The lure of the foreign chhappa continues unabated.
The latest storm in that teacup involves Misa Bharti, the eldest born of Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi. Misa posted pictures of herself at the India Conference organized by Harvard University on Facebook and Twitter. The problem was she looked like she was addressing the conference, standing behind a lectern emblazoned with John F Kennedy School of Government.
And her post about her Harvard appearance didn’t clarify matters either.
Dear friends! I wish to share with you all that I have been invited by Harvard University to participate in the ‘India Conference’ on 7th and 8th March. While delighted at the prospect of interacting with and sharing our concerns and commitments with great minds from across the world, I must confess this invitation is for all of us who wish to change the grammar of contemporary politics with just means… I need your love, wishes and affection as always, so that I am able to live up to and work towards our common goals.
Except she went there as an attendee not a speaker. And while she never claimed she was there as a “speaker” the picture sort of implied that. What else does one do behind a lectern? And as we all know a picture is worth a thousand words.
The Organising Committee of the India Conference at Harvard issued a statement clarifying that she had not been invited to deliver any lecture and had purchased a conference ticket as an audience member. Misa pulled the photos and issued her own clarification saying “In my absence, a controversy has been created that I have falsely claimed to be a speaker at this conf. Nowhere have I made such claims.”
Except that original Facebook post also came with this status update according to The Hindu.
“Harvard Vishwavidyalaya mein yuvaaon ki bhagidari ko lekar vyakhyaan dete hue” (giving a lecture at Harvard University on the role of youth).
Misa Bharti herself claimed on Facebook that “Pictures and related captions that electronic media is repeatedly displaying was purportedly taken from my non official Facebook pages being run by unknown fans or supporters.” And she refused to be “held responsible for any lofty claims made by my ardent supporters or fans.”
In the larger scheme of things this hardly qualifies as a gotcha scandal that the media loves. When anchor Rahul Kanwal posted that screen grab on Twitter, Sadanand Dhume responded “My two bits: Looks like @MisaBharti got a little creative on FB but played it straight on Twitter. Deserves benefit of doubt.”
But it also shows as a society how much we still crave that Oxbridge-Ivy League stamp of approval. Actually make that anything foreign.
Mamata Banerjee at the beginning of her political career got into trouble because of claims of a doctorate from East Georgia University. That university it turned out did not exist. And Mamata stopped mentioning her degree as well.
Varun Gandhi was accused of falsely claiming degrees from the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies by the Indian Express. Varun rebutted that charge with a lengthy clarification explaining that these were “external degrees” through the External Study office which were “sponsored by these institutions, taught according to their own internal standards and are examined by academics at the LSE and SOAS” and not “honorary degrees, nor are they available to purchase for a fee.” He hoped his example would in fact encourage other Indians “to study for international courses locally without incurring the huge cost that travelling abroad entails for their families.”
And then of course there’s Subramanian Swamy claiming the Sonia Gandhi “faked” her Cambridge degree. Swamy filed a petition saying that Sonia Gandhi was never registered as a student there and her “certificate in English course could have been obtained from any one of the small English teaching shops in Cambridge.” The court rejected his petition.
Rajiv Gandhi too went to Cambridge which his supporters liked to mention but they usually omitted the fact that he didn’t actually graduate from there.
And in more recent times there was of course the hoopla about Smriti Irani’s “degree” from Yale – a veritable six-day wonder. “Congratulations to Smriti Irani on graduating from Yale in the exact same amount of time it took Me to create the world.God” tweeted @TheTweetOfGod.
All these cases are different. Some of these politicians actually have the degrees while others don’t. But they point to one basic truth.“Foreign things have a status value which the swadeshi doesn’t,” sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan told the Economic Times.
And the temptation to spin a tall tale out of a brush with the foreign is often too great to resist. It’s not that a Yale or Harvard or Cambridge are not prestigious institutions but what’s really on display here is not knowledge but the propensity to use the universities as status symbols for showing off. And where better to show off than social media?
Misa Bharti at least has not claimed any degree from Harvard. Asked about that photo behind the lectern, her brother Tejaswi tells The Telegraph “People love to be clicked when they visit famous places. If you go to Agra, don’t you click a photograph at the Taj Mahal,or do you just take a photo of the gate? Similarly, Misa’s photograph was too taken.”
Indeed. No one believes that standing in front of the Taj Mahal means you are claiming to be Shah Jahan. But it says something that just a lectern with the words “John F Kennedy School of Government” counts as a tourist attraction on par with the Taj Mahal. In status conscious India it’s all about the brand and everyone wants a piece of it, by hook or by crook or at least Facebook status.