Rarely is the power of a nation measured by the strength of its educational institutions. It ought to be. The United States isn't a superpower just because it has a large economy and well-funded army. It is powerful because it has the finest university system in the world, which attracts the best students and best academics from across the globe. It is this output from this system, which provides the fuel for the economy (which despite everything remains the leader on the frontier of knowledge) and everything else. It is also the reason why America's decline is greatly exaggerated. As long as the US, and not China, continues to attract the finest global human talent, there will be only one superpower. That is why China is serious about the task of building world class universities.
Unfortunately, India seems determined to head in the opposite direction. Between the government and students, the country seems determined to destroy the few institutions of excellence it actually has. The ongoing fracas at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) is instructive. Given that India has such a thriving film industry — one of the few around the world that can stand up to competition from Hollywood — it ought to have several outstanding film schools, which ought to act as a magnet for talent, perhaps not from America and Europe, but at least Asia and Africa. The FTII was supposed to be one such institute of excellence.
However, the government seems intent on destroying its credibility by appointing as chairman a professional (and intellectual) lightweight who owes his appointment solely to political connections.
Alas, FTII isn't the only institution of excellence where the government (never mind whether BJP, Congress or any other) has poked its ugly nose. The IITs and IIMs and a handful of universities of standing like Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai have been seriously hurt by political interference in administrative and academic matters.
If these universities still have credibility it is because they still attract India's best minds who perform outstandingly while there and in later life. But the FTII episode has brought to light an even uglier side of Indian universities — students who have little interest in pursuing excellence, pursuing petty politics instead.
Many universities in India have been destroyed by constantly striking students with ambitions unrelated to the classroom. No one can argue that politics should have no role on university campuses, but it must be an adjunct activity to the core of completing a degree. In too many Indian universities, playing politics has become the core for both students and teachers.
FTII is just the high profile tip of the iceberg. There are many institutions of higher learning that are caught in a similar downward spiral. The state of the country's top universities is a danger sign. India cannot aspire to even middle power status without a decent universities system.
The one domain in which India should have a clear advantage over China is in building quality educational institutions which attract the best intellectual talent — a free society like India is more conducive to creativity, learning and innovation than a controlled one like China. And realistically, knowledge is the only foundation on which India can one day hope to catch up and beat China.
At the moment though, we are engaged (with ourselves) in a furious race to the bottom.