June 19, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

Towards Rashtrapati Bhavan

I am used to hyperbole during election campaigns. But it is unusual to see such a vigorous campaign for the Presidency of India. [There have been contests but never open campaigning on the present scale.]

So what are the major claims being made for the two contenders? Two comments being made for A P J Abdul Kalam are that he is a 'great scientist' and that he is 'the father of India's nuclear weapons programme.' As for Lakshmi Sehgal, her Left Front campaign managers drum away that she is 'the first woman candidate for India's highest office' and that she is a 'freedom fighter' of the Netaji vintage.

So where does one begin examining these claims? I would start by quoting Richard Feynman, the maverick American Nobel laureate who worked on the Manhattan Project [the race to build the first atomic weapons] during World War II. He was asked what he thought of that enterprise. 'It wasn't science,' Feynman answered, 'it was mostly engineering.'

Feynman was one of the most brilliant minds of the past half a century. His work in quantum electrodynamics -- the interaction between light and matter -- changed our understanding of the universe at a fundamental level. And that is what a 'great scientist' does -- altering our perception in some basic way. And that is what Abdul Kalam has never done. To call him 'an Indian Einstein' is such piffle that I am forced to wonder what they are teaching in Indian schools.

India's next President -- his victory is guaranteed -- is not a scientist. He is an engineer -- a man who has grasped the groundbreaking theories propounded by true scientists, and then put them to some practical use. It is a perfectly honourable task, indeed an essential one. And Feynman -- one of the few people to be both a great scientist and a great engineer -- was not being in the least disrespectful when he ruminated aloud on the Manhattan Project. That is why Dr Oppenheimer, rather than, say, Albert Einstein, was named the father of the first atom bomb.

I am hard put to name any purely scientific field where Abdul Kalam has blazed a trail. So, why then is everybody eager to pin the 'great scientist' tag upon him?

Next, is he really the father of India's thermonuclear devices? Going through Abdul Kalam's resume, I find that he specialised in aeronautics and that his subsequent work for the Government of India was in missile technology. Missiles may or may not be used to deliver a nuclear punch, but that does not make Abdul Kalam 'the father of the Indian thermonuclear bomb.' That honour should go to Dr R Chidambaram and his team, the forgotten men of Pokharan-II.

Actually, Abdul Kalam's work stands alone without need of embellishment. India has long been subject to a harsh missile technology embargo. This left Indian engineers struggling to build everything from scratch [a hurdle never faced by Pakistan which could depend on Chinese technology delivered via North Korea]. Six of every ten missiles designed by Abdul Kalam's team seemed to go awry or fall into the sea, but the wonder is that India has any missiles at all. Building a credible missile defence programme is a solid achievement in itself.

But we should not turn a blind eye to the flaws in the Indian defence research community. There were audible sighs of relief in Delhi when a contingent of Russian tanks arrived last month. It was a telling fact, testimony to the fact that India's own advanced tank programme is woefully behind schedule. The armed forces are also starved of other advanced equipment. [Do we really have to depend on Israel or the United States for sensors?]

Let us now turn to Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal, another civilian best remembered for her brush with the armed forces. I find the arguments raised on her behalf -- about her being a woman and a freedom fighter in Netaji's Indian National Army -- very curious. They would be perfectly correct if she herself says so, but they sound weird coming from a Communist mouth.

Take for instance that claim about striking a blow for gender equality by proposing a woman's name to Rashtrapati Bhavan for the first time. Tell me something: how many women are there in the CPI-M Politburo, that party's highest decision-making body? And how many women has the party made chief minister of Kerala [a state where women outnumber men]? The answer, in both cases, is zero!

Pardon me, Comrades, but isn't that rank hypocrisy? No more so, of course, than taking refuge in Netaji's name...

Let me refresh Colonel Sehgal's memory by quoting what Subhas Chandra Bose himself said in 1930: 'The Moscow Communists are a serious menace to the growth of healthy trade unionism in India and we cannot possibly leave the field to them...we shall also fight the domination of Moscow in the affairs of India, for we are convinced that only thereby can we serve the best interests of India.' In turn the CPI -- there was no CPI-M in those days -- attacked the Indian National Army as 'Quislings' and 'tools of the Fascists.' All because they were fighting the British, who were allied to Communist Russia!

Faced with this fact, Colonel Sehgal offered the curious explanation that the Communists -- she failed to specify which sect -- had understood Bose's position accurately after the party split in 1964. Perhaps she merely meant that it takes Communists 20 years to realise the 'historic blunders' -- to use Jyoti Basu's felicitous phrase -- which they have committed!

There are plenty of reasons to vote for either Abdul Kalam or Sehgal, the primary one being that both are fundamentally decent human beings. Don't diminish the khadi of genuine achievement by cloaking it in tawdry tinsel.

Presidential Election 2002

T V R Shenoy

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