A sweeping reshuffle in Indian government last week included a complete change of leadership in the country's Education Ministry. However, those hoping that the leadership change will bring about a new policy direction in the short term are likely to be disappointed. With only 15 months to go before the next general election, it is expected that the Ministry will be focusing on policies laid down prior to the reshuffle, and the new leaders will not wish to take risks so close to the day when the government's performance will be judged by the voters.
Still, hope remains that the new leaders will be able to exert some influence, especially in regards to several important higher education bills that remain stuck in Legislature due to opposition from various special interest groups. In particular, the reshuffle might finally force forward the currently languishing proposal that would open the door for foreign universities to operate within the country's borders for the first time.
MM Pallam Raju, who replaced Kapil Sibal as the head of the human resources department which holds the country's higher education brief, said that clearing the legislative logjam will be his highest priority over the next year. To get the bills moving, Raju made a commitment to reach out to stakeholders in the spirit of compromise.
Raju's elevation from junior minister to cabinet minister is being credited to his good relations with Congress Party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, son of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who has focused on bringing younger leaders into the government.
Raju is one of India's youngest education ministers in recent years.
"Raju also got a good report card from Defence Minister AK Antony. He [Raju] is quiet and lets his work speak for him. As such he is in contrast to Kapil Sibal's aggressive ways of working," said a the senior Congress Party leader who chose to remain anonymous.
Raju's more conciliatory demeanor will be a big change from frequently confrontational stance adopted by his predecessor Sibal. Although Sibal originated a large portion of education-related legislation currently pending, after his responsibilities were expanded to include the telecom industry he was no longer able to give his education brief sufficient attention. The problems in the telecom sector, which included charges of graft and corruption, occupied most of his time.
Head of education analysis at the consulting firm KPMG Narayanan Ramaswamy said that Sibal simply lacked the time it required to shepherd the education bills he proposed through parliament since taking over telecom last year.
Raju said he would work towards creating consensus on the pending higher education bills, suggesting that there was still everything to play for with the bill: "There is no cut and dried yes and no vote," he admitted.
"In higher education there is a dearth of capacity, and efforts have to be made towards expanding the capacity of universities and the scope of the subjects. Towards that end foreign universities become relevant," Raju told local media.