1. Nalanda University: A scandal-ridden project
2. The Amartya Sen-JDU-UPA nexus
3. PMO bullied Pranab to toe Amartya line
4. UPA makes Nalanda University a tax haven
Nalanda University: A scandal-ridden project
In a left handed compliment to the Nalanda University, Finance Minister P Chidambaram
endorsed the project in his Budget speech without pledging any funds. This is an anti-climax
after External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid had announced that there would be special
Budgetary provision for the University. A policy statement in a Budget speech without
financial outlay sounds unusual. But being an astute politician, Chidambaram knows how to
keep himself at arms length from a scandal-ridden project.
Highlights of Budget 2013
Nalanda University has been in the news for all the wrong reasons from statutory violations
to arbitrary recruitments to non-transparency. It has survived only on the PMO’s backing,
apart from sentimental hype. The project is run without the approval of Ministry of Finance.
Founding of any autonomous body, Central University, Deemed Universities, Institute of
National Importance, have to go through a process of Finance Ministry’s sanction. Such
proposals have to be appraised by the Expenditure Finance Committee chaired by the
Secretary (Expenditure) irrespective of the outlay or nature of the Ministry/Department.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the administrative ministry of the Nalanda
University, never submitted the project for appraisal to the Finance Ministry. Thus as far as
the Finance Ministry is concerned, it is an ‘illegitimate’ project. His deference to the PM
apart, Chidambaram apparently wanted to avoid becoming part of this provable illegality.
The Nalanda University project was formulated in 2007 when Pranab Mukherjee was the
External Affairs Minister. As a veteran Finance Minister he was fully conversant with the
rules of expenditure appraisal. He also knew that MEA was not authorised to establish or
handle any University project as per Allocation of Business Rules. Yet, why he chose to act in
contravention of the rules remains difficult to comprehend.
Not referring the project for Finance Ministry’s appraisal helped a dubious game. The MEA
having neither authority nor competence to build a University in its 150-year old history
handed over the same to the ‘Nalanda Mentor Group’. The Nalanda Mentor Group, chaired
by Amartya Sen is an ‘unofficial’ motley group of individuals from different nations. It was
later transformed into governing board of the University as per the Nalanda University Act,
2010. Despite passage of more than two years, no regular governing board has been
constituted. Nalanda University is thus being run like a club.
The board members are mostly friends of Sen with similar Harvard-Oxford background.
Sen’s idea of building the University was by delivering flowery speeches. Despite the high
stature he flaunts, he has failed to bring a single penny to the University project. Rather his
flying visits to India by business class and hotel stays are fully paid by the MEA. An RTI
query shows that between October 2010 and October 2012, nearly Rs 25 lakhs have been
spent on him on that account alone. The MEA’s bill on the mentor group as a whole since
2007 runs into several crores. This includes mentor group meetings in Singapore, New York
Sen’s friendly mentor group has plans to control funds accessed from the ASEAN states
without accountability. But developments have disillusioned them. ASEAN States had
endorsed Nalanda University no better than Chidambaram did. They like it but not so much
that they will fund it. Only China has donated Rs 5 crores that could be used only for building
a Chinese style library at Rajgir. The Nalanda University administratively functions out of
Lodhi Estate in New Delhi.
In 2012, the MEA, in its demand for grants, had asked for Rs 600 crore approximately for the
Nalanda University. The Standing Committee on External Affairs, in its wisdom, cut it down
to Rs 15 crore only. The Nalanda University’s wants to be a recipient of Government funds
without being accountable. This is plausible reason why the project was left hanging in
Chidambaram’s speech without Budgetary support.
The Amartya Sen-JDU-UPA nexus
For a long time now Amartya Sen has aired views upon everything except perhaps
economics. He is a ‘historian’, ‘political scientist’, ‘philosopher’, ‘sociologist’, ‘institution
builder’, ‘self-appointed non-resident Chancellor, Nalanda University’ — everything that can
be accomplished with flowery speeches alone has been accomplished by him. He has been
adored by Indians almost as a sage. The Nobel Laureate in Economics (1998) never had any
practical solution for India’s economy in testing times. Neither his economist friend
Manmohan Singh nor his student Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economic Adviser, could leave
it in better shape.
Then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee appointed Amartya Sen as Chairperson of
Nalanda Mentor Group (2007). The project was wholly entrusted to him against the canons of
establishing universities prevalent in India for the past 150 years. The MEA spent almost Rs 2
crore for their meetings in Singapore, Tokyo, New York as the project was formulated in
Amartya Sen never bothered to submit even in three years the detailed project report expected
of him in nine months. The great economist could not even prepare a financial estimate for
the project or bring any funds from abroad. Yet he was made Chairman of the Governing
Board of Nalanda University. And finally the Board, chaired by him, chose him as the
Chancellor in Beijing in 2011. What could be a better way to cling on to power; enjoy flying
trips and luxury hospitality; and get repeated opportunities to preach to lesser mortals of
A courteous media never put uncomfortable questions to him when scandalous appointments
and arbitrary dealings became apparent in Nalanda University. APJ Abdul Kalam, former
President of India, who originally envisioned the project, resigned in disgust. The MEA
suppressed the letter until it was retrieved through an RTI application.
Antipathy for the BJP
Amartya Sen’s recent fulminations against Narendra Modi can be contextualised both
ideologically and politically. Ideologically, like every liberal, Sen is opposed to the BJP. This
is despite the fact that the NDA Government conferred the Bharat Ratna on him. A lover of
laurels he had no qualms about accepting it from a Government he disliked. But he criticised
the BJP from the dais, embarrassing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Amartya Sen was in India for the release of his book “Rationality and Freedom” on the day
the Godhra train massacre happened in 2002. He kept quiet in deference to his ‘secularism’.
It is the same virtue which prods him to be quiet on the rise of Islamists in Bangladesh, a
country he frequently visited.
Politics of obligation
Amartya Sen’s criticism of Narendra Modi is also a product of political sponsorship. It has to
be understood in the perspective of the ‘politics of obligation’ practised within the Amartya
Sen-JD(U)-UPA triangle. The cornerstone of this relationship is vested in the Nalanda
University project. It is this fraudulent project that binds Amartya Sen, UPA and Nitish
Kumar. It extends to supporting the policies of Manmohan Singh’s Government in New Delhi
and Nitish Kumar’s Government in Bihar.
In fact Manmohan Singh and Nitish Kumar are both using Amartya Sen to validate their
policies (including follies). Amartya Sen recently praised the National Food Security Bill,
claiming it is the solution to hunger and malnutrition. He came in for serious criticism. In my
ongoing series on food security I have used Government statistics to establish just the
opposite – PDS coverage will shrink, entitlements might reduce and subsidy burdens will
bloat. Amartya Sen, untouched by the Bihar midday meal horror, continues to praise the
Bihar model of growth. His distributive Bihar model overlooks unspent allocation worth
hundreds of crores of rupees meant for revamping hospitals and providing midday meals.
Sensational silence on corruption
Amartya Sen’s silence on corruption during the UPA’s rule is purposeful. This is because he
has been a beneficiary of the UPA’s arbitrariness and distribution of favours in the form of
total control over the Nalanda University project. Nalanda University has become a private
estate with public money in the name of autonomy.
Amartya Sen appointed his favourite candidate Gopa Sabharwal, who has never taught at the
post-graduate level, as Vice-Chancellor without any selection process. Gopa Sabharwal in
turn appointed her friend and book collaborator Anjana Sharma through an equally arbitrary
process with Amartya Sen’s approval. The only saving grace is that the inchoate university
has failed to attract much foreign funding. Else the group would have been lording over
thousands of crores of rupees. The story of the Nalanda University scandal, deserves to be
PMO bullied Pranab to toe Amartya line
Amartya Sen took special care in installing Dr. Gopa Sabharwal as the Rector/Vice
Chancellor of the Nalanda University. To achieve that end, he seemed to have coaxed the
PMO into bullying the then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee. The episode is
perhaps standalone instance in the annals of Indian bureaucracy- a Foreign Secretary was
used to overturn the decision of a Foreign Minister. That this seems to have been done at the
behest of an ‘interloper’ Amartya Sen is more curious. But thereby, Sen rescued himself from
an embarrassing position that would have unintentionally exposed his sham selection process.
Sen, digressing from his Terms of Reference, recommended three names for the post of
Rector in his letter, i.e., February 6, 2009 to Pranab Mukherjee. They were ‘in order of
suitability’- 1. Dr. Gopa Sabharwal 2. Dr. Ramachandra Guha and Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta.
Sen added in his letter, “When a Rector is identified by you; we would very much like her or
him to join us in the next meeting of the Nalanda Mentor Group in Gaya on February 19 and
Patna on February 20.” Note that in stating ‘her or him’ Amartya Sen implicitly accepts that
the Rector could be one of the three.
As per office procedure, his letter was put up in a sarkari file with one and half page note by
N Ravi, the then Secretary (East), MEA on February 17, 2009. The Secretary (East) was also
an ex-office member of Nalanda Mentor Group. It is humorous that Ravi notes that he has
gone through the bio-data of the three candidates as available on the Internet. This establishes
the fact that bare minimum formalities for selection process like candidates submitting their
CVs was not observed. None of the candidates had submitted their CVs, because none had
actually applied. None had applied because the post was never advertised.
The note was sent directly to the Minister of External Affairs (bypassing Foreign Secretary).
The MEA Pranab Mukherjee, however, slightly changed the order of preference before
referring the case to the Prime Minister for his approval. Mukherjee wrote 1. Ramachandra
Guha 2. Dr. Gopa Sabharwal 3. Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Mukherjee could be easily forgiven.
Seen dispassionately Dr. Ramachandra Guha and Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta are eminent public
scholars whereas, Dr. Sabharwal is hardly an authority even in her academic field. She has
not even taught post-graduation level students. She is not eligible by the UGC standards to be
considered as a Vice Chancellor in any provincial university of India. That requires at least
ten years of Professorship, whereas, she is a Reader in Lady Sri Ram College.
The file resurfaced after remaining in limbo for a fortnight. What had happened behind the
scenes remains a matter of speculation. But the file did not return by normal route. A file
follows the same route down as going up. The Prime Minister, if he were not in agreement
with the MEA should have written ‘please discuss’ or changed the preference on his own
(ideally citing reasons). But strangely, we notice the Principal Secretary (in PMO) handing
over the file to then Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon on March 2, 2009. We know this
from Menon’s note. What the Principal Secretary told Menon is only a matter of guess. His
note states that MEA better accepts Amartya Sen’s recommendation viz. Dr. Gopa Sabharwal.
She becomes the ‘sole’ choice of Sen.
Menon sent the file up to Pranab Mukherjee who (in reversal of his earlier stance) readily
signed on Amartya’s choice. A cautious Pranab marked the file to Principal Secretary, PMO
rather than to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister got the file through his Principal
Secretary and approved the name of Dr. Gopa Sabharwal on March 4. Meanwhile, Sen in his
letter, i.e., February 6, 2009, was apparently not rigid about his choice. He had referred to
‘her or him’. But when Pranab Mukherjee actually recommended Ramachandra Guha, it
seemed to have upset Amartya’s applecart. How could Ramachandra Guha be appointed since
he was a dummy candidate! He and Pratap Bhanu Mehta were either never contacted or never
given their consent. Amartya’s ‘selection’ would have been exposed if the MEA contacted
either of them.
Sen’s real agenda was to install Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, who was not even eligible for the post.
The haphazard manner in which N Ravi’s note travelled up and down exposes the sham. But
interestingly, neither the MEA nor the PMO questioned the legitimacy of Sen’s selection
process or probed into its details. Nobody has authorised him to select anyone for any post in
the University that was yet to be established. The Nalanda University Act, 2010 authorises
the Visitor (i.e. the President of India) to appoint the Vice Chancellor. However, how Prime
Minister approved the appointment of Vice Chancellor is difficult to guess. In fact, it only
proves why almost everything about Nalanda University is so farcical. Interestingly today,
Pranab Mukherjee is the Visitor to Nalanda University.
UPA makes Nalanda University a tax haven
During the week, the humblest tax-payer in India grappled with the nitty-gritty of e-filing of
IT-returns (AY 2013-14) the UPA Government gifted a virtual ‘tax haven’ status to the
Nalanda University. The prospective academic biggies of the Nalanda University will benefit
from the decision at the cost of taxpayers. This might not fit the exact definition of the term
used in the financial world. But those tax havens at least have some financial brains and
benefit from other people’s money. But here is a curious case where the Government of India
would allow tax exemption to foreign and Indian academic staff of Nalanda University after
paying them extraordinarily high salaries out of the public exchequer.
The Cabinet had cleared the decision on June 28. A Headquarters Agreement to this effect
was signed between Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai and Amartya Sen, Chancellor, Nalanda
University on July 21, 2013. Journalist Tavleen Singh who fortuitously was present at the Taj
Hotel that Sunday had wondered at the tamasha. In her column, Our Socialist Royalty, she
wonders why the ceremony was being held in a plush hotel rather than Bihar Bhawan.
As one who has tracked the Nalanda University project for the last few years, I am hardly
surprised. The Nalanda Mentor Group meetings (on which MEA splurged around Rs 2 crore
in 2007-08) were also held in plush hotels of Singapore, Tokyo and New York. There was
little willingness of the part of Amartya-led mentor group to even to tour Nalanda district.
They visited Nalanda as late as February, 2009. They were not bothered about the grainy
realities of Nalanda district while holding meetings in Singapore, Tokyo and New York. Then
suddenly our Vice Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal and her friend turned OSD (Official on
Special Duty) Anjana Sharma realised that toilet facilities were not appropriate in Rajgir (the
spot chosen for Nalanda University).
This lack of facility was cited before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs (in 2012) as
a prime reason for Nalanda University functioning from New Delhi. It is a pity that Sen’s
much vaunted Bihar model of development could not produce tolerable toilet facilities in
Theoretically, there was nothing wrong if tax exemptions were granted when a number of
east Asian states were providing money to Nalanda University’s kitty. But that dream has
soured long ago. No foreign nation has come forward to commit any money to the project.
China donated merely $1 million (Rs 5 crore then) in November, 2011 to be used exclusively
for building a Chinese style library. Donations — mostly pledged, not given — are hardly
mention-worthy. Most of the nations have nice encouraging words, since they cost nothing.
For all practical purposes, it is the Government of India that funds the Nalanda University.
Allowing high salaries is apparently not enough for attracting the best faculty. They have also
to be allowed tax exemption.
But, pity, where are the students going to come from? Has any survey been done on which
nations are likely to send their children to Nalanda University? There is no such study. It is
the perfect example of ‘Amartyanomics’ — high on spurious assumptions, deficient at
ground-level work. The faculty recruitment in Nalanda University will reportedly commence
soon. But one wonders why no rules and procedures for faculty selection have been
formulated in the statutes of the University. Is this not an indication that arbitrariness and
favouritism will have a field day at Nalanda University, as is evident by the appointment of
the Vice Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal?
The ancient Nalanda University which produced an illustrious line of scholars, including
Arya Deva, Dharmapala, Chandra Gomin, Shilbhadra, Shantarakshita, Padmasambhava
Buddhakirti and Atish Dipankar was known for giving to the world. They all practiced
humble living and high thinking. In fact, the most popular meaning of Nalanda is ‘giving
incessantly’. But the mandarins of the current Nalanda University believe in ‘taking
incessantly’. Tax exemption is the latest. The tax-payers will underwrite the largesse.