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Two Degrees of Separation: The Controversy Over Modi’s Educational Qualifications Explained

Why was the PMO reticent in providing information about Modi’s degrees? And what could be the political fallout? The Wire breaks it down.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a file photo. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a file photo. Credit: PTI

Update, May 1, 2016: ‘Modi Got First Class in MA from Gujarat University’, VC Says

The controversy over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s educational qualifications taken centre-stage once again after the Central Information Commission (CIC), acting at the behest of a RTI application by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, directed the Prime Minister’s Office to provide ‘specific roll number and year’ of the prime minister’s degrees from Delhi University (DU) and Gujarat University (GU).

The CIC said that this would help them locate Modi’s records easily, following which the universities could provide relevant information about his degrees to the public.

The debate over Modi’s educational qualifications started last year after various RTI applications seeking details about his degrees were refused by the universities and the PMO.

This had led to suspicion among Modi’s political opponents that he may have provided wrong information in his election affidavits. His election affidavits mention that he finished his undergraduate degree through a distance learning programme from DU in 1978 and his MA from GU in 1983.

The debate has fuelled yet another spat between Aam Aadmi Party leader Kejriwal and the BJP machinery. When did this controversy erupt? Why was the PMO reticent in providing information about Modi’s degrees? And what could be it political fallout? The Wire breaks it down.

Neither the constitution nor the Representation of the People Act specify minimum educational qualifications for getting elected as an MP or even becoming prime minister. So why is a fuss being made about Modi’s degrees?

The emerging controversy over Modi’s degrees is not about whether he his qualified to serve as an MP or prime minister but whether he made a false statement on oath in an affidavit that is a crucial part of the election process. Not having a degree does not disqualify a candidate in any way but if a candidate says he has degrees which he does not possess, then that would amount to having made a false declaration and misled voters.

When did the controversy begin?

Modi, in his affidavit for the 2014 general elections, acknowledged having been married to Jashodaben for the first time. In his earlier affidavits for the Gujarat assembly polls, he had claimed to be unmarried. This had led to a huge political furore in the campaign leading up to the general elections. Modi’s inconsistent claims regarding his marital status fuelled further doubts about his educational qualifications. Moreover, the controversy around Minister of Human Resources and Development Smriti Irani’s fake Yale University degree goaded many of Modi’s political opponents to probe his educational qualifications in 2015.

Consequently, a number of RTI applications were filed in the PMO, GU and DU to scrutinise Modi’s claims of education. His election affidavits in the 2014 parliamentary polls claimed he had undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Likewise, his election affidavits for the 2012 and 2007 Gujarat assembly polls claimed the same.

So what was the response of the PMO and the two universities?

In response to an RTI filed on the matter, the PMO advised the RTI activist to approach the Election Commission of India (EC) and refused to divulge any information. The PMO said in reply to the RTI request, “The information about the PM’s education qualification is available on the PMO’s website http://www.pmindia.gov.in under the hyperlink ‘Know Your Prime Minister’ which can be accessed by the applicant,” and asked him to get the required information from the EC.

The EC too added to the mystery by saying that this information was not available with them and the applicant could access them by visiting “http://eci.nic.in under the head Affidavits of candidates.”

Following this, a Gujarat-based social activist filed another RTI at GU seeking details of his masters degree, which was again denied by the university. The university sent a one-line reply in Gujarati, “Under the RTI Act of 2005, this information can’t be made public.”

But the RTI Act allows for appeals if the information sought is denied. Was an appeal filed?

When the activist, who chose to remain anonymous, moved the appellate authority against GU’s reply, he was asked to file the RTI requests all over again and told the PMO was not obliged to provide any information if GU does not have the requisite information. The appellate body, headed by S.E. Rizvi, said, “A public authority is obliged to provide information, which is held in its records and, in the matter in hand where the requisite information does not form part of office records, the contention that the PMO should provide the same is not correct.”

The appellate authority interpreted section 2 (J) of the RTI Act to relieve the PMO from divulging this information. It said that since no minimum educational qualification was required to become the prime minister, the PMO is not under any obligation to possess details about Modi’s educational degrees.

The secrecy around Modi’s degrees was further magnified when DU also denied any information on his undergraduate degree details in April 2016. To Delhi resident Hans Raj Jain’s RTI, the DU said that the information sought is too general and cited its inability to find any information without a roll number. DU’s plea was accepted by the CIC, which dismissed the case.

Why did the controversy come to the limelight again?

After Jain’s plea was rejected, Kejriwal on April 28 wrote a strongly-worded letter to Chief Information Commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu.

“According to some reports (details are attached), Prime Minister Narendra Modi is preventing the concerned department from releasing details about his educational qualification. Allegations are being made that the PM has no qualification and degree at all,” said the letter, written in Hindi, which also questioned the CIC’s autonomy.

Kejriwal in his letter said, “Nation has the right to know the educational details of the Prime Minister. His educational qualifications should be released in the public at earliest. The RTI Act gives us the right to know the qualifications of the person holding the position of the Prime Minister.”

Thereafter, the CIC treated this letter as an RTI application and directed the PMO to give Modi’s roll numbers to the universities so that they could find out the details of his degrees.

“Not prescribing the education (degree based) qualification for contesting electoral offices is one of the great features of Indian democracy. What is needed is education and not degrees. However, when a citizen holding the position of Chief Ministership wants to know the degrees-related information of the Prime Minister, it will be proper to disclose. The commission directs the CPIOs of Delhi University and Gujarat University to make best possible search for the information regarding degrees in the name of ‘Mr Narendra Damodar Modi’ in the year 1978 (Graduation in DU) and 1983 (Post-Graduation in GU) and provide it to the appellant Mr. Kejriwal as soon as possible,” the CIC order said.

What impact will this controversy have on national politics?

Both Kejriwal and Modi have been attacking each other in public rallies for a long time. Apart from the public spat in rallies, Kejriwal has been accusing the Central government of intervening in the daily affairs of the Delhi government. His party has made it out to be a political attack by the BJP, which the AAP defeated in the Delhi assembly elections comprehensively.

In the recent past, Kejriwal and AAP have been the most vocal opponents of the BJP regarding the Union government’s handling of political and administrative affairs. Clearly, Kejriwal is trying to propel himself and his party as the political alternative to the BJP. The AAP’s long-standing campaign has been to target non-transparent governments, be it during the Congress-led UPA government, or now. The AAP has built its support base by rallying against corruption and opacity in governance. Therefore, Kejriwal has successfully catapulted the reluctance on the part of PMO to divulge details of Modi’s educational qualifications into a campaign against an opaque government.

In its political fight against the BJP, the AAP has relied not on big exposes against the government but on its small governance failures that have a cumulative effect on people. With the CIC granting Kejriwal’s request, it is a small victory for the AAP over the BJP. Kerjiwal’s deft handling of the issue of Modi’s educational qualifications is sure to get him more friends than enemies.

What happens if DU and GU are unable to confirm the award of degrees to Modi, or say categorically that no degree was awarded by them to Modi in the years mentioned by the prime minister in his election affidavit?

At present, giving false information on oath is listed as a criminal offence in the Section 191 of the Indian Penal Code. It says:

“Giving false evidence. -Whoever, being legally bound by an oath or by an express provision of law to state the truth, or being bound by law to make a declaration upon any subject, makes any statement which is false, and which he either knows or believes to be false or does not believe to be true, is said to give false evidence.”

A little bit of history on election affidavits may be worthwhile to understand the legalities of the process. Following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms in 1999, election affidavits were first put in place after a series of court orders by the Delhi high court and the Supreme Court in the early 2000s.  After these judgments, the EC made election affidavits that required each candidate to declare his/her criminal, financial, and educational background mandatory.

At present, the EC does not have any exclusive punitive powers if a candidate is found to have provided false information. There are no verification procedures to ensure that candidates do not provide wrong information in election affidavits. The ADR, an advocacy organisation for electoral reforms, has been demanding the Election Commission of India develop a proper verification mechanism for election affidavits.

However, given the constraints of time and resources, the EC has not been able to do much about it. Jagdeep Chhokar of the ADR told The Wire: “The EC does not verify.To our demand in the court, the SC had said that the EC should take the help of intelligence agencies to verify the information. However, the Union of India filed a petition in the SC saying that it should not be done. The EC gave an affidavit saying that it was impossible for it to verify information of so many candidates in such a short span of time.”

Chhokar said that the problem the EC faces is actually serious. “There are 7000 candidates in a general elections. In 15 days, you cannot expect the EC to do the verification. Following the EC’s and the government of India’s petition, the SC in 2002 said that verification cannot be done. Subsequently, we have been asking the EC to verify the information of only the winners within six months of their election. The EC has been saying that it sends the entire lot of affidavits to the income tax department for verification. However, the income tax department is not willing to do that.”

If the EC can’t act, are there other legal penalties for making an incorrect declaration in an election nomination-related affidavit?

At present only IPC Section 191 lists wrong information on oath as a criminal offence. The Representation of People (Amendment) Act, 2010 under which elections are held does not list out any penalty against submitting a false election affidavit. The courts have intervened occasionally. For instance, when Modi in his Gujarat assembly elections had left the column of his marital status blank, the SC, hearing a petition filed by Sunil Sarawagi in 2013, ruled that a candidate’s nomination can be rejected by the EC if a column is left blank. In his 2014 parliamentary election nomination, Modi was, therefore, forced to declare that he was married to Jashodaben.

The EC is demanding some reforms in the whole process but thinks that the verification of so many affidavits is not feasible. “The EC has no way to verify. We got only two hours to accept or reject a nomination. But what we do is to put all the election affidavits in the public domain so that citizens can themselves verify. However, we had been demanding that the EC may have some punitive powers for candidates who lie in affidavits. This will act as a deterrent. The Justice A.P Shah Law commission report  released in February 2014 also recommends some of these reforms.,” former chief election commissioner S.Y Qureshi told The Wire.

The Law Commission has recommended amending the RP Act on the issue of filing false affidavits. It has said that false affidavits could be grounds for disqualification, that it should ‘qualify as corrupt practice under the Act.’ It also said that the maximum punishment prescribed at present should be increased from six months imprisonment to a minimum of two years. “Consequently, trials of cases in relation to false affidavits must also be conducted on a day to day basis. Further, a gap of one week should be introduced between the last date for filing nominations and the date of scrutiny. This would give adequate time to file an objection on nomination papers,” the commission recommended.

However, given the pressures it may create for legislators, it looks highly unlikely that the BJP-led government would implement these recommendations in the near future.