Monday, August 3, 2015

Abdul Kalam and a Nation Bereft of Idols

When Kalam passed away my friend, a nuclear physicist, called him an inspiration and my mom was distraught at the loss.That a very mediocre intellectual with less than modest intellectual accomplishments and no academic distinctions has become the most sincerely mourned man in recent memory is testimony to the intellectual bankruptcy and pathetic lack of moral leadership in a country of a billion people.

Let us first dispense with the biggest fallacy of calling him a scientist. He was not a scientist by even the most lenient definition of the term. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, born into dire poverty went on to become the President of a country and more importantly a source of inspiration for an inspiration starved generation. Yet, no one can point to any significant doctrine by him and he did not propound any theories. His autobiography has no literary quality to it and is pathetically pedestrian and yet it is being hailed as a book to be read. This, in a country where Nehru's autobiography is still available to read. Khushwant Singh carped that Nehru's writings were mediocre. I wonder what would he say of Dr Kalam's books.

In 2001 a speech by Kalam went viral. The speech was vintage jingoism. He told Indians to stop referring to India as a 'developing country' and instead exhorted them to refer to India as 'developed country'. A very dear friend of mine sent it to me. I replied thus, "Now coming to the very major canard of calling India a "developed" nation:Does Mr Kalam sincerely beleive that re-labelling would satisfy our jingoistic impulse.I'd like to hear from him which developed country has the following distinctions : telecommunications disrupted for 20 days inflicting a huge 5000 crore loss,banking industry closes for a day causing 2000 crore loss, FERA accused fugitive gets elected to the parliament,a dacoit becomes an MP; murderer,rapists,looters,thugs get elected to assemblies; roadways are a joke,communication infrastructure is a parody,consumers pay 85% taxes on each car they buy,black market economy is valued modestly at Rs70,000 crores,medical care is pathetic,pollution on roads makes every citizen susceptible to lung disease,freedom of expression is threatened by lumpen elements which go scot free,the justice system is anything but just,mediocrity is sanctioned in the name of there any end to this litany of problems." The reply holds good today too. 

Kalam peddled bromides in the name of inspiration. The saving grace was the man's down-to-earth humility and sincerity in what he was peddling. As Tamil writer Jeyamohan notes Kalam was probably one of the last of a generation that came of age in the Nehruvian era when dreams and hopes were even more grandiose and even more intellectual. A half century since the death of Nehru India could produce only a Kalam.

Alternately hailed as 'missile man' and 'father of Pokhran-II' Kalam had little do with either from the perspective of pure science contributions but he became, unwittingly, their face. Pokhran-II and the subsequent elevation of Kalam to the Presidency by the then BJP government thrust him into a national debate. Unlike Einstein who turned down a presidency Kalam went on to occupy, with no qualifications, the presidency. When an ill qualified, albeit very simple and honest, man occupied an office that scumbags and toady politicians had occupied earlier the country rejoiced and that set the trajectory of how Kalam would be perceived in the years to come.

That Kalam, a muslim, was elevated to the highest office of the land by a Hindu fundamentalist party drove polarizing opinions of who he was though he himself steered clear of any politicking and remained simple Simon. Hindu fundamentalist and purveyor of Hindutva Gurumurthy symbolizes one section of Hindus who thought that Kalam had "Gita in one hand, atom bomb in another". In his obituary of Kalam Gurumurthy, like Subramanian Swamy, extolled Krishna for dispelling Arjuna's hesitation to kill while revealing the Gita. Chiding Asoka, usually referred with a suffix 'the great', for being muddle headed and giving up killing in favor of pacifism. Gentle Hindus are usually offended when atheists like DK's Veeramani speak of Gita as inciting violence but here are two fanatics speaking on behalf of Hindus besmirching a wonderful scripture that the Apostle of Peace, Gandhi, swore by, as a text that encourages to kill without hesitation. No one can insult a great religion like Hinduism like the Hindutva vipers can do. Pakistan, not to be outdone by India, soon followed with its own nuclear blast. A 'Muslim bomb' against a 'Hindu bomb'. The strategic benefits, if any, of Pokhran II is beyond the scope of this blog.

The Hindutva crowd went into overdrive in its obituaries for Kalam by not so shyly highlighting his capacious mind to enjoy Hindu religious texts and practices as the desired qualities of a 'model Indian-muslim'. Of course nobody bothered to ask if Rajendra Prasad read the Koran and visited Sufis. It is only poor Muslims and other minorities who have to consistently prove their nationalist credo by satisfying the litmus test of paying respects to Hinduism. 

A rabid pro-LTTE Tamil blogger spewed venom that Kalam's cosmopolitan mind was nothing but a mask to curry favor with the Hindu nationalist BJP government. Kalam, born into utter penury, enjoyed the patronage of a Brahmin teacher as a student. In his auto-biography Kalam recorded how the teacher invited him for lunch at the latter's house. The teacher's wife was not thrilled at the prospect of serving a muslim boy and Kalam, sensing the discomfort, did not want to visit any more but his teacher who would have none of it said "she'll learn". Growing up in a community where two religions existed cheek by jowl Kalam enjoyed drinking water from the two great streams that watered India's conscience. 

The outpouring of love and affection for Kalam is situated in reasons beyond such dishonorable politics. Though India had lost its greatest son, Gandhi, to religious violence and an assassin's bullet only after the assassination of Indira Gandhi did Indians witness their leaders shutting themselves off behind layers of security. Kalam's informality was a breath of freshness for Indians. Vexed and frustrated at seeing venal politicians selling empty dreams the common Indian became a reservoir of deep cynicism and then Kalam happened. 

In a nation that had such intellectual giants as Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, J.C. Bose, S.N. Bose, C.V. Raman, Viswesvarayya and many other lesser lights it was a tragedy that scientific achievements, especially of the kind that could arouse a nationalist pride, had decayed and ceased to exist. A long period of despondency reached its nadir in the early 90s when the nation was plunged into a 'balance of payments crisis' and had to pledge gold to earn foreign exchange. In that vacuum the quick successes of Indian science with Kalam as its face brought much needed pride to India and with it a sense of hope. Kalam spoke of hope and India fell in love with him. As the 90s economic liberalization brought prosperity, though unevenly, hope in a better tomorrow was an enticing prospect to a people which wistfully and often with indignation spoke of a glorious past. Kalam fueled it further with his talk of India becoming a super power by 2020. Much before Barack Obama made Americans swoon with words Kalam's words were hypnotic to gullible Indians.

To Indians who were accustomed to seeing the kinds of Laloo Prasad Yadav, Devi Lal, Deve Gowda, Mayawati, Karunanidhi, Jayalalitha, Mulayam Singh Yadav and the many others who populate India's hall of shame Abdul Kalam looked liked their prayers answered. Of course by now Indians had lost all notions of what true excellence meant, what scientific achievements really were and what intellectualism meant. How else does one explain the fact that the nation of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai come to consider Kalam who was, in truth, a scientific nobody, as a scientist? 

When news of Kalam spread social media was flooded with anecdotes by all and sundry of some apocryphal story of his humility and his unassuming nature. So many, many posted some incident or the other of meeting him, even during the days of his presidency, and sharing a word or two. Here was a man who, unlike India's politicians and preening intellectuals, did not talk down to his audiences but talked to them on equal terms. 

Neil de Grasse Tyson, America's first African-American to head a planetarium, visited Cornell and met Sagan to evaluate if he should join Cornell. Sagan wanted to see Tyson enroll in Cornell and took him on a tour of the campus and later in the evening even dropped him off at a bus station. Later Tyson went to Harvard. Such things while common in USA are unheard of in India, a nation mired in an obsession over hierarchy and worshipping authority. Kalam broke those barriers and publicly so though in a far less intellectual sphere.

The overwhelming adulation that poured forth for Kalam only underscored how much Indians yearn for honest leadership even more than skillful leadership. For those who doubt if Indians would still value a Gandhi the flood of affection for a simple man like Kalam shows the void for such a persona in India's public life. We should thank Kalam for not just kindling hope in India's future but for keeping the embers of hope that Indians can still be touched by honesty and simplicity. And for keeping that flame alive may his soul rest in peace.


Victor Suresh said...

Kalaam was not a scientist, not an intellectual, not a great writer of biography. Fine. The man led two government organizations of R&D and managed several projects of critical importance to the security and future of India. Even the worst critic of India has to admire what ISRO has accomplished and Kalaam led this organization through challenging times. I am seeing extremely polar views of Kalaam -- common men praising him for what he was not, and intellectuals not giving enough credit for what he was. We Indians lack balance in our judgment of people.

By the way, I believe that Kalaam was more a product of Indira Gandhi's policies on science and technology than Nehru's.

anilkurup59 said...

Did he claim somewhere that he was a scientist? Did he flaunt academic degrees other than the MIT ?
His autobiography as one may call the writing which is mentioned here is not a literary oeuvre and he was not a literary giant nor claimed to be one . Call him scientist if one may and feel. Else see him as he was, a humble human being with scientific temper.
What stands out and need to be noticed while reeling out unkind suggestions about the man, his qualification or even the outlook he had is that a man from humble background and from a fiercely monotheistic community could come up both in academic and public sphere and also be a a person who displayed syncretism in his outlook and thought.

Sudhindra said...

Very well written and expectedly a contrarian view of Kalaam. I am not completely aware of what his accomplishments were, so cannot comment on whether he truly deserved credit and accolades for his scientific temperament and achievements. However, as you rightly point out, our going over the top over his demise is perhaps a sign of how humility and politics has become such a scarce combination. Our collective sense of grieving and loss is probably also linked to the fact that APJ was approachable, rose from being a nobody and also spoke with that thick Tamil accent not any upper class English accent that many find alien.

L N Srinivasakrishnan said...

I dont find it a particularly contrarian view of Dr Kalam. To say that Sarabhai and Bhabha were intellectual giants while Dr Kalam was a 'merchant of hope' seems somewhat reductive. It seems to me that it's a commonly held view that true giants belonged to an earlier time and were possibly aristocratic or at least upper class. At least nothing about their speech, looks, grooming or attire offended the genteel sensibilities of the urban middle classes.

Could it be that Dr Kalam, by violating many of the above 'samudrika lakshanam' of an intellectual giant, may have been aesthetically not very pleasing.

V.Rajagopal said...

I cannot agree with you more on kalam and Jayamohan. Normally I would not comment on blogs. But seeing the levels of comments I thought it necessary to morally support you being a voice of rationality and minority. Thanks.
V. Rajagopal