In February of this year, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won its third mandate to govern the Indian state of Delhi, comprising the city of that name and its immediate surroundings. The AAP is a maverick political party born in the wake of a decade-old anticorruption campaign. To the surprise of many, it defeated the Hindu nationalist anti-Muslim campaign waged during the election campaign by the BJP, Narendra Modi’s governing national party. Survival of the AAP government is more than a regional election in a (relatively) minor state with a population of 20 million; potentially, it is a major event in Indian politics. But first, a digression on Hamlet.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the tradition of the unreliable narrator. For four centuries, people have debated what he intended as the “something rotten” in Denmark to which the guard Marcellus alerts Horatio after the appearance of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. In the next scene the Ghost denounces his brother Claudius who has usurped the throne:

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts –
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce! – won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen:
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!

One interpretation of rot in the state of India is that Modi is a “beast” who has “seduced” the “seeming-virtuous” people of India. “What a falling-off was there” from religious tolerance as preached by Gandhi, now abandoned by the Hindu majority, who are indulging a “shameful lust” that entails persecution of Muslims. The rightful king of India (whoever is the present leader of the Congress Party) has been assassinated – literally in the case of Rajiv Gandhi (killed in 1991), figuratively at other times.

More or less, this is the interpretation of Indian politics among cosmopolitan liberals. A good example is Asim Ali, writing in the New York Times under the headline “Modi lost the Delhi Election. It Doesn’t Matter.”1 Why doesn’t it matter? Because Modi’s Hindutva and intolerance of Muslims define the present state of Indian politics. The fact that the Delhi election winner chose not to challenge Modi’s discriminatory citizenship law and instead campaigned on quality of public services is proof that Modi has won the ideological debate over religious tolerance.

Shakespeare’s villains are never one-dimensional. Claudius may have assassinated Prince Hamlet’s father and usurped the throne, but he is portrayed throughout the play as a competent ruler.  Perhaps Hamlet’s father (the assassinated king) and the usurper Claudius are both rotten. Shakespeare lived in the 16th and early 17th centuries, a time of religious wars across Europe, which resulted in multiple acts of regicide in a context of rampant papal corruption. The usurper was usually neither better nor worse than the usurped. In 20th- and early 21st-century India, Congress tolerated political corruption on such a massive scale and for so many decades that a plurality of Indians have become as disgusted with it as 16th- and 17th-century Protestant Europeans were with the papacy. Apparently Indians are willing to be governed, at the national level, by the BJP, which may – or may not – govern the country more efficiently. Worth noting, the AAP not only defeated the BJP’s attempt to mould the Delhi election into an affirmation of Hindutva and opposition to Islam, but also decimated the Congress. Of 70 seats in the Delhi legislature, the AAP won 62, the BJP 8 and Congress 0. For many, the BJP’s introduction of a discriminatory citizenship law that grants citizenship to all religious refugees other than Muslims is a minor matter relative to the abysmal state of public services in much of India.

A government focused on public services

Soutik Biswas, the BBC correspondent in India, interprets the AAP victory much as I do. In one of several stories he wrote on the AAP reelection, he summarized: “Rather than being seen as a vote against the BJP, Kejriwal’s comfortable win owes more to the triumph of welfarism and effective governance – revamping state-run schools and health clinics, and providing cheap water and electricity.”2

Asim Ali acknowledged that “Mr. Kejriwal, an anti-graft activist turned politician, focused the electoral campaign of his party on his record of governance – the significant improvement he made to the delivery of services in public hospitals, the quality of education and infrastructure in schools, and the cost of electricity in Delhi.” Nonetheless, the victory “doesn’t matter” because the rot in India is simple: it is Hindutva and hostility to Islam. As an aside, Ali would be more convincing in affirming that the rot in India is primarily religious bigotry if he generalized his thesis to include criticism of Pakistan and – with more qualifications – Bangladesh.

Biswas and Ali agree on one thing: the AAP is a party led by earnest middle-class professionals primarily interested in better social services. Kejriwal is a former accountant. Atishi, the most prominent AAP spokesperson on behalf of better government schools, has a degree from Oxford. If readers want a Canadian parallel, the 1944–64 Saskatchewan government of Tommy Douglas and his successor Woodrow Lloyd (minister of education for 17 years before becoming premier and successfully implementing medicare) comes to mind. It was an earnest government led primarily by a charismatic preacher and several very smart teachers and farmers. For two decades it pioneered multiple social programs that were adopted across Canada in the 1960s. The progressive movement in the United States prior to World War I, largely motivated by middle-class disgust with the post–Civil War era of corrupt Tammany Hall politics, is another parallel.

The heart of the AAP’s raison d’être is better schools. The AAP has spent much more on schools than its predecessors but, more important, most of its senior leaders are obsessive about improving and decentralizing school management, empowering teachers as professionals and assessing school outcomes. In 2019, AAP leaders trumpeted the result, unthinkable a decade earlier, that students in Delhi government secondary schools were marginally ahead of the average performance in Delhi private schools.

The AAP victory over the BJP and Congress is encouraging, but its breach in conventional Indian politics is fragile. There is little evidence that the major political parties are willing to undertake self-criticism and constrain, if not eliminate, the complex web of corruption, patronage and electoral intimidation that has characterized politics in the subcontinent for the last half-century. The result of weak governance has been a shamefully weak set of social programs, especially with regard to schools.

The “shameful history” of Indian government schools3

In the century before India became independent in 1947, several commissions assessed the daunting task of organizing universal education in the subcontinent. The last initiative prior to independence was the Sargent Committee in 1944. It recommended an agenda stretching over four decades:

  • free and compulsory basic education of five years for all children aged 6 to 11, to be realized within four decades;
  • compulsory senior basic education of three years for four-fifths of the children aged 11 to 14;
  • secondary education, with a duration of six years, for the age group 11–17 for approximately one out of every five children who completed the primary school.

At the time, adult literacy was 18 per cent and only a quarter of school-age children were attending a school. Post-independence, Indian political leaders scorned the committee’s four-decade timetable. The first Five Year Plan reduced the time for realizing the committee’s first goal from four decades to one.

Far from achieving universal basic education in one decade, India proved the Sargent Committee’s timetable wildly overoptimistic. Seven decades after independence, the Lok Sabha (national parliament) continues to enact legislation and set ambitious targets – which it consistently fails to meet. The most recent major legislative initiative, the 2009 Right to Education Act, stipulates a right to “free and compulsory” education for children aged 6 to 14. In great detail, Rangachar Govinda and A. Mathew discuss the laws, commissions and five-year plans from the 1940s to the present. They reach the depressing conclusion that “through the decades … political leaders set specific targets and time frames … but these remained unmet every time.”4 This conclusion is shared by nearly all who have studied education policy in South Asia.

Following the launch of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in 2000, India and other South Asian countries responded with improvements in school inputs: more teachers (which allowed for reductions in student/teacher ratios), school improvements (such as toilets, books, electricity) and higher teacher salaries. India, Bangladesh and Nepal claim to have more or less fulfilled the “letter” of MDG2 – universal primary education by 2015 – but they did not fulfil its “spirit.” Enrolment of the primary-age cohort is now over 90 per cent in India and Bangladesh (but not Pakistan), and primary completion rates are about 80 per cent. However, “free and compulsory” education has not led to a better-educated young generation. Governments achieved high completion rates by lowering standards in government schools. In general, the quality of Indian primary education in government schools remains shamefully low.

How low? An indirect measure is the flight from government schools among those with some discretionary income. In the most recent survey by the Indian nongovernmental organization ASER (see box above) in 2018, the share of sampled children attending government primary schools has declined to 64 per cent. In other words, more than a third of all rural children now attend a nongovernment school. In the cities the share is probably higher.

A key ASER benchmark is the share of sampled Grade 3 students “working at grade level.” Nationally, the average is 27 per cent in terms of reading, and 28 per cent in arithmetic. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate progress through the five elementary grades in terms of ability to undertake the reading and arithmetic problems drawn from the Grade 2 curriculum of the relevant state. The ASER statistics illustrated are the national average for all school types. (For reasons explained below I have added the analogous average progress for West Bengal students and for an NGO school in northern Bangladesh.) There is a very large difference between average performance in government relative to nongovernment schools. Among Grade 3 students in government schools, only 21 per cent are reading at grade level, as opposed to 41 per cent in nongovernment schools. With respect to arithmetic, the comparable statistics are 21 per cent in government schools and 44 per cent in nongovernment schools.

There are many qualifications to make, but they do not seriously blunt the conclusion: government primary education in India is, as my colleagues and I concluded in an earlier Inroads article, a “shameful failure.”5 Some of the gap between government and nongovernment student assessments can be attributed to differences in family characteristics. Parents of children in nongovernment schools have higher incomes on average and, more important, are more likely to be literate. Having a literate parent is the most important family determinant of whether children achieve literacy as adults. Also, while average outcomes in nongovernment schools are dramatically better than in government schools, there is much variance among nongovernment schools. For example, Bangladesh national assessments indicate that madrassa students perform below the level of students in government schools.

An NGO school in northern Bangladesh

I am one of several Canadian volunteers who have supported an NGO school adjacent to a “cluster village” in Nilphamari, a remote district in northern Bangladesh close to the Indian border. Cluster villages are a form of social housing in Bangladesh for families of rural labourers who own no land. The nearest government primary school is at a distance of several kilometres. The NGO school began six years ago in an old building with one classroom that, in a squeeze, accommodated 50 students and a second that accommodated 10 students sitting elbow to elbow around one large table in the middle of the room. Enrolment rose, so we operated morning and afternoon shifts. In 2018, we decided to build a new school with five classrooms, a latrine, a teachers’ room and a dedicated recreational area. Someone – I don’t remember who – decided to call it Bluebell.

In February 2020, we organized an in-home survey using the ASER protocol to assess basic reading and arithmetic.6 The sample included 57 children from the cluster village in grades 1–5, roughly two thirds of present enrolment in the school. (The survey found a small number of children who attended a government school. Their performance was very weak.) The sample is minute relative to the large ASER surveys conducted in India. Its primary value is feedback to Bluebell teachers on student progress. And yet, despite being a sample of one small school, perhaps there are tentative conclusions to draw from the school as a case study.

To begin, the relationship between Bangladesh and the adjacent Indian state of West Bengal is somewhat similar to that between Wallonia and France: separate countries with the same language and many shared cultural references. At least in the early primary grades, West Bengal dominates India’s national reading results; for the final two grades the regional and national results converge. In reading, Bluebell’s performance clearly outpaces the outcomes in West Bengal and India overall, in all grades. In arithmetic there are inversions: West Bengal and Indian students overall outperform Bluebell in Grades 1 and 2; West Bengal and Bluebell are essentially equal in Grade 3; and Bluebell students progress more quickly in Grades 4 and 5 than do students in West Bengal or India overall.

Why are Bluebell students faring better than the average student in West Bengal?

On average, children in nongovernment schools in India come from families with higher incomes than children in government schools, and that partly explains the superior nongovernment outcomes in ASER surveys. That cannot be the explanation here. The majority of children in our sample live in families where neither parent can read. There is also no doubt that family incomes in our sample are below the average in West Bengal.7

The NGO school has benefited from consistent donations by Canadian volunteers, which have enabled hiring an appropriate number of teachers. With five teachers for the 85 students in the primary school, there is an attractive student:teacher ratio of 1:17.8 Nevertheless, it is hard to make a case for generous foreign donations as the explanation. The NGO pays teachers at only half the level of government primary teachers. Hence, annual Bluebell per-pupil costs, including overhead costs, are under US$200 – which is roughly 25 per cent below comparable government spending per primary school student.

If pressed to explain Bluebell’s relative performance, I resort to the old saying among education administrators: “The three most important factors in any school are teachers, teachers and teachers; everything else is minor.” Bluebell has benefited from its ability to attract teachers motivated to teach. The NGO leadership of Bluebell has tried to follow the Bangladesh school curriculum while treating teachers as professionals. Bluebell should not rest on its achievement. It has outperformed ASER’s West Bengal statistics, but the ASER reading and arithmetic thresholds are hardly demanding. A good school is more than ASER expectations.

To conclude, if the BBC Delhi correspondent and I are right in our interpretation of what is “rotten in the state of India,” and if electorates in the rest of South Asia want to replicate AAP outcomes – both assumptions are debatable – citizens must tackle the ongoing damage wrought by conventional politicians.


1 Modi Lost in Delhi. It Doesn’t Matter. New York Times, February 12, 2020.

2 Soutik Biswas, Delhi Election: Is the Verdict a Vote against Narendra Modi?, BBC News, February 11, 2020.

3 Much of this section is drawn from a forthcoming book on schools in South Asia. The authors include John Richards, Manzoor Ahmed and Mohammad Shahidur Islam.

4 Rangachar Govinda and A. Mathew, Universalisation of Elementary Education in India: Story of Missed Targets and Unkept Promises, Working Paper CSD 1/2018 (New Delhi: Council for Social Development, 2018), p. 7.

5 John Richards, Mohammad Shahidur Islam and Manzoor Ahmed, Why Is South Asia Poor? The Role of Primary Education,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2018.

6 A summary of the survey is accessible at the description of Bluebell on the website of Oasis for Prosperity.

7 The majority of sampled families assessed their food security as the lowest of four categories (“always in deficit with respect to income for food”). All but one of the remaining families chose the second lowest (“sometimes in deficit with respect to income for food”).

8 A sixth teacher is in charge of a separate preschool.