Kalam's world-view, a critique

Print edition : June 22, 2002

Abdul Kalam's viewpoint on nuclear and strategic issues is a technocratic and hawkish one that is more in tune with, and provides support to, the jingoistic agenda of an ideological-political formation whose political arm is the Bharatiya Janata Party.

IT is by now almost certain that Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam will be India's 11th President. Notwithstanding the opposition of the Left parties, the substantial political consensus in support of his candidature, including that of an initially reluctant Congress party, has ensured that the electoral contest will be merely symbolic in character.

Kalam, at extreme right, with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Defence Minister George Fernandes and others at Pokhran a few days after the May 1998 nuclear explosions at the site.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The presidency in India is not an executive one and the President has no direct influence on matters of government policy. Nevertheless, the first citizen's public utterances or private inputs to the government of the day can have a not inconsiderable weight in special circumstances, particularly in moments of constitutional or national crises. Thus quite apart from the symbolism associated with the choice of a particular individual, his or her eminence as a public figure, and the positive or negative aspects of personal style, the policy vision and general world-view of prospective incumbents of Rashtrapati Bhavan are of some importance.

Kalam was a well-known figure on the national scene even before 1998, honoured by the nation for his many contributions to India's space programme as well as his role in guiding its programme of missile development. But it was his role in the conduct of the nuclear weapons tests at Pokhran in May 1998, and the euphoric recognition that he received in its aftermath, including the award of the Bharat Ratna, that made him the the national figure that he is perceived to be today. Subsequently, he has been generally perceived as one of the architects of India's nuclear weaponisation and strategic missile programmes and as the leading personality of a new era of technology development that is closely tied to and primarily driven by strategic concerns.

Kalam's vision on matters of national security is, therefore, of more than academic interest and his views could well constitute serious input into governmental decision-making on critical occasions. In this connection, one may recall that Kalam is one of the 'fathers' of the Indian bomb, in more than a merely technical sense. Kalam was one in a small group of leading scientists from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), who lobbied strongly for the exercise of the nuclear option and the conduct of the nuclear weapons tests. In the words of The New York Times correspondent John F. Burns, Kalam's colleagues "coined the word 'kalamitous' to capture the outspokenness with which Kalam greeted each new delay in the tests, or in getting the money to develop the missiles to deliver the nuclear bombs" (The New York Times, May 20, 1998). More authoritatively, in the aftermath of Pokhran-II, former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda recalled that when he was in office, the 'scientists' had requested him to approve the nuclear tests. In his letter of May 15, 1998 to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, he said: " I was requested to make a decision to conduct fresh nuclear tests. I convinced the scientists that the time was not ripe..." Kalam, as the head of the DRDO at that time, must clearly have been one of the scientists.

Speaking in Bangalore on February 23, 1998, on the eve of the coming to power of a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre Kalam observed: " The Indian leadership has always believed that the most up-to-date technologies, including nuclear ones, should be used to strengthen the country's defence potential. In the light of the fact that active work on mass destruction weapons is now under way in one of the countries neighbouring India, we cannot allow our country to lag behind in scientific, experimental and designing work for defence purposes..." (Itar-Tass report, reproduced on the website of the Acronym Institute at https://www.acronym.org). With hindsight, the ambiguity of the term experimental is more than evident, given the other evidence that we have of the scientists' drive for the exercise of the nuclear option.

Following the nuclear weapons tests, Kalam was at his euphoric best at the press conference conducted by the DAE and the DRDO on May 17, 1998. The joint press statement of the DAE and the DRDO claimed that the two organisations had "effectively and efficiently coordinated and integrated their technological strengths in a national mission to confer the country with a capability to vacate nuclear threats." Further, at the same press conference, Kalam claimed that the "process of nuclear weaponisation is complete."

Subsequent events have proved the first claim to be spectacularly wrong. The claim, of course, could never be taken seriously in the context of the global nuclear weapons scenario. But even in subcontinental terms, the quick Pakistani response in the form of the Chagai tests, the subsequent further deterioration of India-Pakistan relations due to nuclear weaponisation, the exchange of nuclear threats during the Kargil conflict and the high level of nuclear threats exchanged during the current military stand-off, have made it clear that the nuclear threat, far from being "vacated", has taken root in the subcontinent with a vengeance.

Asked by the media recently about the Pakistani nuclear threat, Kalam brushed it aside, claiming that India's no-first-use posture was justified by its "capability to retaliate with multiple effect" (The Hindustan Times, January 24, 2002). According to the same report, Kalam claimed that "India, with a billion people, had all 'weapons' to face any situation." In later remarks that were made in a similar vein, he suggested that India's response to Pakistan would be four times stronger (The Hindu, April 13, 2002).

In the light of the concern expressed worldwide, including in India, about the dangers of a nuclear exchange in the subcontinent, Kalam's remarks indicate a remarkable underestimation of Pakistan's capability to inflict nuclear damage and the potential disastrous consequences for millions of Indians, irrespective of whether India could strike back or not. As other observers have noted, this attitude has been typical of many sections of the Indian elite in the recent period.

The second claim regarding the completion of nuclear weaponisation, even if it was toned down subsequently, undoubtedly set the stage for the extraordinary degree of confusion on the Indian political scene regarding what precisely had been achieved by the tests. Firstly, it lent the false veneer of a 'scientific' justification to the argument that India's nuclear weaponisation was irreversible and was a fait accompli, and that even if weaponisation gave rise to the danger of nuclear threats, it was a price that the nation had no option but to pay.

The claim helped promote confusion over what genuine nuclear weaponisation meant and what it would cost, both in terms of nuclear weapons themselves and in terms of related investments in delivery systems and command-and-control mechanisms and related increases in conventional weapons expenditure. This claim, together with claims of having achieved fusion weapon capabilities, was the first in a series of statements that promoted the belief that India had somehow achieved nuclear superpower status and gave an exaggerated impression of India's nuclear capabilities, leading in part to the absurdly hawkish Draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine. In the international arena, this and subsequent statements on India's nuclear weapons capabilities set the stage for the surrender of several principled positions on the question of nuclear disarmament.

The political and strategic understanding underlying Kalam's enthusiasm for nuclear weapons and weaponisation is, going by available evidence, disturbingly simplistic. On the strategic plane, Kalam has rarely, if ever, publicly engaged with issues such as deterrence or questions of nuclear strategy. In an interview to Frontline (issue of September 12, 1998), when asked whether India's nuclear deterrence would guarantee the country's security and whether the deterrent was "aimed at Pakistan or China", Kalam replied that "the minimum deterrent required is that which deters our adversaries the maximum"- a hawkish reply that does not appear particularly illuminating.

On the more general political-historical plane, from the immediate post-Pokhran period, Kalam has returned repeatedly to the picture of an India that has always been at the mercy of the foreign invader despite its unswerving adherence to the path of peace and that now needs to pursue strategic strength in general and nuclear weaponisation in particular in order to preserve its independence.

In an interview to Pritish Nandy on Rediff on the Net, October 31, 1998, he says: " In 3,000 years of our history, people from all over the world have come and invaded us, captured our lands, conquered our minds. From Alexander onwards. The Greeks, the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Dutch, all of them came and looted us and took over what was ours. Yet we have not done this to anyone. We have not grabbed their land, their culture, their history or tried to enforce our way of life on them. Why? Because we repect the freedom of others." Further on in the same interview he says: "I have a third vision. That India must stand up to the world. Because I believe that unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. In this world, fear has no place. Only strength respects strength. We must be strong not only as a military power but also as an economic power. Both must go hand in hand."

The tenor of Kalam's remarks on this issue has been quite consistent over the years since Pokhran-II. Indeed, even the words used have been nearly identical on more than one occasion.

The unqualified exaltation of strategic strength, together with economic power, as the essence of the meaning of the terms independence and freedom is an essential element of Kalam's world-view.

Kalam, unlike some other pro-nuclear weapons scientists and strategic analysts, has never acknowledged, even after he ceased to be in government, that the lobbying by scientists in favour of exercising the nuclear option amounted to an attempt to force a change in an existing policy line, a change that many successive governments were unwilling to undertake. But the remarks quoted above, together with his one-sided playing up of the scientists' mandate to undertake purely technical development of various aspects of nuclear weapons, suggest that his own personal views were clearly at odds with several basic features of India's long-standing nuclear policy, including the Nehruvian vision that had provided its basic framework.

Clearly, Kalam's viewpoint is more in tune with, and provides support to, the jingoistic agenda of the ideological-political formation whose political arm is the BJP. In this light, the choice of Abdul Kalam as its Presidential candidate and the immediate welcome that it received from organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Shiv Sena and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is unsurprising. One may add here that on the part of the Congress party its well-known hesitation to take a firm stand against the nuclear weaponisation programme of the BJP-led government and its reluctance on occasion to confront ultra-nationalist tendencies have also contributed in some measure to its eventual support to Abdul Kalam's candidature.

Hawkish viewpoints, such as Kalam's, typically make little or no attempt to respond seriously to those who are genuinely concerned about nuclear weaponisation and are opposed to it politically. In a rare public outburst following the anti-nuclear weapons protests throughout the country on August 8, 1998, Kalam berated the protestors: "These so-called intellectuals... should have held demonstrations in Washington and Moscow to put pressure on those governments. Once those countries become zero-level [in the number of warheads], then everyone becomes zero-level" (The Times of India, August 9, 1998).

This essentially technocratic and hawkish vision of nuclear and strategic issues that has little input from an understanding of the nuances of history or politics appears to carry over to other aspects of Kalam's thinking.

DEVELOPMENT has been, in Kalam's words, his 'second great vision for India', and the book, India 2020: Vision for the New Millennium, that he co-authored with Y.S. Rajan is a detailed exploration of the subject in the Kalam style. A striking feature of the book is its virtual refusal to engage with the problem of social and economic inequalities in any depth. In the case of prospective incumbents of Rashtrapathi Bhavan who have a record of political activity, one may discern the broad contours of their opinion on the central questions of caste, class and gender in Indian society from their general political affiliation and record. But in the case of technologist-administrator, particularly those from the strategic sector like Kalam, who have a strong tradition of remaining silent in public on such issues while in government service and who often lay claim to a totally apolitical role in Indian society, it is surely a matter of general concern that their views on the most important social and political questions of Indian society are known to some degree. Kalam's book, on the contrary, is steadfastly apolitical in this sense.

The central idea in Kalam's vision is that all that development requires, apart from technical planning, is a gigantic summoning up of national faith and will, a kind of collective heave-ho to get our society moving, that would, within the space of 20 years, transform India into a developed nation.

Kalam's vision is a strange one, in which the public sector, after suitably reforming itself, would work in partnership with multinational corporations (even they are not excluded from joining in this exercise of the national will to develop India), the philosophy of self-reliance of the 1960s would co-exist with the liberalisation of the 1990s, and the rich would work in partnership with the poor. In this vision all that stands in the way of providing, for instance, health care for all, is only the lack of faith that it can be done and the provision of technical solutions for specific health problems. All such issues, it appears, would be solved by a combination of 'punyatmas', 'punyadhikaris' and 'punyanetas', who would, in a synergic partnership with the government, take India forward into the brave new millenium.

This vision, where the wolves would lie with the lambs and transform India by 2020 into a land of milk and honey, might justifiably appear less than convincing to a citizen worrying about the Narmada dam issue, the Enron problem (even the vision for electric power can be accomplished in Kalam's scheme if only we 'will' ourselves into becoming a developed nation), the dismantling of the public sector, the stagnation in agriculture and the rise in poverty after liberalisation, or the Gujarat riots.

Clearly, Kalam draws on his personal experience in outlining this view of how development could be accelerated. But he seems oblivious to the possibility that his vision and style, which enabled him to manage projects like the SLV-3 successfully or enthuse an organisation like the DRDO to give of its best, might not be amenable to being scaled up to dealing with the development of the nation as a whole.

There are, to be sure, positive features in the micro-details of what Abdul Kalam would like to see happen in India. He is concerned about education. He is concerned with the welfare of children, and he is keen to inspire them to work in science and technology. He is genuinely inspired by the ideal of self-reliance. Having worked on projects that suffered under U.S.-inspired sanctions, he knows what self-reliance really means in terms of the details of project execution.

Such a technocratic vision of development, as a whole, without any serious regard to social and political factors, would perhaps have been acceptable 50 years ago. Today it is an unconvincingly grandiose vision, the grandiosity of which, a critic might add, is yet another consequence of the post-Pokhran-II euphoria.

The choice of Abdul Kalam as the next President of India, backed by a wide political consensus, reflects, one might argue, the nature of the times we live in. Whether this is a choice that will meet the needs of the nation in the years to come is a matter for the future to tell.

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