The Doctorate Voodoo Strikes Again: Desi Oligarchs Clearly Like The Title

The Doctorate Voodoo Strikes Again: Desi Oligarchs Clearly Like The Title

by Jay Bhattacharjee - Thursday, April 14, 2016 08:22 PM IST
The Doctorate Voodoo Strikes Again: Desi Oligarchs Clearly Like The TitlePartha Chatterjee, Trinamool Politician
  • Managing doctorate degree has become a new fashion with officials and politicians and Trinamool’s Partha Chatterjee is among them but with a controversy to boot

On 13 April 2016, a national daily from Kolkata carried a detailed report on the controversy surrounding the PhD thesis of Partha Chatterjee, one of the senior lieutenants of Mamata-di, the supremo of West Bengal. Partha-babu has been called out in a number of academic circles about alleged plagiarism in his thesis, on the basis of which he was conferred a doctorate by North Bengal University. Partha-babu’s alleged mass pilferage of the research output of other scholars, without the minor formality of acknowledging their work and citing their authorship, is something which is becoming a major bugbear in Indian academics.

Ordinary researchers occasionally face the flak but politicians and babus, miraculously, never get trapped.

Chatterjee, at least, went through the formality and chore of writing some sort of thesis, facing the prescribed hoopla of its scrutiny, including the final formality of a viva voce. His mentor and Trinamool chief, Mamata Banerjee, who set the trail in this dismal race in Bengal, as early as in 1985, when she was the poster girl of the Congress, did not even bother with this charade. She just anointed herself as Dr Banerjee, a doctorate from the University of East Georgia.

Uncle Sam’s land has a number of aberrations, but fake PhDs and non-existent universities are a strict no-no. The official agency, United States Educational Foundation of India (USEFI), where lakhs of Indian students used to pore over university prospectuses of American universities and their handbooks in the good old days when there were no computers or internet, had to come out with an official disclaimer that the ‘University of East Georgia’ did not officially exist.

Didi was unfazed and brazened it out with a panache that would have done credit to many seasoned and street-smart spin experts. Over the years, people forgot this monumental chutzpah as other bigger scandals and shenanigans came to the centre stage. Poor Chatterjee has just had the misfortune of getting the spotlight back on his boss and it would be interesting to see how the future treats him. That is, if he has a future of any sort in Bengal politics and in Didi’s never-never land.

Her psyche is manifestly modelled on that of the wily Georgian dictator Joseph Stalin, who said in one of his moments of weakness that ‘the people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.’ More ominously, for poor Chatterjee, is old Joseph’s chilly warning that ‘ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?’

Enough of morbid thoughts, I say. We should return, instead, to the magical attraction that the two letters of the honorific title—Dr—before their name have for India’s oligarchs. Is it the veneer of learning and education that it confers on the bearer? This, certainly, provides a logical and convincing answer. However, it is not enough and we need to explore further.

Other aspects include the irresistible lure of getting something free—the old muft ka maal (freebie) syndrome, as they say, at least in North India. Here again, there are two classes of doctorates—the first is the honorary PhD that politicos and bureaucrats manage to extract from pliant universities. This is usually in the form of a honoris causa award and the highest grade is ‘Doctorate of Laws’ or a D.Litt.

The other variety is where the fellow undertakes the subterfuge of actually submitting a thesis on an obscure subject, like the Mating Habits of the Neelgais in UP and Haryana, or similar baloney, and goes through the full monty that Chatterjee did.

The third variety is the one where industrialists and business magnates with loads of cash persuade institutions financed by them or set up by them to dole out a doctorate to them. This is particularly true of North India and some cases in the South.

This writer and his contemporaries who worked in their salad days in Delhi can hardly forget some of the ‘Doctor’ industrialists who were the toast of the capital’s social circuit. Two brothers from what was, arguably, north India’s largest business house at the time, were particularly known for flaunting their doctorate and insisting that everyone addressed them appropriately. The minions and flunkeys in their commercial empire risked life (and limb) if they did not mind their language. These two ‘doctors’ would have been mortified (or perhaps just surprised) if they had seen their jagirdari disappear without a trace soon after their deaths.

Another Delhi business magnate who careened around with a ‘Dr’ before his name also witnessed his conglomerate sink unceremoniously during his lifetime. Interestingly, I can solemnly affirm that in the heady days between 2000 and 2008 at least, I clearly remember the ‘king of good times’ being feted and addressed as ‘Dr Mallya’ at numerous business conferences and seminars in Delhi. The Fourth Estate, politicos and babus all stooped and genuflected before this honorary doctor.

Coming back to the politicos, the current brouhaha brings back hilarious memories of the mid-1970s, when I had the singular misfortune of watching the late ‘Dr’ Bansi Lal, then the CM of Haryana, delivering the Convocation Address at the Haryana Agriculture University in Hissar. Distinguished members of the agricultural sciences community of our country were falling over each other to pay their obeisance to the fellow.

The crunch came when the national anthem was rendered with some gusto by some school children. Bansi Lal and his cohorts insisted on mispronouncing and mutilating the entire anthem and I nearly died of mortification. No, I did not want the Sanskrit pronunciation, but I certainly could not accept the Harianvi gibberish.

After the trauma, one newly acquired acquaintance, who was spending his last few weeks in Hissar before moving to an American university, confided to me that I would be wise to keep my views to myself. Also, according to him, even the peons and sanitary staff in the campus addressed each other as ‘doctor sahib’. Such is the mystique of ‘Dr’ on our shores.

Where the lalas and netas tread, can the babus be far behind ? In the capital’s seminar and salon circuits, I come across these ‘Dr’ babus with monotonous regularity. The provenance (as they say in the world of art and rare books) of the degrees of the overwhelming majority of these chaps is extremely dubious. Some of them are serving functionaries, while the majority are retired. Any attempt to delve deeper is brushed aside with the panache with which they have always refused any information to the country’s citizens.

A dear friend of mine, who is one of the few in the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) clan I respect and admire, told me in all seriousness that he had been told by many of his underlings in the State Secretariat where he worked intermittently, that they would gladly arrange for a doctorate for him. He would not have to lift a finger, except for signing the admission form. Just before he finally shifted to Raisina Hill on a plum posting, his flunkies in the state capital were so overjoyed that they even volunteered to select his thesis subject. Bassy, are you there? Do not worry, I am not divulging your identity—only a few in our group will recognise you in these pages.

The joke that did the rounds about UP universities in the old days was that it was not advisable to venture into one of the campuses in that state, since there was a serious danger of somebody throwing a PhD at you. Sadly, what UP did yesterday in this arena, Bengal is doing today.

That brings us to the concluding part of this essay about the oligarchy that rules this ancient land. As a wag said about the Delhi lot, every time you shake hands with one of them at a gathering in the capital, you should check whether all your fingers are still present and intact. The irrepressible Spike Milligan (sadly unknown to most of us below 60) said it so aptly, ‘Render any politician (read ‘member of the elite’) down, and you will find enough fat to fry an egg.’

Chatterjee and Banerjee in the successor city of Job Charnock’s Calcutta are merely playing out their roles consummately.

Jay Bhattacharjee is a policy and corporate affairs analyst based in Delhi.
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