While appreciating their felt need to locate a common ground in order to oppose the Modi Government, the Opposition chief ministers, participating in a virtual meeting on Wednesday, were wrong to latch on to a subject which vitally impinges on the future of a large segment of our student population. Deigning to speak for nearly two million young boys and girls who are duly registered to sit for NEET and JEE tests for admission to engineering and medical courses, they asked for its postponement till the Covid-19 pandemic is under control. In other words, they virtually suggested that the enrolled candidates waste a year, at the minimum. Since there is no knowing when the pandemic will be finally defeated, there can be no guarantee that next year’s entrance exam too can be held, that is, if one were to follow their logic. It is not that the authorities entrusted with the task of conducting these exams are unaware of the pandemic. They have pressed ahead with the decision to hold these tests next month after duly putting in place a slew of precautionary measures. The number of test centres is being increased, there will be staggered testing spread over more shifts, provision of big and airy classrooms with fewer students in order to maintain social distancing, etc. As for transport for the examinees, given the advance notice, it is hoped that they will be able to make their own arrangements wherever regular means of travel are not yet available. In any case, those unwilling or unable to take the tests are always free to enroll themselves for the same test next year. In short, the Opposition made a poor case for the indefinite postponement of the JEE and NEET tests. It is heartening to note that the Centre is committed to conduct the tests as scheduled next month, having already postponed these twice, once in April, and another time to July, due to the pandemic. Any further postponement would result in a waste of a full academic year and also upset the schedule for admissions to professional colleges for the next couple of years. This cannot be a desirable outcome for anyone, neither for students nor educational institutions. Meanwhile, the unintended objective behind the meeting seemed to be to try and bring together various Opposition parties for offering a united fight against the Modi Government. Chief Ministers of Maharashtra, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Punjab, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Puducherry participated in the virtual meeting with Sonia Gandhi presiding. Two days after the tumultuous meeting of the Congress Working Committee where she quelled a nascent rebellion by a number of partymen, this was the first occasion the interim president of the largest Opposition group claimed the leadership of a potential united front against the BJP-led Centre.
However, gone was some of the haughtiness that she customarily displayed. In particular, the incipient challenge to her move to install Rahul Gandhi as party chief has eroded her authority in her own party. This revealed itself in her insistent pleas to Mamata Banerjee to preside over the meeting, which the West Bengal Chief Minister declined. The declining fortunes of the Congress and a show of internal disunity seems to have forced the Gandhis to show humility if they have to fight the big fight against Modi. Though it is early days yet, a united front against Modi could well take shape in the coming weeks and months, especially when there is commonality on a number of grievances. The failure of the Centre to give the committed GST compensation to the states is one major complaint. That the Centre’s own finances are hugely stretched due to the pandemic does not undo the promise to compensate the states. (The meeting of the GST Council on Thursday discussed the matter.) A number of other issues to take on the government when the Parliament meets next month were mentioned at the Opposition meeting. This is not to suggest the path for a cohesive force to challenge Modi is now clear. It is not. Several pitfalls lie in the way, not the least of them being the choice of the Opposition candidate for Prime Minister.