We have often asked ourselves and others why India in its several thousand years of history has rarely tried to expand its territories or to assume a dominant role. Many of the experts and others with whom we had dialogue referred to some special features in the Indian psyche which could partly explain their greater tolerance, less discipline, the lack of sense of retaliation, more flexibility in accepting outsiders, greater adherence to hierarchy and emphasis on personal safety over adventure.”
This is what Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, with the co-author SY Rajan, wrote in the famous book “India Vision 2020 A Vision for the New Millennium” . Kalam had raised these profound issues that are sourced in our national confusion over couple of thousand years since Ashoka became the role model of India by giving up war altogether. Kalam is being profiled by his millions of admirers as a ‘People’s President, teacher, scientist, visionary, thinker, and patriot.’ He is certainly all these and more. He had bombs and missiles on the one hand with veena and Gita on the other. The huge bandwidth of the man brings out the complete philosopher-nationalist that he was. Dr Kalam introspected and posited for the nation critical issues which mirror the lessons our history has taught us but we have not learnt and still refuse to learn. Each of the issues raised by Kalam is profound. As we did not expand them, our territories contracted. As we were not disciplined, our tolerance was a mere vanity. Accepting outsiders at the cost of kinship has divided us. Preferring personal safety over adventures has made us victims of adventurists. How true Kalam was? Yet, there was, even now there is, no effort to reorient our education or national discourse on Kalam’s lines, even though he wrote his famous work in 1998. Even today, Kalam, the man, is being discussed — personally and anecdotally. But there is very little focus on what he said or envisioned for India. Encomiums are being paid to him as a visionary without discussing what his vision is. Kalam’s introspection should be the concern, even active enterprise, of the entire nation and its establishment — government, media, academia and intellectuals. Even now it is not too late. In the memory of Kalam, work on what he had envisioned for India can begin. But there can be no beginning unless there is honest introspection by Indians about the role and purpose of India.
Kalam’s Pokhran bomb and missiles have undoubtedly put India in a different league geopolitically and strategically. In his book Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy, Rajiv Sikri, India’s former foreign secretary recalled how despite Jawaharlal Nehru’s well-known but little publicised attempts to get closer to the US in the 1950s, India’s relations with the US remained at a low level for 50 years. According to Sikri, it was only after India became a nuclear weapons power in 1998 that the nature of India’s relationship with the US underwent a qualitative change and the US was jolted into taking India, and indeed the whole of South Asia, seriously from a security and geopolitical perspective. Pokhran-II coincided with India’s growing economic weight and the increasingly influential role of the Indian-American community in the US. Both factors added to India’s importance in US eyes. Kalam’s bomb showed what the West-centric world respects. Power. Nuclear weapons power is indeed fearsome. When the first atom bomb was exploded, its author Dr Robert Oppenheimer, a great admirer of Hindu spiritualism, quoted this verse in Bhagawad Gita to describe its power: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, That would be like the splendour of the Mighty One... I am become Death, The shatterer of Worlds.” And this is how the Gita-studying and veena-playing Dr Kalam described the Pokhran bomb in 1998. “I heard the earth thundering below our feet and rising ahead of us in terror. It was a beautiful sight. It was a triumph of Indian science and technology.” Power is indeed dangerous. But being without it is more dangerous. A democratic India, with 1/6th of humanity, humanistic philosophies of Sankara, Buddha and Gandhi and no record of invading others, high tolerance and flexibility in accepting outsiders was not respected. It was actually trivialised. See the contrast. In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger waited in Beijing for days for authoritarian China, which had 30 million people dying of hunger and was deep in poverty to agree to meet him! Why? A hungry and poor China had hundreds of nuclear warheads. That the world respects power is what the world has taught India — which is eight out of 10 populated by Hindus whom Mahatma Gandhi had described as “gentlest” of people on the earth.
The geopolitical stature of India which started to rise with Pokhran has been on the escalator ever thereafter. The National Intelligence Council attached to the Central Intelligence Agency [US] reported [Dec 2012] that India will be among the three world powers in 2030 along with the US and China. But for Kalam’s bomb and missiles India would never have been seen as a candidate for a global power. Japan has trillions of dollars of assets. But that does not make it a world power. Power is comprehensive. Mere economic power is no power. Merely being an economic power without being a military power will invite invasions, like India did. We were the leaders of the world economy for 1,700 years, according to Angus Maddison who studied the world economic history on behalf of the OECD nations. But our wealth only invited invasions of barbaric peoples. We were conquered because we had no sense of the importance of power. We even detested power as uncivilised.
The national confusion about, even bias against, military power, started with Ashoka giving up wars after he was shocked by the scale of destruction in the Kalinga war. Ashoka, after the Kalinga war, was in the same state for mind as Arjuna was before the Kurukshetra war. One cried after the war, and the other, before the war. But Sri Krishna with Bhagawad Gita cleared the confusion of Arjuna and made him a warrior. But Ashoka did not have the benefit of a Krishna to clear his confusion. And his confusion became our national pride. We paid the price for that high-cost pride with invasions and destruction of India. Kalam’s Pokhran explosion cleared the confusion and transformed India into a global power, though it is yet to be internalised by our elites and intellectuals. The Economist magazine [March 30, 2013] in its cover story asking “Can India become a great power?” answered it at the end of its editorial: “That India can become a great power is not in doubt. The real question is whether it wants to be.” This is what the nationalist-philosopher Dr A P J Abdul Kalam wanted this nation of 1.25 billion to say in once voice: “yes we want to be”. Instituting an in-depth study of our history to learn and internalise the lessons from it is the greatest tribute to this great man.
(The author is an economic and political commentator)