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Sunday, September 13, 2009

In Defense of Kalam

In a post on failings of Kalam, Acorn tried to bring the veneration of former President Kalam down a notch. And other commentators piled on the failings to try to make the case stronger. While we agree with Acorn and others that raising the stature of Kalam in popular narrative to mythical levels is silly, the counter arguments showing the failings of Kalam doesn't hold much water.

Let's look at some of the criticisms. Well, there is really one core criticism in the post, which really boils down to Manoj Joshi's views on how Bharat should procure high value weapon systems. Acorn, nonetheless, endorses Joshi's view.

Because of (diversions caused by Kalam’s dogmatic insistence), India’s long-range missile deterrent has been delayed by about a decade...

He was not willfully dishonest, but his fixations and whims led to diversions and delays for which the country has paid a huge price. Perhaps his greatest, and in a sense forgivable, weakness was his obsession on “indigenous” development.

But the argument that India’s missiles are “indigenous” and Pakistan’s are based on Chinese, American, North Korean or someone else’s technology is a meaningless one. Military acquisitions are not about the “purity” of solutions, but time-urgent answers to a problem. [The Acorn]
While anyone who follows Sri Kalam's thoughts on weapons systems agree that he is a big proponent of developing weapon systems by ourselves, meaning designing and producing them "indigenously." Using that against Kalam is strange. One would think that was Kalam's career high point. Even if we ignore the struggles of Indian defence industry of not having an extensive and deep military-industrial base to produce high tech weapon systems, do critics really think India should buy critical weapons systems and be subjected to the whims and fancies of the provider nation? May be Joshi and Acorn forgot the trails and tribulations of making LCA take flight and sanctions regime on Kaveri engine, to take just one example. Even if we did buy, who will sell us an ICBM or an IRCBM? Did we forget MTCR.

Or, perhaps, Joshi and Acorn think we should have done what Pakistan and China have done - stealthy sell nuclear technology to rouge nations to acquire missile technology. Somehow I doubt Kalam's critics mean that. Or better yet, acquire the technology by espionage. I am all for espionage and stealing technology and manufacturing designs to speed up critical development process. But unless one believes the mythical status of Kalam to influence entire range of intelligence and political systems, the decision to conduct espionage would be made by political elites, not defence R&D project leaders.

Finally, who says India doesn't have the technology for producing the missile systems in the first place. What has ISRO being doing for the past few decades sending rockets to inner and outer space. Surely, Joshi and Acorn don't believe the myth that ISRO and DRDO are separated by an impenetrable wall!

That Kalam was the stumbling block for development of missile weapons systems doesn't hold water to reality. And that somehow we should use the delays in development and deployment of missiles to point out the failing of Kalam holds even less water. Those were purely political decisions. Kalam's call for indigenous development of missile weapon systems was the right call and it enhanced, rather than imperiled, national security. In fact, he prodded his scientists to think outside the conventional box such as, for example, thinking about reusable missiles.

As for other comments about his less than Victorian English to explain his vision for a strong developed India in a generation, we would take an Indian accent with simple English over apparently sophisticated arguments, in apparently sophisticated London or New York English accents, of some historians who are trying to make the case that India shouldn't even aspire to become a strong and rich nation! If Kalam can inspire enthusiastic and smart children, even better.

His conventional thoughts on getting infrastructure to people, where they live now, are just that - conventional. I simply do not know how people would be forced to migrate from their ancestral land to newly planned cities without economic incentives such as well paying jobs and good schools. But if there are well paying jobs, even without good schools, people migrate to urban centers as slums everywhere in big cities show. Until those economic incentives are in place, it's conventional to call for industry and government to provide basic, such water, electricity, and roads, and not so basic, such as internet, infrastructure to people where ever they live, even in remote villages.

We agree Kalam shouldn't be raised to a mythical status. But to say that Kalam abuses his mythical status is a myth. Surely that award goes to someone else.