PB Mehta Exit: Ashoka Founders Forgot A Basic Dictum: ‘First Who, Then What’

R Jagannathan

Mar 23, 2021, 05:46 PM | Updated 05:46 PM IST

Pratap Bhanu Mehta.  
Pratap Bhanu Mehta.  
  • It is best to use non-intellectuals to head universities like Ashoka, and let them decide who to get onto the bus, and who to offload.
  • The exit of Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University for being a “political liability” to the institution should prompt the founders of the university – and all future founders of such institutions – to rethink their basics. They should know that the most important decision to be made while creating such institutions is not to define what they are set up for, but who should do the job.

    Jim Collins, author of Good To Great, has formulated this simple credo, “First Who, then What”. So, regardless of whether you ultimately decide to set up a “liberal arts and sciences” institution or one dedicated to some neutral value like “deeper learning”, you first need to decide who will be the right people to drive the institution towards success.

    Here is a key excerpt from Collins’ book:

    “The executives who ignited the (institutional) transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said, in essence, ‘Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great’.”

    If, after many years of association with Ashoka, the institution has had to ask Mehta to get off the bus, clearly the founders, trustees and managing angels did not give much thought to who should be the key drivers of the institution they were putting good money in.

    This is the trap many promoters of many institutions tend to fall in: they think more about big names, names which may carry clout with global institutions. They risk their money and make “safe choices” which will sound acceptable to the global elite – in this case, the Left-liberal elite in Ivy League institutions abroad.

    This happened with Krea University too, where they opted for Ramachandra Guha for a history position, when they had other options. It is easy to pick a Guha who is well known, and a safe choice. It is tougher to get a better historian who does not have blinkers and will genuinely promote diverse readings of history. It is easy for a Rohan Murty to invest more than $5 million in a Murty Classical Library Project, with Sheldon Pollock of Harvard in the lead; it is tougher to spend just a fifth of that amount developing India’s own Sanskrit and classical language scholars to do the same job and control the narrative with the use of underdeveloped local intellectual capital. Essentially, big money chooses lazier options to do good.

    What the founders of such institutions fail to do is understand the ecosystem in which these chosen “safe” leaders have to deliver. If you choose someone who has it in for the government or the newly emergent power elite in India, you are going to be fighting the wrong battles all the time.

    What Ashoka needed was a leadership team that was ideologically diverse, and not an echo chamber of the Lutyens Left-Liberal elite. This is not to suggest that Leftist or centrist faculty must be deliberately excluded, but where is the proof that Ashoka is populated by a genuinely diverse faculty and a top leadership that even reflects the ideological diversity among the founders?

    The founders and investors include every type from Left liberals like businessperson Anu Aga to right-wing high net worth individuals like Rakesh Jhunjhunwala. The founders are more diverse than the institution itself.

    The tendency to make safe “Left-liberal” choices is – one suspects – a form of business self-preservation. If you are running a business in a country where the law cannot be guaranteed to protect your money or your rights, you will court the Left.

    Reason: it is a covert form of protection money. The right-wing is anyway pro-business, and won’t try to damage business, but the Left can and will if it does not get what it wants. So, why not put money in institutions that provide them with sinecures and keeps them out of mischief? Of course, no businessperson will readily admit that this is why he backs Left-liberals, but it needs to be said.

    But the simple point the founders should have thought about is this: is a fledgling institution like Ashoka best served by some respected, competent and lower-profile individual, or someone like a Mehta, who has taken very strong – and always negative – positions against the government and the Prime Minister? Wasn’t the tragedy of Mehta’s ultimate departure not foretold in his selection itself?

    Who else would write that laws he disagreed with should be overturned on the streets, and not through the courts?

    Mehta wrote in a column in Indian Express, soon after the Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in December 2019: “If our entire public discourse is pervaded by an exaggerated bogey of illegal immigration, don’t expect the court to call the bluff on a discriminatory NRC. This is why it will be a mistake to rely just on the Supreme Court. The political challenge is to make sure that one party’s diabolical version of what is reasonable is not mistaken to be common sense. It will require using the BJP’s tactics: Political and ideological mobilisation outside the law to convey the sense that Indian citizens will not stand for a Republic that is discriminatory, fearful and panders to its own worst instincts. Only then may even the judges move.” (italics mine)

    Look at how Mehta has reframed the argument. A bill to expedite citizenship to persecuted minorities has been reduced to NRC and an “exaggerated bogey of illegal immigration”. If there is a presumption that the Narendra Modi government’s stance on giving early citizenship to persecuted minorities from three neighbours is a “diabolical version of what is reasonable”, one has to wonder what is “reasonable” by the definition of a public intellectual like Mehta.

    And does Mehta stop to ponder how one person’s definition of what is reasonable can be misused by everyone to decide that unlawful pressure exerted by street mobs is the only way forward? How can any public intellectual justify this kind of statement? Mehta’s beliefs go far beyond mere criticism of the government of the day to what is an indirect call for street violence.

    However, Mehta’s position is not inconsistent with the general Left-liberal intellectual’s comfort with calls for violence to speed up societal change. In his book Intellectuals, author Paul Johnson demonstrates how the world’s best-known public intellectuals, mostly Left-liberals, had dubious moral and judgmental credentials, and probably unfit to “give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.”

    Johnson did this by examining the intellectuals’ own personal lives, and how they dealt with family, friends and associates. From Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“an interesting madman”) to Karl Marx, whose ideas led to mass murders of the most macabre kind in all the countries that followed his dictums, to Jean Paul Sartre, Bertolt Brecht and Naom Chomsky, not one intellectual who advocated radical societal transformation was anywhere near being even a decent individual in his or her personal life.

    Most were womanisers, and some were plain violent, intolerant and/or lacking in basic human conscience.

    This is not at all to suggest that Mehta is in the same category or in any sense morally deficient. Absolutely not. But we must emphasise that those advocating some idealised versions of democracy or change are usually intolerant in some way or the other.

    What one needs to underline is the ultimate tyranny of making the “safe choice”, which may sound enticing in the beginning, but ultimately leads to intellectual atrophy, cancel culture, and echo chambers.

    If you choose a Pratap Bhanu Mehta or a Ramachandra Guha, you are effectively choosing other faculty who vibe well with their own ideas, not those who disagree and challenge you. It is best to use non-intellectuals to head universities like Ashoka, and let them decide who to get onto the bus, and who to offload.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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