At just 29 years old, Varun Gandhi is widely regarded as a rising star in his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP, which could sweep to power in India’s upcoming national elections when the results are announced on May 16th, is a Hindu nationalist party with a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Recently Gandhi caused uproar when he was caught on tape using such rhetoric. In the aftermath it was discovered that he had lied about academic credentials from the London School of Economics (LSE) and the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), both constituent colleges of the University of London.
The young Gandhi is an asset to the BJP because he is a high-level defector. His family is a political dynasty in the Congress Party, the secularist party currently holding on to power with a thin majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament). His aunt Sonia Gandhi is currently leader of the Congress. Additionally, his grandmother is the late former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (Congress) and his great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first Prime Minister of India (Congress). After a family feud, Gandhi and his mother joined the BJP in 2004. (He explains his conversion to the BJP in a 2005 interview with the BBC.)
In contrast to his usually soft demeanor when speaking to the media in English, Gandhi recently made a series of fiery Hindi speeches in Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh, where he is the BJP’s candidate for the Lok Sabha. In them he threatens violence against Muslims, saying for example that after the election the “Lotus Hand” (the BJP’s emblem) would cut the throats of the “circumcised.” That is of course a derogatory reference to Muslims that has more or less the same effect as the ‘N’-word in American politics. A video is available here from IBN, and it is not pretty to watch.
Gandhi has been censured by the national Electoral Commission and was arrested on March 28th on charges of inciting communal violence. He maintains his innocence and claims that the tapes were doctored to make his remarks sound worse than they were. The BJP issued a statement “dissociating” itself from Gandhi’s comments but affirming that he remains its candidate for Pilibhit. There is concern in some (centrist and leftist) circles that the media circus surrounding Gandhi will increase his popularity with the far right by allowing him to claim to be a martyr on the national stage.
Predictably, there are those who believe that Gandhi was merely telling a harsh truth and that the media’s bias is the only thing keeping his remarks alive as a news story. (If you speak Hindi, see this unintentionally funny Youtube video exegesis which tries to exonerate Gandhi by carefully analyzing the difference between “raising a hand” and “raising a finger” against someone.)
The lack of any apology on Gandhi’s part angered a number of people, who gathered signatures for a petition allowing alumni of the LSE and SOAS to condemn the remarks of their fellow-alumnus Varun Gandhi.
The only problem is, as Raghu Karnad discovered, that Gandhi is not really an alumnus of either institution. He was never officially part of the student body at the LSE (rather he participated in a distance learning program after having been denied admission to the normal course) and he dropped out of SOAS before receiving the MSc he claimed he had earned. This has now been confirmed by officials at both colleges. Karnad wrote a piece in Outlook India arguing that Varun Gandhi is the antithesis of the liberal values of LSE and SOAS.
Unfortunately for Gandhi, he made these claims in a court petition, which means that he could be charged with perjury. Still, his exaggerations are not as bad as other recent blow ups around the world:
- Ali Kordan, a long-serving Interior Minister of Iran, was forced out of the government after his Oxford doctorate was exposed as an absurdly crude fake (having been issued by the non-existent “London Oxford University”) and he attempted to bribe MPs not to impeach him.
- A few years ago, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress claimed to have a doctorate from “East Georgia University,” which is no more real than London Oxford University.
- H. James Wasser, the Superintendent of Public Schools in Freehold, NJ was recently discovered to have bought a fake PhD.
But why did they do it, asks the Times of India. In Gandhi’s case, the mention of the degrees was ironically in a court filing which presented his (false) academic qualifications as evidence that he was an upstanding citizen. Perhaps others do it for reasons of pride. Sometimes fake diplomas can help in the job market, as in the case of “Dr.” Vikramjeet Singh, who used his fake medical degree to work in a Delhi hospital until he was found out.
People are able to perpetrate such frauds because the entire system of academic qualifications runs mostly on trust and much less on government inspection. That trust is often broken: India’s University Grants Commission has published a list of 22 fake universities in India that issue degrees without accreditation. In the United States, such organizations are known as “diploma mills” (click the link for the NYT’s account of one egregious example) and are able to flourish because the national Department of Education does not accredit universities. Thus, in states where there are not stringent laws regulating how academic qualifications are granted, almost anyone can start printing degrees.
And then of course there is the problem of honorary degrees, which is big business since universities often reward donors by giving them an honorary PhD. Of course, one is supposed to always mention that the degree is honorary but being called “Dr So-and-So” has an allure.
The issue of Varun Gandhi’s academic qualifications and his anti-Muslim attitudes are two different matters, but both involve a similar deception. In the 2005 BBC interview mentioned above, Gandhi claims to have seen no “minority-bashing” in the BJP, and yet here he is five years later, unmistakably doing just that.
[The article has been corrected from the original version. Raghu Karnad was misidentified as an LSE alumnus because of an incorrect newswire report. We regret the error.]