Between theory and practice

Published : Apr 11, 1998 00:00 IST

The BJP's policy pronouncements on science and technology are Nehruvian in tone, but the party's record in the matter of inculcating a scientific temper gives cause for concern in the long term.

SCIENCE and technology policy has never quite been a serious election issue or the focus of media and public attention during campaign time in India. With a Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition set to govern the country at least for some time, it is worth examining what one may expect from the new dispensation on this front.

The National Agenda for Governance adopted by the BJP and its allies mentions the subject briefly. It promises the "integration of efforts in the field of science and technology with development efforts in various socio-economic sectors." It also promises greater support to national laboratories, the strengthening of research and development and the setting up of centres of excellence. The Agenda is rather more explicit on information technology. While hailing the "new revolution sweeping the globe - that of Information Technology," the document promises a National Informatics Policy to develop India into a software superpower.

These brief remarks appear to be based on the more detailed statement on Science and Technology that appears in the BJP manifesto. Chapter 15 of the manifesto, which deals with science and technology policy, is impeccably Nehruvian in tone, bolstered perhaps by the presence of a recent entrant to the saffron party, Prof. M.G.K. Menon, on the manifesto drafting committee. The extent of detail in these sections was of a piece with the BJP's conviction of being the ruling-party-in-waiting.

The chapter, which begins with a clear endorsement of the Scientific Policy Resolution of 1958 and the Technology Policy Statement of 1983 (of the Indira Gandhi era), would have done the Congress party of an earlier era proud. Science and technology, the BJP asserts, must be harnessed to "improve the lot of vast sections of our society living below the poverty line." Science and technology, the manifesto solemnly intones, "is also a vital component in enriching the mind, enlarging the human spirit and creating a thinking society."

What follows is a 15-point agenda that, if indeed implemented, would undoubtedly make India a scientific superpower in short order. The BJP plumps for, among other things, promoting a scientific temper, improving scientific infrastructure in the university and national laboratories, stimulating private investment in research and development, working to promote science as a career choice among the youth and launching science and technology missions in several areas.

The manifesto turns lyrical on the subject of information technology, in a separate chapter (Chapter 16). Among the benefits of "Ram Raj" will be the provision by the year 2000 (no less) of computer facilities "in all schools, including in remote and rural areas, that already have proper building and power." In its Bill Gates-like vision of information technology in India, there is much that is promised, but little is said of how these grandiose visions are to be realised.

Even before the Vajpayee Ministry won the vote of confidence in Parliament, sections of the computer industry were on the trail of the gold-mine that seemed within their reach. The executive director of NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Service Companies) and a BJP associate, Devang Mehta, began intensive lobbying and claimed that the resources for the plans in the manifesto could be found in the existing budgets of the various Ministries.

It is interesting to read these sections alongside those on economic policy, especially on the telecommunications sector where complete internal privatisation is promised. How exactly is the BJP to realise its vision of India's future in information technology through a private sector that has historically paid little attention to indigenous research and development? The BJP's agenda on national economic policy is less than clear on how self-reliant development is to be sustained. On the one hand, the manifesto promises complete internal liberalisation of and disinvestment in public sector undertakings. On the other hand, it promises increased government spending on infrastructure and grandiose investments in telecom and information technology, all this while supporting social sector expenditure (including the spending of 6 per cent of Gross National Product on education) and anti-poverty programmes. How and where the surplus needed for this kind of expenditure is to be generated is far from clear.

Some standard Hindutva items are, however, missing in the Science and Technology section of the manifesto. There was no sign of that favourite item on the agenda of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad - "Vedic mathematics". This hotch-potch of school-level mathematical tricks laced with Sanskrit aphorisms of dubious antiquity has often been forced into mathematics education by State governments run by the BJP (Frontline, October 22 and November 5, 1993). There are also no indications of the BJP favouring "Indian science" (as opposed to "Western science"), a favourite of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and its satellites (for instance, the Chennai-based Patriotic Peoples Science and Technology Foundation).

Any analysis of the BJP's attitude to science and technology must begin by recalling that the saffron party is alone among the major political streams in this country in never having seriously engaged with science and technology issues or questions of scientific temper in its entire history. One is referring here not only to concrete questions of science and technology policy, but also to a general perspective regarding the role of science, scientific temper and a rational world-view in the making of a modern India. In recent times the BJP has had some interest in matters pertaining to patent rights and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), but more as a handy propaganda slogan in the swadeshi package than anything else.

It is therefore unsurprising, that the BJP's manifesto mouths the Nehruvian line on science and technology while understanding nothing of the relationship between the public sector in the economy and the development of indigenous capabilities in science and technology. The fascination with information technology as a sort of universal panacea to the problems of education is very much part of the style of the BJP's middle-class following, especially the non-resident Indian (NRI) component. This fascination is, in practice, low in content and is confined largely to a good appreciation of the Internet as a propaganda medium.

IT is worth recalling too that on the question of scientific temper and rationalism the BJP's record has been singularly abysmal. Beginning with the wildly unscientific theories of the founding fathers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), through the years of anti-cow-slaughter campaigns, and continuing into the Ram mandir phase, together with the mobilisation of assorted Hindu religious fanatics under its banner, the BJP has been continually associated with the worst kind of obscurantism. The only rationalism that it has demonstrated has been in the coldly cynical manipulation and conflation of religious and nationalist symbols to further its political agenda.

In the matter of scientific temper, it would seem that the BJP needs to clarify its position in detail in an apology mode if its protestations are to be taken seriously. Will the practice of scientific thinking be extended to cover history and other social sciences? Will 'kar sevak' archaeology be disowned? Will the BJP guarantee that textbooks will not be re-written to project a communal picture of the history of science in India (as has been attempted by BJP-ruled State governments)? Will the BJP leadership disown the stand of its Tamil Nadu unit that attacks Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi for his rationalist attitude to the ritual of fire-walking?

On such issues, the indications are not encouraging. Key positions concerned with science and technology have gone to elements of the Hindutva-RSS hard core of the BJP. Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati control the Ministry of Human Resource Develop-ment while Joshi has additional charge of the Department of Science and Technology.

EQUALLY unsurprisingly, the one aspect of science that the BJP takes to immediately is the link between science and military power. The BJP seeks to set aside a well-tested policy line on the nuclear issue, which combined a principled opposition to arm-twisting by the nuclear superpowers (embodied in the refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehe-nsive Test Ban Treaty) with a refusal to exercise the nuclear option in immediate military terms. The deviations from this line in the Indira Gandhi era, when the Pokhran nuclear explosion was conducted, were disastrous in foreign policy terms. That piece of political adventurism cost India the moral high ground in nuclear disarmament policy, worsened relations with neighbours and engendered fresh suspicions, and cost the nation dear in terms of lost scientific collaborations, not only in reactor research and technology but in other areas too.

The BJP, it would seem, has learnt nothing from this experience. To make matters worse, there is the added component of the link between the BJP's hawkish stand on Pakistan and its communal agenda internally. Any exercising of the nuclear option (it is not clear what the current ambiguities in the BJP Government's stand amount to) would be particularly harmful to international collaborations in the scientific arena. It would also amount to undermining the vision of science as a tool of development and democratic empowerment that is part of the legacy of the early years of Independence.

Undoubtedly the current momentum in science and technology in India would ensure a certain continuity with progress in some areas, provided no disastrous tinkering is resorted to by the new Government. However, the prospect of increasing communalisation of public and media space and public discourse, which is definitely part of the BJP agenda, is cause for serious concern in terms of the long-term perspective for science in this country.

One may safely leave to Prof. M.G.K. Menon the pipe-dream that the BJP would "restore the elan of a resurgent India". The facts and the record instead point to the distinct possibility of difficult times for science in India in the near future.

Dr. T. Jayaraman is a theoretical physicist working at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

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