Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not have won such a decisive mandate in 2014 without the overwhelming support of India’s youth. There were two reasons above others because of which India’s under-35s were attracted to Modi. First, he seemed to embody the one value that the children of post-socialist, liberalised India hold dear — merit. Of course, he was far removed from the dynasty-sycophancy of the Congress. But also, he had risen to the top despite his own party, which seemed wedded to old notions of seniority and which was reluctant to anoint the upstart Gujarat Chief Minister. Second, he promised change, a different (from governments of the past) way to conduct politics and government in New Delhi.
Why then is the same man permitting the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India? The reason that the students of FTII — backed by several stalwarts of the film industry — are opposing the appointment of Chauhan isn’t only because he is associated with the BJP. It is because they see that merit played absolutely no role in the selection. Chauhan is a failed actor, who has made little (if any) contribution to the development of either India’s film industry or television industry. This isn’t change. It’s more of the same.
It’s of little use for the government or the BJP to argue that the Congress too appointed its favourites to all manner of posts. It is well known that the Congress had mastered the art of patronage and rewarding fellow travellers. It is equally well known that the grand old party cared little for merit or for public opinion. Modi’s USP was that he opposed all of this. Now, if he does precisely the same when in government, he risks losing a significant chunk of his support base. If anything, it is possible to argue that Congress cronies had marginally better qualifications than the ones the BJP seems to be appointing to key positions. Amazingly, the government seems unable or unwilling to even appoint reasonably respected fellow travellers. Nobody would have opposed Anupam Kher or Shatrughan Sinha or even Dharmendra as chairman of FTII.
Modi is missing the perfect opportunity to decisively change the system of patronage (cum sycophancy), which determined appointments to various government-controlled bodies. The Prime Minister is within his rights not to appoint people with clear Marxist/Left leanings to cultural and academic bodies. But must he necessarily appoint apparent right-wingers with obviously no qualifications? There are plenty of eminent persons who have no clear political leanings who can be suitable candidates. If the government tries hard, it can possibly find people with right-of-centre views and respectable academic/professional credentials — many people in the world of films or even in academics (particularly economics but also management, sciences — less probable in history) could easily be found.
The fact is that it doesn’t take scams, or perceived scams, to weaken the credibility of a government. Other things also matter. Modi, in particular, will be judged by what he promised as a candidate, and that was a change in the system, a preference for merit over all else. Mistakes have been made but it isn’t too late to change course. Start by annulling the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan.