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An Open Letter to Students Attending PM Modi’s ‘Pariksha Pe Charcha’

Dear students,

The date for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s annual Pariksha Pe Charcha ritual will soon be announced and once again, the prime minister (who is also the purported author of the Exam Warriors book) will give you advice on how to give exams and live life.

By his own admission, the prime minister enjoys his annual interaction with school children immensely. This is understandable, considering his love for scripted events and adoring audiences. It is important to remember, though, that it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when, believe it or not, Indian prime ministers had unscripted, freewheeling conversations with school children and answered difficult questions with as much candour as they could possibly muster.

In 1985, a few months after Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister, the editors of a now-extinct children’s magazine called Target asked the Prime Minister’s Office if the prime minister would be open to giving an interview to school children. Rajiv Gandhi not only agreed, but suggested that the interaction be telecast on Doordarshan.

I remember the interview well, though this was nearly four decades ago.

I was in high school at the time, and the sight of other high school students my age asking a prime minister direct questions on nepotism, meritocracy, the tarnished image of India’s politicians, communalism and the promise of a clean government left a powerful impression on me. It showed me that I, too, had a right to ask democratically elected elected representatives questions.

As a young person in a democracy, so do you.

Things are different now, though, as we know. For reasons best known to him, our prime minister hasn’t taken challenging questions from either the public or the press for the last seven and a half years. Here is where you, dear students, could do the nation a huge favor by asking the kinds of questions normal citizens in a democracy should ask their leader.

Here are 10 questions to get you started. I’m sure you can think of more.

1. Mr. Prime Minister, you seem to lay a lot of emphasis on kids passing their exams, but if children and their education are as important as you say they are, then why is education invariably only about 3% of the Union Budget? Shouldn’t it be much more? At least 6%, if not 10%?

2. The midday meal scheme (now renamed ‘PM Poshan Shakti Nirman’) was one of the few things that incentivised poor children to come to school. In 2020-21, the budget allocation for this scheme was approximately Rs 12,900 crore. In 2021-2022, this came down to Rs 11,500 crore. In the latest Union budget, it is now down to Rs 10,233.75 crore.

Don’t you care that poor children have enough to eat? And a chance to study?

3. (Also, why do you affix ‘Pradhan Mantri’ to all your government’s schemes?)

4. We want to grow up and live in a country that is safe for people of all religions and faiths. That is why the calls for genocide given at the ‘Dharam Sansad’ recently in Haridwar have been very disturbing. Are you going to clearly and unambiguously condemn those calls?

5. We are taught from a very young age in school that the farmer is our annadaata (literally ‘provider of rice’) and that India is an agrarian economy. But the average Indian farmer earns only about Rs 27 a day. Why is Minimum Support Price (MSP), which could really help farmers improve their standard of living, still not a legal guarantee for farmers?

(You had promised before you became prime minister that you would ensure this.)

6. When will you set up a committee to discuss MSP and the farmers’ other issues? Nearly two months have passed since the farmers ended their year long protest.

7. You had promised us 100 Smart Cities. Where are they, please?

8. Crores of lost people have lost their jobs and been pushed into poverty over the last few years as a result of sudden drastic steps you took, such as demonetisation and a lockdown at really short notice. Would you agree that demonetisation was a mistake? If not, why not?

9. Please explain the need to build a new house for yourself. Is your existing one not good enough?

10. Our parents teach us to be frugal and not wasteful. We can’t help but notice, though, that you change your clothes a lot, sometimes several times a day, and wear expensive, branded watches and sunglasses. This is a little puzzling as you have called yourself a fakir. We also see that you have gotten two aircraft retrofitted for Rs 8,400 crores. Is all this expenditure at a time of economic crisis really necessary? Should we listen to our parents or should we follow your example?

These are just some ideas of questions you can ask. Please remember to be respectful and polite at all times.

There is no guarantee, of course, that your questions will be answered or that you will even get to ask them, but if by some miracle you do, please know you will have performed an important duty as a conscientious, thinking and concerned citizen in a democracy. You will also have demonstrated more courage than all the members of the godi media fraternity put together.

Wishing you all a fruitful Pariksha Pe Charcha.

Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones. He can be reached at letsempathize@gmail.com

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