Friday, August 28, 2015

ISRO & Othisaivu Ramasamy: How NOT to write about ISRO

Apparently a storm has been raging on account of my email to Jemo on Bharathi Tamil Sangam. I came to know of it only today. I'll respond later to that. Meantime there was a note by Jemo about Othisaivu Ramasamy's blog on the unsung heroes of ISRO. Naturally I had to check it out.

Ramasamy's blog on ISRO is pure 'he-said, she-said' kind without any specific detail and is plainly breast-beating type. The blog was empty boasting.

Ramasamy only talks of a tour of ISRO that he was able to get thanks to some contacts with insiders. I, for one, do not know Ramasamy's academic or professional qualifications to make the kind of sweeping statements he makes. He asserts, without any detail, that ISRO employees are better than Boeing and GE. I am sure there are brilliant employees in ISRO, possibly Nobel Prize material too. But how does that matter? I am sure in Ethiopia there's an Einstein. No Indian company can be compared with Boeing for the latter's achievements in aviation is in a realm that no comparable Indian corporation, private or public, can dream to touch. Nor should Boeing (or GE as for that matter) be compared with ISRO. Ideally it is NASA that should be compared to ISRO. Sure, ISRO has its share of achievements but the crucial question is how does it measure up against NASA today? What can one say of ISRO vs NASA 20 years ahead of today?

We're told to admire the practical implications that ISRO puts its technologies to use. I understand the yearning for Ramasamy to make Indians appreciate the fact that the hundreds of crores plowed into a research organization is not in vain and that it has a direct impact on the lives of the everyday man but this is a dangerously simplistic approach. I wish he had added nuance to that contention with details on how esoteric theories find practical applications in due course of time. Even Einstein the author of mass-energy equivalence did not believe that an atom bomb was possible though it was predicated on his own theory. The bomb came before reactors became a reality. While assailing the common man's understanding of science Ramasamy himself falls prey to it and attempts to play to the peanut gallery.

In another passage Ramasamy passionately states how ISRO gathers information via it's payloads and how ISRO's audit processes ensure little or no wastage. Again, frustratingly, there is no citation of any example let alone more details. The reader is basically asked to trust the author on his judgment and take assertions at face value. 

Thankfully Ramasamy corroborates one of my chief complaints that "money" is often a misleading factor in excusing the sloppiness of Indian institutions. I'd say that ISRO gets more eager and uncritical support from Indian government than NASA gets from US congress.

Ramasamy nonchalantly says that one of the issues that plagues ISRO is an abysmally low degree of documenting research. That, in my view, is a shameful admission about a space research org and that too a 'glowing one'. This is where I earn the sobriquet of 'India-hater'.

It is fashionable to scold the poor Indian citizen for everything the intellectuals think should be praised sky high. This is nonsense. Ramasamy concedes that ISRO as an org is loath to advertise what it does and then he scolds the citizen for thinking ISRO is flying Deepavali rocket. Compare this with the public educational efforts that NASA funds and undertakes? A digression here on the space race and what a Carl Sagan can do to a society.

Nikita Kruschev lit a fuse under the defense and space exploration related establishments of USA by launching Sputnik. The ensuing space race, that culminated in Neil Armstrong taking a small step that was a leap for mankind, gripped an entire nation in a scientific fervor. Let's also conceded that many Americans probably understood less of the science than the fact that patriotism compelled them to yearn for the yankees to beat the Reds. Now we've NASA beaming images from Hubble telescope, the telescope itself is a staggering scientific achievement, from the Voyager that has gone into the farthest reaches of space and even the repair of malfunctioning equipment on the Hubble was news. Then there was the shuttle era that even when it ended in tragedies it served to raise scientific consciousness. In how many countries would a scientist like Richard Feynman establish, in front of cameras, how a simple O-ring malfunctioning could lead to an explosion of the shuttle?

I cannot overstate the importance to society of having scientific persona like Feynman and Sagan. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven". Carl Sagan's legendary TV Series "Cosmos",wikipedia says, has been watched by 500 million so far. That's HALF-A-F**ing-Billion. Sagan and Feynman fired up the nation with their geniuses not just for science but as popularizers and showmen. All that India had was Abdul Kalam. Yikes. And, remember I've not even started talking about Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. Ask Tamils who is a science popularizer and the answer will Sujatha, he who was famously obsessed with scatalogical jokes about a Mexico-laundress . To be fair to the Soviets the space race engendered a culture of yearning for scientific achievement in the Kruschev era.

Interestingly Ramasamy chides the employees, the same glowing employees, for mostly indulging in gossip based on drab weeklies. One of my friends, a patriotic Indian who returned to India with an American PhD, observed the same at another premier scientific established. He was appalled at the gossip quality of conversations at lunch break and other interactions outside of strictly official environments.

Badri Seshadri's blog, which inspired Ramasamy to write a lengthy feedback and later turn it into a blog, itself has interesting ironies.  On the one hand Seshadri says, correctly, that NASA's funding by US government has been cut and as a result NASA is relying of Russia and private companies like Space X for launching satellites and on the other hand he wants Indian government to double it's current budgetary allocation to ISRO in order to make it able to compete with the likes of SpaceX. A very disappointing sleight of hand from a free-marketer. Seshadri's blog unlike Ramasamy's blog is more judicious in appreciating ISRO. Seshadri concedes that India lags behind China and SpaceX's Elon Musk does not even think of India's space establishment when he thinks of his competitors. So much for Ramasamy's glowing ISRO.

Seshadri, too, falls prey to obsessing over practical use of space explorations. He says he, too, is not very enamored of sending probes to Mars. While this attitude is understandable this is a very simplistic view of science and the implications of a Mars probe. I'd invite readers to ponder on Abraham Flexner's, the guiding spirit for 'The Institute for Advanced Study', a uniquely American institution,  amazing article "The usefulness of useless knowledge".

Of course I've given enough ammunition to the legions who blame me of being anti-Indian. I care two hoots for such criticisms. If anything I've said is not true or unfair comparisons then come at me. In fact I'd argue that India cannot find a better patriot than me for I, unlike its jingoistic crowd, at least keep pointing out what the shortfalls are. If people are really interested in making India better they'd spend less time wondering about my attitudes towards India or my motivations for criticism and spend more time redressing the shortcomings. As for my obsession over glorious America I fully stand by my assertions of American uniqueness unless anybody can disprove me on why a Research University or an institute like IAS or a scientist like Feynman is possible only in America.

In conclusion Ramasamy's blog can be characterized with the very words that Jeyamohan uses to ridicule the science illiterate journalists of India. Maybe Ramasamy can do better and maybe he will write a better but for now this is not a blog to be held up as an example of how to write about a space research organization it is rather, sadly, an example of how not to write on ISRO.


1. Ramasamy's blog
2. Badri Seshadri's blog
3. Abraham Flexner's article

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bal Thackeray and Yakub Memon: Two Funerals and Partisan Outrages

My favorite writer has stirred the proverbial hornet's nest, yet again. Apparently he, along with many patriotic Hindus, was troubled by the fact that thousands of Muslims gathered for the funeral of Yakub Memon, convicted for the deadly Mubai blasts in which hundreds were killed and maimed. The diatribe by the writer laments, of course, with good benign intentions, how Muslims are being misled. The blog brought to my mind memories of how Bal Thackeray was laid to rest, replete with state honors, with even larger crowds bringing all of Mumbai to a stand still. And few other memories came to my mind.

My beloved writer, unknowingly echoing Bush, writes that the Mumbai blasts were a declaration of war against India and mourns the hundreds that were killed or maimed  in that attack. As one who lived through 9/11 and as one who steadfastly rejects resolutely the left wing nonsense of "America asked for it" I normally do not subscribe to the idea of excusing terrorism under any pretext or justification. However, it'd be a travesty of truth if one were to see the Mumbai blasts in isolation because they were not. The blasts were a reprisal, absolutely unjustified of course, for the scandalous manner with which the then governments refused to prosecute the perpetrators of the Mumbai riots that had happened, in turn, in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition. And, Babri Masjid demolition did not happen in a vacuum either. The road to the destruction of Babri Masjid, in full glare of international media in broad daylight and under the very noses of police protection, starts from the blood soaked path of Advani's Rath Yatra. Of course, why bother with context and nuances when shrill jingoism would suffice.

Anyone who was an adult in the 1990s India would remember what a boiling cauldron the country was. Buffeted between economic and political uncertainties the country was like an ill equipped catamaran tossed about on the rough seas. On one side Advani was tearing apart the country with his quest to build a temple and on the other side V.P. Singh, trying to cling to power, was unleashing casteism in the pretext of social justice. Entire villages quaked with fear as Advani's chariot progressed inexorably. In the midst of all this the state run TV was helpfully beaming to every household a pathetically crafted series based on the Indian epics which served to further notch up the fever. Nehru's grandson brought a TV actor dressed up as Hindu god to canvas for votes in Allahabad, Nehru's hometown. To say that in such a climate Muslims felt besieged as a community would be a grotesque understatement.

Bal Thackeray Funeral -- Courtesy

While the world watched Advani and Vajpayee presided over the demolition of Babri Masjid. It was India's moment of shame. The country was plunged into a communal tension possibly not seen since the horrifying days of the Partition. Mumbai erupted into flames. There was Bal Thackeray, who, as Sri Krishna committee report would note later, orchestrating the riots like an army general. Now, Thackeray had shot to fame riding a wave of xenophobia, not against foreigners but fellow Indians from other states, especially Tamils. He had once, like the many other leaders of the Hindutva pantheon, expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler. No government dared touch him, because he was not a Muslim. The failure to prosecute Thackeray stoked the flames of resentment amongst the Muslim community and a terrorist like Dawood Ebrahim, aided by Pakistan's sinister ISI, capitalized the situation.

Interestingly the writer nonchalantly states that Indian judiciary is hampered by the fact that finding witnesses against terrorist acts, by Islamic terrorist outfits, is impossible and therefore many a terrorist goes scot free. Before we deconstruct that poisonous statement a nuance that's glided here is that terrorist organizations, especially Islamic ones, are proscribed by the government and there are very draconian laws against supporting or aiding such organizations. In terror attacks the individual foot soldiers are nobodies and the kingpins do not indulge in the acts directly and therefore finding witnesses against them is impossible. Also, terrorist attacks are not police cases to be prosecuted in a court of law. Ask the Jodhpur detainees.

While expressing umbrage at the fact that lack of witnesses aid the terrorists the writer completely forgets that no witness would dare to say in open court the role played by Thackeray during the riots. In fact so sanitized is Thackeray's record that to even label him with a harsher word than fundamentalist will invite charges of extremism against me.

Let's consider another infamous case. In the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi Hindu congressmen unleashed a genocide in Delhi against Sikhs and killed nearly 5000 sikhs over several days while Nehru's grandson nonchalantly informed the country that when a huge tree falls the earth is bound to shake. It took 20 years for the Nanavati commission to submit its 185 page report accusing H.K.L Bhagat, Jagadish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and others of having taken part in the riots. Bhagat and Tytler held high positions in the Congress Government. The writer is indignant that in any other country Yakub Memon, a member of the underworld mafia, would not be tolerated and no state that's resolutely against the underworld would hesitate to just 'shoot him'. I'd love to know if he think Bhagat and Tytler too should've been shot. Oh, wait, they are not of the underworld and they are not Muslims so a protracted due process in a court of law is required. Incidentally, it rankles the writer that Hasina Parker, who allegedly ran the underworld on behalf of Dawood, died a natural death. H.K.L. Bhagat too died a natural death.

Thirty two years ago a massacre unfolded in Nellie, Assam. Indira Gandhi announced elections much against advice that it would inflame an already volcanic situation. Nearly 1800 Muslims were butchered from morning till evening on 18th February 1983. Rest of India heard about it only a few days later. The Tiwari Commission report, that investigated the massacre, was not even tabled. The peace accord signed with separatist organizations gave almost a complete amnesty to the perpetrators of the horrors. And here we are invited to be outraged that terrorist acts by Islamic outfits goes unpunished for lack of witnesses.

The case of Hashimpura massacre is even more shameful. On 22nd May 1987 42 Muslim youths were arrested by the police (Provincial Armed Constabulary), executed in cold blood and bodies dumped in a river. After 28 years a court acquitted all 16 accused for lack of evidence. Now, its easier to find a witness against Afzal Guru or Yakub Memon but absolutely impossible to find a witness against the PAC in such a case.

I share the writer's loathing for the sickening double standards of the Marxists. Marxists would froth at their mouth against US going to war against Iraq but would shut all their orifices about Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the terror regime in Chechnya. Marxists had a field day after 9/11 lecturing US about how 9/11 was just retribution against US hegemony etc. But, the point at which I part company with the writer on his diatribe is when he obfuscates wider context of what went on with the Yakub Memon affair.

Not just Muslims but most Indians have little faith in the judiciary. When the highest court of the land acquitted a corrupt politician it was anybody's guess as to why it happened. The same act was repeated most recently too. The many acts of omission by Indian judiciary has engendered a climate of absolute distrust in the law. How does a country trust the judiciary when 365 Sikh youths were arrested, detained and tortured for 4 years and finally released just like that? Tamil Nadu recently saw a spate of protests against the pending execution of 3 convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Again, distrust of the judiciary and due process was the bedrock of the protests.

A section of the population celebrating a killer or assassin is not all that uncommon in India. Sikhs celebrate the killers of Indira, Tamils celebrate the killers of Rajiv, Hindutva group celebrates the killer of Gandhi. Even forest brigand, thug and murderer Veerappan is celebrated. Yet, nothing rankles the hearts of many like seeing Muslims mourning Yakub Memon. And THAT is because Muslims, as always, are held to a different standards.

Poor Abdul Kalam has become a political football even in death. The Sikh community had fractured relationship with Giani Zail Singh under whose presidency the anti-sikh riots happened and with Manmohan Singh who accepted the prime-mistership from the party that conducted the riots. This is natural. Kalam accepted the presidency from a party that was an implacable foe of Muslims and it could very well have led to an alienation from the community. Such an alienation, in their eyes, is fully justified. One also has to bear in mind the nefarious motives and tortured reasonings of the Hindutva crowd in singing the praises of Kalam. Just as there are Hindus today who want to worship Godse there happen to be Muslims who are mourning for Memon. When Gandhi was assassinated Chitpavan Brahmins in Pune, the community of Godse, distributed sweets.

To my mind those who thronged Yakub Memon's funeral are not different from those who milled around Bal Thackeray's funeral. At least Memon died a criminal convicted in a court of law and executed in accordance with the law of the land. That Thackeray was buried with State honors is a shame. That Advani and Vajpayee were elected leaders is a shame. That the thousands of Sikhs are still awaiting justice is an shame. That Dalit residences were burned, on no lesser day than August 15th, for wanting to take their own temple chariot in a procession, is a shame.



Sunday, August 9, 2015

Donald Trump's Candidacy and America's Intellectual Decline

How did Donald Trump, a bloviating billionaire, become a viable candidate for the US presidency in a country that boasts of the American Philosophical Society and The Metaphysical Club? The candidacy of Donald Trump was born on the day Bill Clinton decided to court the youth vote by appearing on MTV and answering whether he preferred boxers or briefs. Democrats are chortling that Trump resembles the GOP and preening intellectuals are tittering that Trump will lead GOP to an electoral rout not seen since the days of FDR. Trump is not the product of GOP and nor is he a problem for the GOP. Trump is a creation of America's intellectual decline and resembles America, not just one or the other party. All that remains is for a 21st century Richard Hofstadter to reprise a retelling of 'Anti-Intellectualism in America'.

Benjamin Franklin established the American Philosophical Society in 1743 and the Metaphysical Club was first established by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1872. Both were supposed to foster vigorous intellectual debate and provide the nascent country with intellectual inputs. Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in establishing the Library of Congress and felt that legislators should've access to a library to read and enlighten themselves before legislating. Donald Trump is incapable of any intellectual thought or vision and yet he is a serious candidate for a national party. How did this happen?

Donald Trump
The coarsening of debate and an all pervading shallowness in conversation are both the contributions of a social media fueled 24 hour news cycle. There was a time when Milton Friedman, no less, ran a series of shows dedicated to very serious discussion on economics with guests like Thomas Sowell. Friedman's show 'Free to choose' was legendary in dethroning liberal economics with feisty, lively and deeply intellectual debate on how 'progressive policies' where anything but progressive. And then there was William F. Buckley Jr's 'Firing Line' with wit, verve and intellectualism. Buckley's on-air vitriolic feud with Gore Vidal had all the fireworks that one would expect when ideological apostles of clashing world views joust intellectually. It is a sad decline that in today's America what makes for controversy is a woman moderator being berated vulgarly by an air-headed billionaire.

Newt Gingrich acidly told financial journalist Mario Bartiromo, during a debate where she moderated, in 2011 that nobody in the news media asked "one single intelligent question to the 'Occupy Wall Street' crowd". The 'Occupy' movement was a rag tag motley crowd with a collective IQ on economics that was almost zero. Yet, the media lionized them without any serious intellectual scrutiny of their addled ideas or idiotic policy prescriptions. Is the connection between media leaving 'Occupy' crowd unchallenged and the rise of Trump as a candidate, a tenuous or far fetched one? No. Not at all. When one kind of vacuous demagoguery is accepted in the name of challenging 'the establishment' it is impossible to prevent another demagogue doing the same.

When highly respected and very professional anchor John King, CNN, opens a presidential debate with a question on the private life of a candidate and get's singed on live-TV by the sharp tongued candidate we can understand why the media is the favorite punching bag for the extremes in both left and right. Newt Gingrich went on to win the South Carolina primary solely because of that on-air explosion. This is the same media that gave Barack Obama an unprecedented latitude because of his historic candidacy. At one debate Hillary Clinton mocked the media for its softball questions to Barack Obama. She asked "why don't you give him a pillow".

A sickening feature of the rise of the Trump candidacy is the role of the media. On the one hand anchors breathlessly comment on how the man adds nothing to the debate, how he is a problem for a party that's trying to reach out to minorities and then goes to the same man for interviews because, as he rightly brags, he's a 'ratings machine'. Trump has been invited by CNN's Wolf Blitzer to comment on serious issues so many times in the past as if he had anything to contribute. The media created Trump and is now acting like the GOP created him. Only Huffington Post had the guts to say it'll stop covering Trump as a candidate for the presidency but will feature him in the entertainment section.

The rise of Huffington Post as a news portal is the best summary of America's intellectual decline. The Huffington Post is nothing but a web aggregator and does no original journalism, lives off the journalistic efforts of other news organizations, and makes more money than them. How does one intelligently talk of the roots of the 2008 financial crisis in a country where Huffington Post exists?

The media circus during the 2008 heated primaries featuring Obama and Clinton showed the shallowness of the debate. Supporters and partisans from each camp were invited on primary nights and other times to pow-wow on-air by networks. Pray, since when did mud fights by partisan hacks become worthy of being labeled political debate? Yet, no anchor challenged Barack Obama on serious issues like campaign finance. As a long shot candidate Obama had signed a pledge that if elected as nominee he'd take public financing for the general election. Then, nominee Obama, rolling in cash, refused to do just that despite being reminded of the pledge by a far underfunded opponent. Nobody in the media sought to pin him on the hypocrisy. And Obama gleefully dished out policies that everyone loved to hear but nobody thought he'd seriously implement. Obama talked tough on appointing lobbyists until he appointed one. He pontificated loftily on how he'd bring about health care reform with discussions on live TV until he discovered the virtues of backroom deals. He railed and ranted against NAFTA and then slyly sent his economic adviser to the Canadian embassy to assuage fears that he might tear up NAFTA. Now, the same guy is trying to sign the largest trade deal.  Is it any wonder then that the people have little or no faith in the media? Faced with double speaking politicians it is no wonder that a guy who speaks his mind, however offensively, catches the imagination of the people and is rewarded for being gutsy.

If Mitt Romney had had half the guts of Donald Trump he'd be sitting in the Oval office today. Romney was repeatedly cornered in debates by his opponents and moderators for how his firm 'Bain Capital' conducted business. He was repeatedly asked to explain job losses at firms his company bought over and he was tarnished as 'vulture capitalist'. What many conceded in private and what was true was that the nature of his business was exactly that. Private Equity firms are called in as a last resort by a hemorrhaging firm to restructure and become viable. This naturally involves layoffs. Asked about lenders losing money when his companies declared bankruptcy Trump cheerfully told the moderator "look, these lenders are not small time investors". He essentially said "they know what game they are playing". That was ballsy. The audience  loved it. Romney, a far more honorable business man than Trump, never embraced a muscular argument in favor of capitalism and thus yielded the ground to Obama, a demagogue, who understood nothing of economics. On this one score I wish Romney had been like Trump.

It is sickening to a see a parade of self-righteousness by the Democratic party against Trump's misogyny. Apparently its not ok to be offensive about women and minorities only when its the GOP doing it. Washington DC mayor, African-American, railed against how Asian shops are dirty and there was no furore of disapproval. A South Carolina union had a pinata beating contest where the piñata was the GOP governor Nikki Haley's face. Nikki Haley, a woman of Indian origin, is the governor of SC. Liberal comedian Bill Maher happily heaped patently offensive comments about vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin without attracting even a finger wagging let alone a tsunami of condemnation. Then there was Barack Obama telling Hillary Clinton, without looking at her, "you are likable enough Hillary" and then called a lady reporter "sweetie". And then there is Bill Clinton, he of the "I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky" fame.

When the Democratic party candidates pontificate on Trump's demagoguery its rich with hypocrisy. The basic rule of politics is anything goes. Throwing the kitchen sink at the opponent is par for the course. When GOP congressman Paul Ryan presented proposals to overhaul entitlement programs the Democrats released an ad showing him pushing an old woman off a mountain cliff.

Yes, Trump's comments about Mexican immigrants being rapists, is not just false but patently offends any decent person. But, again, Trump's demagoguery strikes a chord in a sympathetic audience, but, at its root is the Democratic demagoguery that nobody becomes rich except by defrauding somebody else. Democrats made it fashionable to tell a majority of America that a minority is responsible for all their troubles and lack of progress in life. To the democrats the culprits were the so called rich people. To the Trump voter it is the illegal immigrant. Across the world, in every country, immigration always raises concern about destabilizing local labor market. This is economic reality. There are sound economic arguments in favor of immigration but sound economic arguments are not only shunned by the Democrats but actively discredited so when they are indignant at Trump feeding into a frenzy they are being facetious and hypocritical. Also the cynicism of the GOP voter on immigration is not entirely without basis. Democrats always gleefully point out that it was Reagan who actually allowed an Amnesty program for illegal immigrants. True. Reagan signed on to an amnesty program when the number of illegal immigrants were 3 million. The other part of the bargain was to secure the border and that never happened and the result is today there are 14 million illegal immigrants. Also, let's face it, the Democratic party loves this problem only because they see a vote bank in that demographics.

For those offended by the vulgar remarks of Donald Trump here's another unpleasant fact of why such rhetoric could appeal to a voter. The illegal immigrant lobby has become a political force that is brazen in its demands and the brazenness is not just in 'demanding' citizenship but has reached such ludicrous levels where it is considered politically incorrect to even call them "illegal immigrant". The political correctness brigade informs us that we should refer to them as "undocumented immigrant". Is it any wonder that when Trump rails against political correctness there are people willing to applaud him. And by the way Bernie Sanders, a proud socialist and another Democratic candidate, practically echoes Trump's desire to seal the borders and put a stop to immigration. So much for the GOP being the party opposed to immigration. Actually GOP loves immigration, albeit, the legal kind, the kind that is not a hostage to the Democratic party.

There was a time when Leonard Bernstein conducted classes on classical music for children in New York City and that was broadcast. Then there was Jacob Bronowski lecturing the world on the intellectual "Ascent of man". Today we are left with following Kim Kardashian's nude posterior breaking the internet. And then we blame Trump for having audacity to consider himself a candidate for the highest office in the land.

Donald Trump is a product of the intellectual swamp that is America today. Trump is a reflection of the decline of intellectualism in all walks of life in America. Trump is not GOP's problem he is America's problem. Trump does not embody GOP, he embodies America and for that every American should be ashamed.

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.