Kalam’s Disturbing Vision

APJ ABDUL KALAM clearly has the support of the majority of the Electoral College that will elect the president and looks destined to be the next occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. This is at a time that is one of the most difficult times in our Republic’s history. The constitution of the country is already under siege from a set up of small minded people who want India to be imprisoned by its past. The question we need to ask is whether Kalam’s Vision 2020 for India suffices to grapple with the complexities of the moment?

Kalam, an aeronautical engineer and India’s Missile Man, strikes a strange resonance with those who believe in astrology and want to “discover” the atom bomb in the Brahmashtra of the Mahabharata and air planes in the Pushpak Rath of the Ramayana. Both believe that acme of nationalism is in possessing all the weapons of mass destruction that others have, and not in disarmament. It is this narrow militaristic nationalism that brings a Kalam together with the VHP. Remember a Singhal promising to take radioactive dust from Pokhran on a Shakti Yatra across the country?


It is not that a Kalam believes that in a world dominated by a few powers with nuclear weapons monopoly, India needs nuclear weapons also. Within this framework, it is possible to be reluctant and still want nuclear weapons; a position most nuclear hawks take in India. In this scheme, India has developed nuclear weapons as others have not agreed to disarmament. Kalam goes well beyond this position. He has argued in the past that he would like to give nuclear weapons to every country in the world and seems to believe that nuclear weapons are a welcome leveller. He has also argued that once developed, these weapons are not for show but should be deployed. It is clear that his bonding with nuclear weapons and missiles is much deeper than even those who strategically argue for nuclear weapons. The question the country needs to ask is what kind of a message are we sending to the world when we elevate a fervent bomb and missile man as the next president? That also at a time when we are staring down the barrel at Pakistan, in which both adversaries are armed with missiles and nuclear bombs.

Kalam, either in his autobiography, Wings of Fire or in his India 2020 comes out as a curiously one-dimensional man. Of course he also writes Tamil poetry, plays the rudra veena, etc. But his vision of the future is a flat one in which India becomes a great nation armed with missiles and nuclear weapons. Technology in his world is an end in itself. The complexity of technology in the age of the nuclear bomb and biological weapons is lost in the naïveté of technology as the philosopher’s stone transmuting all base metals into gold.

This technological quick fix as the basis vision for the nation along with his belief that military strength is what makes a nation strong is disturbing in Kalam. It is possible that he harbours hidden depths. What can be said most charitably is that he has not displayed any till date. We have yet to hear Kalam on issues such as Gujarat riots or the need for peace in South Asia. For a presidential candidate, all we have heard are school boyish homilies. We do not need quotations from Bhagvad Githa to justify that everything is for the best. This is what our grandmothers used to tell us when we were children and we disagreed with it even then.


Kalam’s achievements are well known. He was in ISRO and was crucial to the SLV programme initially, going on to lead India’s indigenous missile programme. For those who are unfamiliar with the depth of the technological embargo that India operates under, it is difficult to understand the enormity of challenges that an Atomic Energy or a Space Programme faces. Admittedly, unlike a Homi Bhaba, a Vikram Sarabhai or a Satish Dhawan, his personal achievements are relatively spare. Kalam is perhaps the first science or technology leader whose stature depended largely on his management skills. Such skills are rare and it is only a carping critic who will point out that he is no Bhabha or a Sarabhai. The question however that bothers us is does Kalam have a vision of technology in society or just a technological vision of society. And if his vision of technology itself is impaired, how well will he deal with the vision of the nation?

What a Kalam misses is a questioning view — that science and technology not only opens up new vistas but also unimaginable destructive powers. Therefore, the headlong rush into the newest and the latest needs to be tempered by larger social concerns and caution. That unlocking secrets of nature does not necessarily produce only good, comes from the simple Einsteinian equation – energy (E) is equal mass (M) times speed of light (C) squared – E = MC2. This seemed to hold the promise of an inexhaustible source of energy. The bomb was thought to be the misuse of science, while the right use would produce cheap energy. Instead, the bomb has become the reality, with cheap nuclear energy besieged with enormous difficulties.

Kalam has little appreciation that human greed is pushing science and technology beyond its safe envelope. The future generations — if weapons of mass destruction or genetic engineering gone wild do not annihilate them — will marvel at the hubris of such scientists. It is this gung-ho vision of technology and a lack of a societal caution in Kalam that makes me wonder whether a missile man is what we need as a president of the Republic? Or will he prove, unlike his creations, an unguided missile?