daily rote of memorisation in traditional madressahs was wholly unsuited for the modern age. Meanwhile, children of Indian parents in English-medium schools were learning trigonometry and logarithms, the properties of solids and gases, and of experiments that showed these obeyed certain laws. Instead of the greatness of kings and emperors, schools taught ideas of parliamentary and legal systems.
The ulema across India fiercely resisted the modern curriculum. The zamindar and jagirdar also saw little use for it even if he sent his boys to school or, as occasionally happened, to Oxford and Cambridge. Very few opted for science, medicine, or other forms of hard learning. Most learned just the airs and graces that would assure their social position back home.
The loudest call for reforming Muslim education was that of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Madressahs, he said, are entirely unnecessary. Using religious idiom he passionately argued for science and modernity. While his efforts led to some measure of functionality and to jobs within the colonial system, they were nowhere deep or wide as that of Brahmo Samaj. Conservative backlash limited Sir Syed’s influence.
Thus, by the time Partition came around, there was a massive Hindu-Muslim gap. Nevertheless, for the first few decades, Pakistan’s engine #1 steadily gained strength and was consistently stronger than its second engine. Among other things, Pakistan’s space programme (born 1961, now dead) much preceded India’s.
Forward motion slowed then stopped in the 1980s after Pakistan’s engine #2 took over. Standards and workforce competence sank. Institutions and organisations steadily crumbled for lack of modern-minded people. Industrialisation flopped in spite of the billions pumped in by America, China and Saudi Arabia. Finding graduates of Pakistani institutions capable of performing even basic tasks became harder and harder. Throwing more money at education was tried but learning outcomes kept worsening.
Pakistan’s regular schools have now come to resemble madressahs with the difference shrinking by the year. Many surveys indicate student learning has descended to Somalia-like levels. Adding more fuel to engine #2, the PDM government has accelerated implementation of the regressive Single National Curriculum conceived by Imran Khan’s government. Helplessly, we gravitate downward. Will India eventually suffer Pakistan’s fate? That depends upon which of its two engines can pull harder.
The writer taught physics at QAU from 1973 through 2021, the longest in the university’s history.
This article has been republished with permission from Dawn.